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Writing is hard


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#41 Christian

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Posted 08 May 2012 - 10:20 AM

Happy 40th, Darren!! Yeah, I was thinking "blast from the past" when I read through the thread yesterday.

#42 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 08 May 2012 - 11:33 AM

Wow, this thread is a blast from the past -- a depressing, soul-deadening blast from the past. And of course it re-emerges on my 40th birthday!

Ah, well I didn't mean to bring up something that was depressing. For what it's worth, I've highly enjoyed your writing whenever you do write an essay or a film review. And, happy birthday too.

#43 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 08 May 2012 - 11:46 AM

It also helps to read the text out loud; you're forced to slow down and hear the words as they flow.

EDIT: Hmm. My comment seems a bit simplistic now that I look over it, but it's a method I swear by.

No, you're right. Proofreading out loud helps a lot, if not always with hidden grammatical errors, at least stylistically.

very few of my friends read what I write. "Write for yourself" seems like inane advice, but it's sound, I think. Your audience generally finds you, not vice versa.

I'm still not sure about this. There's something to be said about both, but writing for myself seems so much easier than writing for others.

On 6--it's a constant struggle. I had a professor at Covenant who apparently wrote his dissertation right after reading the complete novels of Jane Austen. Looking over it years later, he commented that it was virtually unreadable. I find it very inadvisable to try to write anything after reading Faulkner, myself. But re-writing generally takes care of that (though I hardly ever re-write 'blog posts. I honestly don't put nearly as much effort into them as you do).

Funny. Yes, I've personally found trying to write immediately after reading either Ayn Rand or Jean-Paul Sartre a hopeless exercise in futility.

#44 NBooth

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Posted 02 January 2013 - 01:35 PM

biblioklept, one of my go-to blogs for interesting stuff (seriously; I check them every day even if I look at nothing else) just posted H.P. Lovecraft's advice to young writers:

On reading:

No aspiring author should content himself with a mere acquisition of technical rules. As Mrs. Renshaw remarked in the preceding article, “Impression should ever precede and be stronger than expression.” All attempts at gaining literary polish must begin with judicious reading, and the learner must never cease to hold this phase uppermost. In many cases, the usage of good authors will be found a more effective guide than any amount of precept. A page of Addison or of Irving will teach more of style than a whole manual of rules, whilst a story of Poe’s will impress upon the mind a more vivid notion of powerful and correct description and narration than will ten dry chapters of a bulky textbook. Let every student read unceasingly the best writers, guided by the admirable Reading Table which has adorned the UNITED AMATEUR during the past two years.

It is also important that cheaper types of reading, if hitherto followed, be dropped. Popular magazines inculcate a careless and deplorable style which is hard to unlearn, and which impedes the acquisition of a purer style. If such things must be read, let them be skimmed over as lightly as possible.


On narration:

The essential point of fictional narration is plot, which may be defined as a sequence of incidents designed to awaken the reader’s interest and curiosity as to the result. Plots may be simple or complex; but suspense, and climactic progress from one incident to another, are essential. Every incident in a fictional work should have some bearing on the climax or denouement, and any denouement which is not the inevitable result of the preceding incidents is awkward and unliterary. No formal course in fiction-writing can equal a close and observant perusal of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe or Ambrose Bierce. In these masterpieces one may find that unbroken sequence and linkage of incident and result which mark the ideal tale. Observe how, in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” each separate event foreshadows and leads up to the tremendous catastrophe and its hideous suggestion. Poe was an absolute master of the mechanics of his craft. Observe also how Bierce can attain the most stirring denouements from a few simple happenings; denouements which develop purely from these preceding circumstances.


The whole thing's fascinating.

#45 NBooth

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Posted 31 January 2013 - 10:00 AM

Q&A: The Secrets to Not Being a Terrible Writer


How much space is there between writing well and not writing badly?
The not-writing-badly thing is a skill that can be learned, by reading, by following principles, by using the dictionary, by slowing down and all those things. Writing well is a little more mysterious. It’s art. There’s inspiration. There’s individual talent and style.

