This is a version of the very first machine I typed on. My parents had an old Royal. Wish I still had it. As historical sculpture.
“I’m writing a book!”
I hear it all the time at parties. While people wouldn’t dream of suggesting they’d become…well, for example, a neurosurgeon…everyone who can put a word on the page can become a writer.
Or can they?
It’s true that with the preponderance of blogs and self-publishing, anyone at all can write. But being a writer? That’s a whole different thing. There’s a discipline to the craft of writing, and to be a good writer, you have to have a certain knack for it. And some training.
I published my first newspaper column in our local weekly newspaper at the age of 16, the same year I was accepted at Syracuse University, where I was headed for journalism school. Even at my young age, my editor required that I meet a word count, use good grammar and have focus and structure.
I can’t say the same for some of the blogs and self-published books I’ve seen.
Grammar? It’s gone by the wayside. The use of “myself” instead of me? Grating. “Jackie and myself went to the concert.” It’s “Jackie and I,” something that someone who’s studied the craft or even simply learned grammar would know. (And yes, it’s who’s, a contraction for “who has,” not whose.)
When I worry that I’ve become a writing snob, I think harder and know I’m not, not really. Good writing by definition meets certain standards and there’s nothing wrong with that. Excellence is always a good thing, whether for its own sake or that of readers. So maybe I’m not such a snob after all. Maybe I just want the craft to be treated with the respect it deserves.
Self-published books can be horrifically, badly constructed. (Yes, two adverbs there modifying the verb, for emphasis. If you think you’re a writer and I’ve lost you, you’ve got some grammar work to do.)
For a long time I wasn’t a fan of self-publishing, mostly because without an editor to impose structure and discipline any kind of schlock can be put out there. And is. Then, a writer-friend of mine who happens to be a VERY good writer began to self-publish because it allowed her to retain a significantly larger percentage of revenue than she got to keep from her well-written memoir which was traditionally published. She has a point.
But most people don’t write as well as she does. (And I met her at a writing workshop, so she worked at it.)
Still, there’s no denying that the times, they are a changin’, at least as far as books are concerned. It’s on my mind because while I’ve been limping along on my memoir, many people who self-publish already have one or more books out. How can this be?
One of the problems with having to meet standards (my own or an editors) is that it takes time and hard work. I can’t just spew my feelings on page without considering structure, narrative arc and character development, not to mention, dialogue.
Many (if not most) self-publishers aren’t concerned with these things. Some don’t even know what they are. In some ways these folks are lucky, because they don’t have to deal with the same insecurities as those of us who consider writing a craft do. They just type it up and it’s done.
A few weeks ago I was writing an essay that I intended to submit to an anthology. I started off well, I thought, and sent a draft to my writing coach. She’s a real writer and writing coach I engage to help me better craft my prose. That’s right: I’ve been writing for almost 50 years now and I still like to use an editor periodically. We all do, because sometimes, we can’t see beyond ourselves.
Anyway, my editor had some pointed comments about how the essay was put together and she was right. I rewrote it and felt it was too long. So I cut some parts and rewrote others, leaving serious sequence issues and even more words than my rewrite. It still wasn’t ready for prime time, requiring hours of additional work to sculpt and shape the narrative arc.
Why go through all this trouble? Because an anthology editor was going to pass judgment on my essay and compare it to essays written by real writers who write even better than I. My best work, that’s what I wanted to submit, and best work takes time, effort, sweat, tears and frustration. That’s what the life of a writer is –hours, days, weeks of agony, punctuated by a few moments of euphoria when a piece gets accepted.
And then the process starts all over again.
When I write for my blog, I’m looser about structure and tone: more self-indulgent, just like some of the self-publishing I see. Sometimes I wander around the second person and third. If I’m lucky, I catch it before I hit “post.” Oh, I still spend hours shaping bloggy writing, but far less time than I spend on writing that will go to more traditional outlets. The two are very different.
So, what am I saying? Am I suggesting that folks don’t write if they aren’t trained? Well, to be honest, I wish I could suggest that. The lowest common denominator for all forms of entertainment has gotten even lower in the 21st century and it pains me to see it happening with writing.
Here’s what I suggest: If you’re doing any kind of writing at all, take a few workshops. Understand the structure of a well-written piece. Learn some grammar. Don’t just gush on a page—learn a little something about how to put a good piece together, and whether it’s a blog or not, apply that learning. Get some editing help.
I know I sound crotchety. But here’s the thing: I love my craft and I love to welcome people to it.
But I’d like them to give it the respect it deserves.
Oh, and that essay I wrote? The one I worked on for weeks? The editor loved it.