My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Monday, April 16, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Writing- Final

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6, Part 7, Part 8

[On Wednesday I will post this entire article on a single page.]

So writing is a process.  It is far more than sitting down and creating words--although at some point that has to happen too.  When writers talk about writing they are also talking about reading--reading so much and so constantly that the sense of what makes for good writing is almost intuitive.  They are talking about looking at life through the eyes of a writer so that those experiences can be broken down into components (like Legos) and fulfill that cliche to write what you know. They're talking about research whether it's a Wikipedia fact check or a month locked in an university library.  For creative writers they're talking about world building whether that means the rules of a high fantasy multiverse or just figuring out what Abraham Lincoln might have been thinking during a particular historical moment. We're talking about actually writing, and not just talking about it, thinking about it, dreaming about the day when one gets on The Tonight Show. We're talking about revision--not just fine tuning but being willing to slash and burn what isn't working. And we're talking about peer review because communication is a fallible process that is a one-shot, one-way message of meaning that, nonetheless, involves two people, and even the most skilled writers confuse their audience from time to time.

Most writers use most of these steps most of the time. A writer of academic essays doesn't do much world building, a hobbiest blogger might not do much revision, and a journalist's peer review might happen in the office of their editor.  For a writer of creative fiction there is a strong emphasis on revision to smelt out the dross and refine the elements that weave together.  But for most writers, this is how it works.  It's not a clean process.  It's not a paint by numbers process. It's not a process with clear, well-defined boundaries. It's a mush of switchbacks and recursion.  For some writers (like me) a little bit of revision on something I wrote the day before is a great way to get back into my head for continuing a first draft, so I'm constantly tooling what I have, and I've been known to get feedback and then revise five or six times before I hit a draft I thought might be workable. Journalists and freelance writers work under such pressure that they often develop the ability to revise on the fly.  But if you ask most writers they can identify the steps in the process. And often when they use the word "writing" they are talking about this whole process.

What is conspicuously absent from this process list?  Editing and proofreading, for one.  Now before the legions of people far better at grammar than I am grab pitchforks and torches, and march on Oakland with cries of "clear meaning," and "learn to write," let me say this.  I did not say that grammar and spelling and vocabulary were not important TO writing. They are very important.  Anyone who has puzzled for half a second over a sentence with a missing comma, and in that half a second they were totally pulled out of the writing knows that even "you knew what I meant" is no excuse.

There are a lot of people for whom writing is nothing but learning to construct grammatically perfect sentences.  I teach many such people English as a second language.  As I do cartwheels around the room and strap myself with C-4 to try to get them to listen when I tell them that a paper without a single error that has no thesis or topic sentences is going to get a terrible grade, I regularly confront the fact that writing is so much more. Also, as important as editing and proofreading is, it is the one job that a writer can farm out to another person. Even someone who edits a manuscript extensively won't get a co-authorship billing, and if anyone asks "Who wrote suchandsuch book?" no one would name the editor. If they're lucky and the editing process was akin to The Battle of Waterloo, they get a mention on the vanity page. Not to be a snotty little asshole, but there's a reason a lot of editors never publish, and end up remaining editors for the rest of their lives.

However, even though it might not be part of the process, but it actually IS what people talk about when they talk about writing. Ever see someone whose grammar is like a train wreck?  They get you're and your wrong all the time.  They don't use commas.  Everything is spelled wrong.  The thing you whisper under your breath isn't "Wow, if I were prescriptive about grammar, I would find the expression of your obvious dyslexia to be disconcerting, and as it is I am having to expend more effort than normal on the communication process."  What you whisper is: "Fuck, dude, learn to write!" Even the most descriptive and forgiving linguist recognizes there are conventions that make written communication feasible.

I'm a pretty descriptive guy.  I teach my students not to use stative verbs in the present progressive, and then walk out the door of my class to see a big sign that says "I'm lovin' it," and I can't remember the last time I didn't understand a paragraph that was nothing but a sentence fragment, so I know a lot of rules exist on a continuum of formality--with academia being at the formal end and text messages at the other, but I'll be damned if I need to explain myself when I leave a room and say "Bee Are Bee," so somewhere there's communication going on.  4|\|D d0|\|'7 3\/3|\| 937 /\/\3 574R73D 0|\| L337 5P34|<.  But despite all my fluffy liberalism when it comes to language, I still know that you only get one shot in writing.  Your reader doesn't get to say "Wait...what?"  So you better make it count. And that means you better make it clear. If you break a rule, it better be because you bloody well meant to (which means knowing you're doing it, by the way) or because it is an obscure rule that it would take an editor to catch.

