bookmark_borderWhy is Writing Well so Difficult?

Why is writing well so difficult?

It seems easy. When we talk, we don’t have difficulty communicating.

On the other hand, our appraisal of our chatter is not strict, not until we have to make a speech or a presentation. And when we speak face to face we receive feedback—discussion, questions, body language—to check how well our message is coming across.

Good writers make written communication seem natural, easy, almost invisible from a technical perspective. I find my writing (increasingly) cumbersome, clumsy, disorganized. Why does it require so much editing to get it right, or at least, better?

Maybe it’s useful to look at things that are a problem, figure out why they are a problem, and try to guess how they come about. Then, if we’re lucky, we can figure out a way of making it easier, and better earlier.


Sometimes the issue is a function of sentence or paragraph structure. Grouping and ordering the bits of information in the best sequence doesn’t always come the first time, especially if you rearrange sections and add material. In a critique I commented on a sentence which gave the time of day, the temperature, and the characters appearing on the scene, but the author said afternoon first, then told us riders on horseback, then mentioned the sweltering heat, then something else about the situation. I suggested putting the temperature and time together since they’re related, and keep the information about the characters with the situation, rather than time, riders, heat, situation, and the sentence could flow much better.

But you don’t always see those things as you write. You start with bits of information and add to it and don’t see how it might work better.

Another writer wrote about Mary sitting in her car waiting for it to heat up, rubbing her hands to warm them against the cold (using descriptive language and many more words in two compound sentences). If she’s in the car she’s probably sitting and if she’s rubbing her hands to warm them the car is probably not in motion and it’s probably cold inside and out. Could it be important that the car is running and not moving (carbon monoxide poisoning)? Maybe, but not to the author as the rest of the paragraph went into backstory. What I imagine here is the writer visualized the situation, devised bits of information, then put them together in sentences. Yes, give us details to make the scene real, but new information that adds something useful to our understanding, not repeated or obvious information (unless you’re writing a self-help book and repetition helps get your point across).

So maybe it is the process of revising, of changing to try to improve and adding to fill out and to build that leads us to dump in additional bits and bytes of information, and then it requires editing to find the new best structure.

What this implies to me is a willingness to be free with the structure as you insert, rework, and edit. You’ve got a nice couple of paragraphs but you realize you need more setting or more reaction from the character? Great, but be willing to toss all the pieces, new and old, into a pile. Look for duplicates and overlap. Look for bits that are obvious from other bits or that don’t add anything useful. Find the best order for presentation. Then, rewrite or re-weld from scratch. Remember the old days of doing research or analysis essays in college? Same plan. Don’t just think, Yes, I’ll add that bit of detail by stuffing a new sentence in.


What about the opposite; missing things? Not basics, like missing end quotation marks at the end of dialogue, but missing detail for realism, missing background for understanding character or situations, or larger scale items such as missing tension, or insufficient reason for the existence of a paragraph, scene, character, or chapter?

I tend to write concisely. There’s an aphorism that you write your first draft and cut out two thirds of what you’ve written in the second, but that doesn’t apply to my writing. Sure, there are phrases and words that don’t add anything, like in the story of Mary above, but generally the percentage that needs to be cut is small. On the other hand when a reviewer tells me “this needs to be twice as long,” sometimes I reword that to mean “give me more background, I don’t get enough story so that it works for me”. Now maybe it’s true; they really would like it to be twice as long, but sometimes it works better (imho) if I insert a description here, a sentence or paragraph of backstory there, a reaction to an existing situation that tells more about a character elsewhere. Tiny additions sprinkled throughout that define a character much clearer than before. Or on a larger scale a few moments of backstory or reflection or descriptive reaction, as opposed to another chapter.

Why were these not present earlier?


  • I was comfortable with the character being vague.
  • I didn’t see how much more powerful or understandable the story could be with a more clearly defined character.
  • I didn’t understand the character or the situation well asI was writing.
  • I still haven’t defined the character sharply enough in my mind, so when I read I don’t see what’s lacking.
  • I was reading things into the story that I haven’t written.
  • I’m not as good a reader as my reviewer.

Some of these things don’t come until review, or at least after first draft. Still, it doesn’t hurt to work toward being capable of seeing them earlier, to keep them in consideration in my own reading and early revising.

I guess the potential downside is losing some speed and flow in the first draft process. On the other hand, the improvements I’ve made over the years to my editing and sentence writing ability have not hampered my first draft writing, at least not that I’m aware of, but it has enabled me to write better sentences the first time, with fewer repeated words, fewer adverbs, better rhythm. (And I know that my expectations and hopes for the quality of my writing is higher, hence my ongoing failure in spite of my improvement.)

Sometimes some of the lack of detail and background is a natural difficulty of writing fiction. Like the liar, the fiction writer wasn’t actually there and so details, sensory information, emotional reactions and developments are imagined, faked. Lies. So the descriptions will easily be lacking key elements of a ‘truthful statement’.


Okay, what about plot and storyline?