Certainly a lot of rules about writing and what’s good or bad change over time.
Grammar changes and spelling changes and punctuation changes. Pretty much all of it changes. But it’s a question of how quickly, and you don’t want to be out there before everybody else.



#46 SDG

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Posted 31 January 2013 - 10:09 AM

Q&A: The Secrets to Not Being a Terrible Writer

In your book, you mention “grace” as a quality that you look for in sentences. Can you give an example of a graceful sentence?

[Reads from Roger Angell’s Let Me Finish]: “One spring Saturday when I was seven going on eight, my mother brought me with her on a automobile outing with her young lover and future husband, E.B. White.” That’s my nominee. That’s writing well. That’s not just not writing badly.

Oh, this is too good to pass up.

Good: “One spring Saturday when I was seven going on eight, my mother brought me with her on a automobile outing with her young lover and future husband, E.B. White.”


Bad: “One spring Saturday when I was seven going on eight, my mother brought me with her on a automobile outing with her young lover and future husband, Dan Brown.”


Edited by SDG, 31 January 2013 - 10:09 AM.


#47 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 21 June 2013 - 01:07 PM

So it's towards the end of June. 2013 is almost half finished.

I spent 2011 and 2012 writing again more than I'd been writing for years. I also started reading more heavily again than I had for years. But somewhere through the end of last year, something changed. I'm still reading. In fact, reading is becoming more and more easy. I can read most books at 2-3 sittings. I'm spending more time with a girl, with friends, with family, with books and writing and less time online and in front of the television.

What seems to have changed is a profound growing dissatisfaction with my writing. I'm sitting on a whole collection of film and book reviews that I've written. But they aren't satisfactory. On different evenings or weekends, I'll sit down and rewrite an entire piece. It improves. The sentences become clearer, turns of phrase more artful, the line of thought more coherent. But I still can't rid myself of a profound dissatisfaction with the end result. It's as if, slowly over this year, my standard for my own writing has raised itself to another level higher than I've demanded of myself before. I didn't set the standard higher intentionally. I've just been reading a steady diet of authors and writers who write well. Then, occasionally, I'll read a book that is written very poorly. Over the course of this literary diet, the standard just ... rose higher.

Looking back at what I've written over the last few years, I find that my writing is repetitive. I write in cliches. I over use certain phrases, I repeat turns of expression, and I keep reducing my writing to the same ideas. Sometimes I write as badly as other poor quality writing that I run across in the church and in popular culture. Sometimes the idea, that I try to pursue farther than it seems like anyone else is taking it, still seems, when I'm done with it, unattained and badly incomplete. My description of it is only a shallow comprehension of it and it's depth and form and interlinked connections. Numerous A&F'ers on this board have given me some great compliments, and, occasionally, even offered some great opportunities. I'm deeply grateful for this.

But I'm finding that compliments from here, or from friends and family, are not going to make unsatisfactory writing suddenly satisfactory. There's this fairly indescribable refining process that I've suddenly got to find my way through. My love for language, and for the English language in particular, has been growing over this year. There is a sensual quality to it that I had never really appreciated this greatly before. There are rhythms that no formula or outline can give to a paragraph, an essay or a poem. It's something that you have to feel and experience.

Then there are times, for a page or two at time, when the writing muse catches fire. Life fills what was, for days before, lifeless and reductive and tired writing. The flow and the rthymn inheres in the language, just appearing there as if on it's own.

This doesn't mean that the next book and film reviews I share here are now going to be better than what I've written before. This doesn't mean that I'm learning to think more deeply.

I'm not writing less right now. But I'm writing far less work that feels finished or complete. I'm also resigning myself to the idea that, if I'm going to keep sharing what I write, I will have to share writing that is less than satisfactory.

