Think Like a Reader – Write Better!

Good morning, friends,

This past week I did some soul-searching on my place along the road of being a writer.  It was at about metaphoric midnight and I found myself lost after receiving news that Glimmer Train would not be using my story.  I doubt there is a writer alive who would say they’ve never struggled with self-doubt, and let me tell you there are times when giving up seems like the best solution.  What makes this publishing most difficult is the lack of direction we suffer when our writing fails.  Unless we’re blessed with an amazing coach, trying to figure out what isn’t working in a given piece of writing can seem impossible.  In the months I’ve been pursuing publication I have not one time gotten a response beyond a kind but impersonal form letter.  Nothing to guide, nothing to explain, no way to tell if the story didn’t fit the editor’s needs or whether the writing was just horrible to begin with.

What does one do when the flood of words one has produced do nothing but result in a quicksand of self confusion and delusion?

In my case, I did the following:

Step back and determine whether you sincerely feel that your writing is as good as it can be, that you’ve done the work it takes to make something truly worth reading.  My bet is that an honest writer will admit they haven’t gone the distance.  In our effort for first, real publication we are willing to ignore the tiniest voices and proceed with submission with a half-hope of getting lucky.  But publication isn’t a lottery – not for the writer.  For the publisher everything is a gamble, and they take risks on everything they do accept.  Our job is to make the risk pay off with good writing consisting of a believable world, dynamic characters, challenging events, creative language, and something at stake.  These are the basic elements of a story and if all of them are solid then the story will be solid (and sold), too.

I had to admit that I am not putting enough sweat into the work I am doing.  Part of the reason is that, in writing fiction, I am self-taught.  In college I took several creative writing workshops and wrote many stories which garnered a decent amount of praise from my peers and instructors.  What I didn’t get out of all of this, however, was exposure to anyone who really knew what they were talking about when it came to fiction.  As a self-taught writer it hasn’t been so much that I don’t care to do the work that I must do.  I don’t necessarily know what work it is that needs to be done!  I have come to the conclusion at this point, however, that the self-taught writer can still do many things to give themselves a chance to succeed, and admitting a lack of honest follow-through is a great place to begin.

On my bookshelf I discovered another bit of insight into the complexity of writing and this is where I think some of you can benefit by way of the epiphany I had in the following discovery.  The book I picked up is called How to Read a Book by Adler and Van Doren, and though published originally in 1940 the 1972 edition is remarkably relevant to us today.  In this book the reader is instructed on the methods of approaching a text that is “above” his or her understanding.  The goal of reading such a work is, as with any reading, to understand (this as opposed to reading for information at a level the reader already understands).  In reading above our level, and by putting in the work to begin to understand this more complex writing, we can and eventually do understand better.  In time we may even understand completely.  This is sensible because, as Adler and Van Doren put it, we always learn from our betters, not from those who know and understand what we already know.

It occurred to me then that if there are degrees of reading that are more and less complex (something we already know going back to our earliest reading experiences) then naturally there are degrees of complexity in getting a story communicated properly from the writing end.  This may seem obvious, but as an instructor of writing I believe that the relationship between reader and writer is one of the least understood concepts in literary studies.  But if the writer has an obligation to give the reader all of the information necessary to understand a written piece, and if the reader must do the work to understand the information to the best of his or her ability, then in a way the writer and the reader are the exact same figure.  That is to say, the writer must see their work as a reader to assure that the information is presented completely and with the full potential to be understood.  The writer cannot take short cuts or make assumptions that the reader can guess what is meant, and certainly there can be no “red herring” symbols, plot lines, or characters if the writing is to be understood.  The writer must do all of the work necessary for it to be understood, and only then can the reader appreciate and even learn something in the process of reading.

All writers must make sure they are good readers.  This is what is meant by the axiom “in order to be a good writer you must be a good reader.”  A good reader is engaged, willing to do the work to understand what is written in terms of vocabulary, symbolism, and theme.  This is not passive reading, but fully engaged, interpretive reading in the effort to understand what is being communicated.  To that end I encourage everyone to read things that are a challenge, and read them until you understand, even if only a little more than you did before, what the piece is about.  In this way we grow and, hopefully, our writing grows with us.

I have done one other thing to help my growth as a writer, something I put off and even shunned over the years since college when class room workshops inevitably devolved into instructor-pleasing exercises in stilted writing of incomplete, typically unfinished stories. (Who can properly revise a story for a class that runs fifteen weeks and demands four to five stories with, at most, two class periods of peer review and only a week of “editing”?).  With the encouragement of my dear partner I have joined a writer’s group.  The time has come for me to admit my amateur status and to place myself in the company of accomplished writers who can give me a successful writer’s view on my own work.  From there the associated conferences, public readings, and exposure to publishers and agents will ultimately result in further growth and, you know, success.  The idea of joining this body of writers is admittedly intimidating, and that is ultimately why I know it is the right thing to do.  Until I can impress my peers in the field I should not expect to impress the experts who must gamble on my work in hopes of continuing their livelihood.

And so I continue newly armed with the attitude of a reader.  As I mentioned recently in another social outlet, to understand our world thoroughly we must read.  And, I will add here, to be understood thoroughly we must write well.

Updates:

As I mentioned above Glimmer Train did not use my story in their contest but I did send it off already to another publication.  Once that story comes back I have some ideas for revision on it and then it can go out again.

I am about to begin chapter 7 of the new book and I am enjoying this writing very much.  I am writing ten to twelve pages a day most days and at that pace I should be revising in a few short  months.

Tomorrow I make a return to the martial arts which is something I’ve practiced off and on for twenty some years.  The physical and mental exercise will do me a world of good and the distraction should help keep my mind focused when I’m working.

Enjoy the season and keep doing good work.

Best,

Ty

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2 comments on “Think Like a Reader – Write Better!

  1. joel says:

    Some sound reasoning in this. Thank you. Keep writing, reading and thinking.

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