September 26, 2006

Unskilled at writing, but unaware of it

Miss Snark keeps saying, "Good writing trumps all," when she's referring to the process of getting published (or rejected, the less amusing alternative). Many of her readers ask, "What about 'write well' do people not get?"

I think it's that people who do not write well are unaware of their lack of skill. That is, they think they do write well; therefore, they think it must be something else—discrimination, bad luck, aliens, George Bush, etc.—causing their stories to get rejected time and again. There is not a human on the planet who has avoided this type of trap their entire lives. Maybe not in writing but in other areas. The guy who thinks his "special move" will please every woman concludes that the woman who isn't satisfied is a cold fish. The rookie soccer player who thinks he's hot stuf quits the team when he's not elected MVP. The amateur chef who loves to experiment doesn't realize he's making all his dinner guests struggle not to barf at the table. The "excellent" and opinionated mother who thinks she's got all the answers will later find herself on Nanny 911 with two little monsters controlling her life.

If I remember my 9th grade trig, the contrapositive should be true: If you are aware of your lack of skill, then you should be reasonably competent. It seems to hold true in my limited experience: Those people who are most humble about their need to improve also appear to be the ones who already have decent skills but who are most likely to improve with teaching and critique.

There are, of course, the extremes that fall outside this norm: The truly great know they're exceptional, and the truly awful know they're tragically abysmal. I am hopeful that I fall into the category of "most likely to improve." I take confidence from the fact that I've placed two stories in my first eight months of serious writing, and I am proud of the fact that my writers group helped improve both pieces. I think that means that I can learn and improve.

I do think my first novel is good enough to sell--I just have to read the critiques from the PNWA contest to believe that--but I know in the future I'll do better because I know I'm not quite "there" yet.


writtenwyrdd said...

I have to say that my observation from experience in a few online critique groups is that, tragically, many of the would be writers out there have zero concept about what good writing IS, must less whether they can produce it. They seem uninformed to such an extreme that they cannot put together a readable scene or dialog, much less a story.

And I'll argue that these folks don't know they do not write well. Because, if they were aware of how badly their submissions were written, they wouldn't post. I think they are hoping for the great big magical Easy Button which will translate the perfect story in their head onto the page.

writtenwyrdd said...

BTW, you have inspired me to blog on this topic. Darn you, I was supposed to be writing!

literoddity said...

I am in an online fiction workshop required to finish my degree, and it is extremely frustrating to have been stuck with two would-be writers with little to no skill or talent. As Hawthorne said, "Easy read is damn hard writing," and to which my flip-side is, "Poor writing is damn heard reading." I've been writing and publishing for over two decades, If it wasn't required to finish the degree, I would drop this class like a hot potato for the waste of my time and energy that it is. I'm sure they're delightful people, but being arbitrarily stuck in this group is torture. I think part of the problem is that they are uneducated in classic and GOOD modern literature, and that they read absolute pablum and crap. The other is that, as sad as it is, not all of us possess talent in the areas we may initially believe we are destined to make a mark. As smart as I am, I am only passable at math and slow at it to boot...I wouldn't dream of putting another human being through what I consider "good enough" in that area. A critique group is only as useful as the caliber of its members, or at the very least, their honest potential. It's going to be a (God help me) 7 more weeks to gut my way through this aspect of the class.

literoddity said...

Sorry for my typos...that's what I get for having a tiff on my iPad. :P

PJD said...

Hi literoddity, thanks for your comment! Two thoughts, probably way too late to be of use in your critique group.

First, while I agree that reading good writing is important, I am hyper sensitive to the elitist way of thinking. I've read some things that the literati adored but I found pedantic and self-congratulatory. Not all bad writing is without its lessons, and not all literary writing is worth reading. I think it's important to allow for different tastes and explore why people like those things.

The corollary to that thought is this one: some of my biggest lessons have been in critiquing mediocre writing. I always try very, very hard to find something positive to say about a piece I've been asked to comment on. I find that when I do, I often stumble upon some real unpolished gem buried in the piece, and in offering suggestions on how to improve it I find I am teaching myself.