Sometimes I enjoy the writing, the exploration, the creation of sentences and paragraphs, and end up with little or no plot. Why should a reader find what I have to say interesting? If I have no arc, if the character doesn’t evolve, if the action is random or not investigated, what’s the point?

I might be aiming for an investigation into a situation or a moment, a dramatic presentation of an event. But wouldn’t it be stronger and have more meaning with more context? If we understood more about the characters and why they act or react, more about the circumstances that drove this combination of elements to collide, would the reader not get more?

A vignette is a moment with valid artistic value, but a vignette has to evoke more than what is presented. It needs to encourage the reader to experience a mood, an emotion, or to reflect and consider the implications of the words beyond what is there on the page. Placed within a larger piece, a vignette might give the reader a deeper sense of one of the characters. It adds to our understanding of who this person is, and is the point of the writing.

But as a stand alone short piece, a vignette lacks the context that one within a novel will have, and needs to be more universal, both in its experience and in its application, thereby requiring less setting. Or, so powerful, so poetic or poignant in its expression that they have touched something through the words, and it was a worthwhile experience.

Or so I think, anyway.

This is something that I’m struggling with. In theory a lot of my short writing experiments could be considered vignettes because I’m trying to capture a moment in time, a slice of someone’s life, but they may not be poignant enough to be worth reading, unless you’re going to stand there and admire my writing, like I do.

In a larger piece, conflict, physical description, beats, anything outside dialogue or internal narrative can be lacking. When I feel my way through a chapter often there is one element that drives the writing. In a dramatic or conflict situation that driver could be dialogue. In a chapter build around a series of events it could be getting the characters from one setting or situation to the next. In a problem solving situation it could be all about the problem; setting it up, experiencing the blockage, finding the solution.

Anything that is not the driver could be left behind. In a dramatic situation the tension will be there, but I might miss opportunities to heighten conflict with smaller tensions, and I will definitely miss physical activity. In a series of events the movement will be key and I will miss description, conflict, and dialogue.

bookmark_borderTiresome critiqing

Many of us fiction-writing types belong to one or more critiquing exchanges. Stephen King has his wife and a writing friend that review his works. Writing classes or workshops are, in whole or in part, made up of reviewing and critiquing the efforts of the participants. I belong to a local writing group and loosely to a couple online groups (one forum, one email).

Right now I’m finding critiquing difficult. Over the past year or so I’ve absorbed a substantial amount of grammatical, line by line and paragraph by paragraph editing information. Some of this is via critiques of my submissions, especially by a particular  member of my local group. Some is via reading high quality writing (The New Yorker, Pulitzer, Man Booker and other contest finalists). Some is from “It Was The Best Of Sentences, It Was The Worst Of Sentences”, a reference book which I leave in my bathroom so I can read a chapter now and then. The chapters are short.

And some is the result of keeping these sources in mind while writing and revising my own writing. Of practicing what I’m trying to absorb. Of trying to turn the bits of information into habits.

I think this has pushed the quality of my writing up significantly, at least on the small scale. My inner editor has developed a clarity of understanding and an improved ability to sense issues or potential for improvement (though not the ability to label and explain them easily; since I’m not in school I didn’t bother learning the names or terminology). I’ve developed a better eye for small errors like tense changes or the incorrect use of commas. I’ve developed an ear for issues like awkward, choppy, or repetitive sentence structure. And I have a feel for slightly larger issues like lack of flow due to missing transitions or dialogue that lacks action. The largest scale items; plot, character, setting I don’t pay much attention to when I critique for three reasons: most of what is presented to me is chapters of novels and I don’t know what’s going on in the other chapters, and, much (too much) of the writing is in genres that I have little interest in; fantasy, historical fantasy, paranormal, and, when the writing quality is poor, the character, plot, and setting usually comes across poorly.

My standards have increased. Now I find it tiresome to review submission after submission that is well beneath these standards. I’d never release any writing of my own for review that has so many transparent problems. Sure, there are always things like these that we don’t see until someone else points them out to us, but to have so many indicates an obliviousness or a disregard, either of which make the writing unappealing to me to read.


In musical terms this is like a group or performer that plays out of tune, or consistently stumbles in difficult technical passages, or is unable to maintain a steady tempo/rhythm, or is sloppy with balance or with group entrances. The simpler or less sophisticated the music — less technical challenges, less complicated harmonic or textural or rhythmic elements — the less some of these matter. Madonna can get away with always singing flat for example, plus many of these rough edges can be polished off via recording technology wizardry, if you get that far.
Here’s an example of a critique request:

“I’m less interested in grammar/spelling/punctuation, and more interested in comments about the characters and the plot. Does the story work for you? Would you read on?”

