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.