Every writer needs to learn the rules of grammar and how to proofread. Absoposofuckinglutely. I carry around a tire iron, so that I can beat writers who think they're going to send a manuscripts chalk full of errors to a major publisher and simply be assigned an editor who will fix everything for them like a magical grammar faerie. What is actually going to happen is that the initial reader will take one look at the first page and assume the writer doesn't really know how to write.  Round file! (That's the trashcan, if you didn't know.) No, they won't be so awestruck by your IDEA that they will forgive the horror that is your grammar. Just get over that crack pipe fantasy and move into the real world. That shit doesn't happen because great ideas aren't writing.  Putting great ideas into words is. If you don't have the first clue how to do put great ideas into words, the only place your great idea really exists is in your head--not on the page. Unless someone had a subscription to a newspaper that came from the future, and they just KNEW you were going to be the next J.K. Rowling, no editor is going to mess with that. But then they would have accepted you only because of the newspaper that knew they accepted you and you would end up in a paradox time loop and cause a time quake and Captain Janeway would show up and launch a quantum torpedo at your face to just be done with the whole mess.

Sure you could hire your own editor, but they don't exactly work cheap.  $50-$100+ an hour is a pretty average amount for a decent one. Editors are amazing with words, and their command of English is awesome--awesome in the way the word meant before 1983.  But it would be a damned shame to have someone who can dig out the nuggets of what you MEANT, help you express that in the best way possible, and find the threads of your deepest themes, working at $100 an hour to fix your fucking run on sentences. Even a copy editor--who will just fix your grammar and ignore content--makes $30-$40 an hour. For a lot of writers that would mean the opposite of "making money through writing."

Yes, a publishing house--and even a magazine of any repute--will have an editor who will go over your stuff, but to even GET to that point, you have to know your shit enough to pass the initial read. Anything you submit should be as clean as you can make it.

By the way, yes, I do actually recognize a certain irony here. I'm not good at proofreading. I'm hoping having a live blog will improve that, but I always hit "Publish" and then find ten mistakes.  (Major apologies to people with some kind of feed for always having to deal with the messy versions instead of something I've cleaned up.)  Every time this happens, I am embarrassed, so I kind of hope my brain hates being embarrassed more than not seeing mistakes. I deal with a pair of learning disabilities that make my grammar troublesome, each annoying on its own but together they combine forces in a way that The Wonder Twins can only dream of.  It's not that I can't do it.  It's just that doing it while I'm writing is very hard.  However, I should also say this: I fire and forget a lot on this blog, in a way I never would on something like a story submission.  I am capable of proofing 95% of my own errors.  If I couldn't, I wouldn't come back here after I've posted to fix stuff. I know most of the rules of grammar because I teach them, so when I sit down and carefully go through my writing, I can make it pretty tight.  Not perfect, but good enough to look like I know what I'm doing. I never submit anything without going through it with a fine toothed cliche. Writers really should learn to do this. When I worked on the lit mag, we tossed 1/2 of our submissions in the initial filtering process just because they looked like they were written by 5 year-olds.  This was before ANY kind of discussion of merits and flaws by the staffers, and even before most of the editors even read the submissions.  The E.I.C. just tossed the crap that wasn't even worth our time.

So proofing and editing aren't technically part of the process, but they are part of writing.

And that's it.  That is what people talk about when they talk about writing.  Of course, that's the clinical meaning, stripped bare of it's emotive force and examined through a microscope.  That's the how. That's the cautionary tale to anyone who is skipping steps that they probably aren't writing nearly as well as they could. But it doesn't really speak to what writing means to people. It doesn't speak to the fulfillment and catharsis that writers get from their worst day of scowling at a sentence that isn't working or the ecstasy of finding the perfect word. It doesn't speak to the obsession writers have to get back to something they've been working on or the bliss of falling into bed with a smile on their face because tomorrow they know something they love to do more than anything is still going to be there. It doesn't describe the need to write, the anxiety that comes without writing, or the sense that giving up writing would be like cutting off a limb.  It doesn't describe the highs and lows and joys and pains and determination and resilience and the fact that when writers talk about writing, very often they are talking about something that they simply can't not do.

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