This could mean:

  1.  The author prioritizes character/plot because that’s why people read fiction
  2. The author prioritizes character/plot because the other elements can be polished later if the character/plot are worth spending time on. There’s no point editing something that isn’t worth finishing, right?
  3. The author finds critiques that discuss grammar/spelling/punctuation boring
  4. The author pays little attention to grammar/spelling/punctuation because they don’t understand and don’t want to
  5. The author really likes their characters/plot and is looking for praise
  6. The author has had too many critiques in the past that wasted focus on grammar/spelling/punctuation and not enough on characters or plot, for their tastes
  7. The author is just starting out and is remembering the classes on character and plot (the class on setting is often forgotten; it’s usually only characters and plot)
  8. Grammar/spelling/punctuation is for editors, writing is for writers

I’m not saying that these beliefs are crap, just that I can’t help you a lot because 95% of what I read in my local group or the online groups doesn’t have characters or settings or situations that interest me. The genres of the submissions from the local group are forced on me, but even in the online writing groups, where I can pick and choose, I rarely find a story that is interesting to read. And those that are are usually ones that are well written; they have decent grammar and punctuation and spelling, as well as flow, variety, description and interesting setting, characters, and plot. Writers who state that they are focusing on character and plot only almost never get there for me. Maybe because they don’t know how to create interesting elements, and if they do, they don’t know how to round them out, and if they do, they don’t know how to present them, how to write about them.

If you’re a brilliantly creative writer or hit your target perfectly maybe you can find a publisher/editor/reader base that can ignore your failings. I think the Roberts Heinlein and Ludlum fall into that category. If you’re as good at marketing yourself as Madonna, maybe you have enough to sell anyway.

Or if you’re never intending to do more than the equivalent of singing at your local pub at amateur night, then it’s not going to matter if you’re out of tune or play every song at the same tempo. If you only want to write erotica that your friends will enjoy and praise you for, then good for you. But right now I’m tired of listening to sloppy, un-rehearsed, un-practiced performances that are one step above karaoke. Or reviewing the equivalent in fiction writing.



It’s amazingly hard to accept and to do critiques.

When I was a music major I always had a teacher; someone that knew a lot more than I did, someone who had years more experience than I did, someone that I trusted. After years of work with the instructors, with the directors, I developed a sense of rightness, of understanding, an ability to see the gaps between was is and what should or could be, and, a sense of how to work at closing that gap.

Essentially, this enables you to teach others. It also helps you to critique yourself, to critique others (including the rest of the ensemble that you might be rehearsing with), and over time you also learn to take comments in context, though, with music usually all you hear from non-musicians is how good you sounded or how much they enjoyed listening to you.

Writing has been quite a different process. I had a little time with an experienced editor/writer but I got scared off by the amount I had paid for the setup, and was afraid that it was going to continue at this rate. So I’m relying mostly on critiques and reviews, from other writers who are learning as well. The blind leading the blind, to quote the editor that I worked with. Fortunately the local group that I joined has one member with extensive editing and writing experience, primarily in literary genres, so his detailed crits have been very useful. The others have varied backgrounds and I take what they offer within the context of where they’re coming from and still get useful thoughts.

But it can be painful to receive the reviews. You want them (or at least I do) to point out anything that they see as a weakness or might have room for improvement. Telling you what they like or find strong is good too, but I want to get better so I want to know where I’ve missed the mark or where there is a potential opportunity to improve. And that can hurt. It’s your baby, you’ve sweated over it, revised it, carved it, shaped it into something that you like, that you’re proud of, and to have it poked apart, torn apart, to be shown the weaknesses, the errors, to have your characters that you love be called thin or unrealistic can hurt. Exposing yourself to peer critique, especially when you haven’t developed the central confidence of an experienced writing student, like the experienced music student that I was, is risky. One member of my local group is pretty obvious when he’s frustrated by the group’s critiques; he’ll cross his arms, purse his lips, and lean back in his chair, swaying to and fro until it’s his turn for rebuttal.

I also participate in an on line forum, which is not nearly as useful or consistent. The writing there can vary from beginner high school writers to MFA students, and the critiques vary just as much. Most are not overly useful, but again, there’s always the possibility that something might come out of it.

When I crit I try to say encouraging things, but I also spend a lot of time pointing out the biggest things that stick out to me. A lot of the submissions have poor grammar but I don’t want to spend a huge amount of time fixing those things. I’ll point out egregious mistakes but I tend to focus on flow, rhythm, awkward sentences, missing background that’s keeping me from feeling engaged. Something to do with my music background, I’m sure.

The reactions to the crits varies too. Recently I did a critique of a submission because no one else had done a critique so I thought I would be nice and make the effort. I wandered a bit; it wasn’t my best job of reviewing, but I said that as a reader I was getting pretty annoyed by two characters saying ‘dude’ every other line. And I pointed out that the descriptive sections had no flow, no rhythm. The sentence structure was square and repetitive; bland and boring. Plus there were a few awful misuses of commas. But, I said your story is going somewhere, and I’d like to see you submit something short to an editor and have it thoroughly reviewed so that you can learn from it and build a staring point for improving your technique.

In truth, the story wasn’t very interesting and I stopped reading because the poor writing, poor grammar and stilted dialogue was too much for me. It was a relatively long submission.

The response was interesting. He defended his overuse of ‘dude’ because he writes the way people talk. He didn’t see the point of any of the other things that I said, and, he’s published two books (ah, Wattpad counts, I guess) and he didn’t understand why I even bothered doing the critique.

Last I looked, mine was the only critique given.