August, 2020 by Paul De Goes
My niece recently began to write fiction. She's a talented eleven-year old with a penchant for romance, mysteries, and the macabre. I dedicate this Not As I Do segment to her. May she avoid the many pitfalls that I did not.
There is a saying in software: the only bug-free code is no code at all. As painful as it is to admit, I think something similar could be said of writing.
The only mistake-free blog, novel, poem, insert-your-favored-textual-medium-here, etc. is the one that doesn't exist yet. If it's still in your head, it may be perfect (see excursus below for more on this), but it won't be the moment you set it down on paper.
Why is any of this relevant? Because,
Mistake #1: Refuse to embrace failure
One of the most harmful mistakes you can—and likely will—make as a new writer is to fail to recognize just how many mistakes you're going to make on the road to becoming a competent writer.
By definition, you don't know what you don't know, which means you're going to be making mistakes precisely because you don't know they ARE mistakes.
Sure, you're going to find out what you don't know by reading, listening to podcasts and teachers, watching youtube videos, etc, but the only way you're going to really learn is by practicing—by writing. That's how you gain experience, by writing, making mistakes, and writing again.
So, get ahead of the curve! Accept now that you're going to be writing a cubic ton of rubbish before you've any idea what you're doing.
Embrace the thorn-laden road, my friend, and you will be ready and quick to learn. This, more than talent or teaching, will help you become a good writer.
Mistake #2: Skip class
Writing is a craft—a five-thousand year old craft, and there is a LOT to learn about it. If you intend to wow the masses with your pen, then take your writing seriously.
Don't expect to get what you need from reading good authors (though you must read good authors as well); get out there and study. Read books on writing, take classes on grammar, listen to famous lectures and listen to podcasts.
As with all crafts, you will get out of your writing what you put into it. The more disciplined you are in your cultivation of the art, the more you will be rewarded.
Mistake #3: Keep it to yourself
It doesn't matter how new you are to the craft or how bad your ideas may be. Both you and your writing will be improved by having your work read. Find someone who will read your work.
It can be your aunt, a teacher, a friend, or even a random forum dweller. The 'who' doesn't matter at first; anyone will do. You need to get used to exposing your work to others and to collecting and acting on their feedback.
As your writing improves, expand and refine your audience. Look for mentors in the field, other writing enthusiasts and aspiring editors. What you're looking for is higher quality feedback. Cultivate your own circle of Inklings, people who can consistently challenge you to up your writing game and who are honest enough to tell you when you're settling.
Mistake #4: Don't write
I'm going to be honest. Writing is hard work, and the more you learn about it, the harder it's going to get. There is no quick and easy path to becoming a literary master (there's barely a path to becoming literarily accomplished!). There is no shortcut. There is no cheating.
It's going to take time and effort. It's going to mean spending hours writing and re-writing your work until you're sick of the very words, ideas, and characters you've penned. It's going to mean staring dully at a blinking cursor while your friends are watching the latest episode of their favorite TV show. It's going to mean work, a lot of it, with no immediate payoff other than the knowledge that you've honed your project and yourself a little more than the day before.
But if you want to write, if you are a writer, then WRITE! It's worth it, I promise.
For those who are both captured by the written word and are able to capture it, there waits a welcome of profound joy. How could one not be elated at being able to create a world—a hundred worlds—and share it with others?
I believe that writing has the power to inspire, educate, motivate, and empower as no other medium has. Take up the gauntlet. Embrace your failures, study your craft, share your work, and keep at it. Even if you gain nothing else, you will have become a rare and wonderful thing: a writer, a spinner of tales, a smith of words, an accomplished communicator.
And if that's all you get, isn't that more than enough?
The moment something escapes from your head into the real world, it accretes flaws. Some flaws are more obvious than others, but they're there, if only because text is an imperfect medium for communicating thought. That is, you might be able to write a line of text that is a perfect reflection of your thoughts and ideas, but there is no guarantee that the person reading it will transpose that text into the same thoughts and ideas in their own heads.
And thus a brilliantly written sonnet may fail completely to communicate the lyrical quality so laboriously machined into its stanzas simply because the reader is not a native speaker of the language in which it was written.
This is one example of interpretive bias but there are many other ways in which my writing and yours can fail to achieve its purpose.
About Paul De Goes
Paul is a writer, editor, and aspiring author. He writes science fiction and fantasy novels and raises four children with the help of his amazing wife.
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