#48 James Blake Ewing

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Posted 21 June 2013 - 01:53 PM

I have this issue from time to time. I'm generally dissatisfied with the quality of my work, but I try to share it anyway because it keeps me writing regularly and a lot of times I find pieces I found frustrating to write are the pieces that people like the most.

Part of it is recognizing that over time you're getting better. I look at stuff I wrote a couple of years ago and it's a huge step down from what I write today. So while I still feel the same discontent with the level of my writing quality, there's no denying that it has gotten better. I'd much prefer this constant dissatisfaction and a desire to improve than a contentment with what I write. If I even write anything I unreservedly love, I will probably quit writing.

#49 Jason Panella

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Posted 24 June 2013 - 10:02 AM

Thanks for sharing those thoughts, James and Jeremy. I know this feeling too well. In high school and college, people told me that I wrote well—I took these compliments as permission to coast by, assuming that everything I wrote was good to go in first-draft form. I was foolish and pompous, and perhaps I still am. But writing has certainly become more difficult, especially since I seem to be consistently dissatisfied with my writing. I spend most of my time re-writing and re-writing. This, combined with the fact that seem to have an incredible inability to proofread my own work, is torturous. If I didn't have deadlines (which I often miss), I'd edit into eternity.

#50 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 24 June 2013 - 12:06 PM

Thanks guys.

Yes, there was a point where I would just proofread my writing for grammar, sentence structure and reasoning (just like I would proofread anything else as an English tutor or legal assistant). But now, I'm finding myself also proofreading my writing for much more intangible things - rhythm, music, sound, mood, tone, voice, feeling - with the ultimate goal of attaining some undefined level of unsatisfactory imperfection.

That, and since I do a ton of legal brief and motion writing at work (writing which is most often endlessly repetitive, cold and lifeless), I'm constantly attempting to entirely change writing personalities for the evenings. Reading helps with this the most. An hour of Buckley or Hemingway or Helprin or Chesterton or Charles Lamb or Hunter S. Thompson is like a cleanser before beginning a night of writing.

#51 Joel

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Posted 24 June 2013 - 12:12 PM

In high school and college, people told me that I wrote well—I took these compliments as permission to coast by, assuming that everything I wrote was good to go in first-draft form.


This has also been a struggle for me. Unfortunately, I can't un-know that under the right circumstances, I'm a competent writer. That's not to toot my own horn -- it's just that the language & literacy practices I've been immersed in from a very young age match my aspirations very well. I can pretty easily churn out something that looks pretty good. But it's that leap from "pretty good" to "publishable" or even, I don't know, "great" that I find troubling.

I just got a brutal peer review back from the first major academic paper I ever submitted to a journal -- it was a paper that passed muster with my professors and that I reworked for months, but one of the comments (aside from the other more substantive ones about the content) was that one of the readers noticed a typo on the first page. Yeeugh.

#52 Jason Panella

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Posted 24 June 2013 - 01:31 PM

I just got a brutal peer review back from the first major academic paper I ever submitted to a journal -- it was a paper that passed muster with my professors and that I reworked for months, but one of the comments (aside from the other more substantive ones about the content) was that one of the readers noticed a typo on the first page. Yeeugh.


Higher education high-five! My adviser gave me some brutally honest feedback on my MA capstone project, and I really am thankful for that. I think The Old Jason was coming through at some point; I assumed that since I had spent months writing the capstone, and that I had actually had multiple drafts, it would be amazing. It was good, but not great.

I'm starting to really value this sort of brutal feedback (from people I know, at least). I've learned over the past few months to make sure my wife proofreads my DVD reviews each week; as a foreign language teacher, she has an exceptional eye for weeding out my grammar and stylistic mistakes, especially the batch that I always seem to miss. She also does a nice job of saying, "Look, I have no idea what you're talking about." That might not be the answer I want to hear after pulling my hair out for a weekend, sure, but I know I'll be glad in the long run.