What I’ve Learned by Writing and Reading

 

“Writing and learning and thinking are the same process.” (William Zinsser)

Some days I struggle with words. But this isn’t a post about writer’s block.

Instead it’s a post about learning.

I’ve realized that I go through cycles; words flow then words fizzle but they will eventually flow again. Meanwhile, I fill the void with ideas and possibilities. I keep my mind open to images. I jot down thoughts. I read . . . I read . . . and I read some more.

Since I can’t seem to move forward in my own creative words, I’ve been focusing on the words of others. I’m participating in Sandra’s Writing Workshop on Facebook, despite my own self-doubts. I swallowed my fear, and submitted a chapter of my book for feedback. I haven’t gotten any yet. Does that mean it’s terrible or people simply don’t have the time?

I downloaded other people’s works with caution, fearful of what I would find. What if their work was so spectacular it made me feel ashamed of my own? What if I couldn’t think of anything to say, either positive or negative? What if participating in this group revealed the imposter in me? The person who has taught writing in the past (although granted mostly research writing) and has everyone fooled that I have any ability with words.

But, as I settled into reading, I had a realization. I’ve learned a lot through this writing  journey that I’m on.  Some of my learning has come from ideas, some is personal to my life, and some has made me a stronger writer and/or editor.  Here are a few things I’ve learned, in no particular order:

  • The Value of the Beginning: How many time have you read something that didn’t draw you in immediately? I admit to being a stubborn reader, and struggling through pages or even chapters of a book that has a fascinating premise in the hopes that eventually I will wade my way through the weak beginning and find something to keep me reading.  But I don’t do that as often anymore. Even though you can find gems this way, I would rather be pulled in by a strong and glorious beginning then labor through endless exposition in the hopes that something wonderful will come along. Of course, this means that I often struggle with my own beginnings, but I think the struggle is worthwhile in the end.
  • The Need to Read Out Loud: I’ve always made this suggestion to my students. “Read your work out loud, it will help you find the weaknesses.” Of course, my students often look at me like I’m insane. “If you don’t want to read it yourself, then have someone read it to you.” That doesn’t change the look. At times I’ve even forced them to read to each other in class.  I read my own work out loud all the time. You can sometimes catch me mumbling in public venues as I try to find the flow of a passage that is particularly challenging. This method helps me discover when I’m being too formal with my words, or too cryptic. It’s not perfect, and I still need to make changes, but it helps me find my own voice as well as the voices of my characters. Trust me, before I post this, I will have read it out loud several times.
  • The Power of the Right Word: I am always mesmerized by writers whose vocabulary challenges me, but I’ve come to realize that an extensive vocabulary isn’t always the best choice. Finding the right word can sometimes mean finding the simplest word, or perhaps it means using a word with a twist and finding a new metaphor. It’s not easy, but the way we use our words–the choices we make–defines our style and our voice as writers.  Words can soar and words can flop. Words can propel us forward or make us stop and think. I envy the people who always seem to find the right word, but I also value my own struggle as I search for the words that sing.
  • Questions Matter: In my classes, whether I’m teaching about theater or writing, I encourage my students to ask questions. I’m currently teaching a course called, Studies in Drama, where I’ve focused the course work on works that challenged society with either political or social change.  My students are required to submit a discussion question for each reading to an on-line discussion group and then respond to at least two questions. What does this have to do with writing? Well, I find that I enjoy questions. If someone asks me a question, then I can find the flaws in my own words. If someone challenges me with a question, then I can find my own answers. I’m not always right, but by exploring the questions, I find new ways into material. As I respond to other people’s materials, I try to respond with questions because questions lead to new thoughts and new answers. Do you enjoy questions or do they frustrate you because you say to yourself, “The answer is right there”? If someone has to ask the question, then perhaps the answer isn’t so clear.

What are some of the things that you have learned on your writing journey? Add to the comments below to make this list grow.

 

 

13 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lorinda J. Taylor
    Oct 10, 2012 @ 11:36:49

    I’m quite an intuitive writer – I don’t self-analyze my methods a lot. But I agree on the reading-out-loud thing. I always do that when I’m revising. It gives you a feel for what the story would sound like if you were living in a bard’s world, a world of oral transmission. Would it entertain or bore the audience? Keep them on the edge of their seat or make them nod off? It also helps you to slow down the revision process; by having to read each word, you can’t just skim, and it helps in proofreading. I’m in the process of formatting v.2 of my Ki’shto’ba series for CreateSpace and I’ve been reading it out loud as I go. Surprising how many problems turn up that way! I’ve even done some last minutes rewrites!

    Reply

    • Lisa Wields Words
      Oct 10, 2012 @ 11:42:16

      I’m pretty intuitive as well, but I have just been learning a lot as I try to improve my own work as well as give feedback to others. My first drafts always start from a space of just writing, although I often edit as I go. Reading aloud, however, has always been part of my process.

      Reply

  2. Sandra Tyler (@SFiberworks)
    Oct 10, 2012 @ 14:18:35

    All these are great things to think about in your critiques! And I wouldn’t worry whether people have read your submission yet; I know people are busy and I haven’t put a deadline on that — you actually are alll already beating just the submission deadline!:)

    Reply

    • Lisa Wields Words
      Oct 11, 2012 @ 13:03:47

      I know I shouldn’t worry, Sandra. That was just the self-doubting me having her say. I have fallen behind on the reading of the entries and probably won’t get to them until Sunday. Sigh.

      Reply

  3. Kathryn McCullough
    Oct 10, 2012 @ 14:41:24

    Great post, Lisa. I whole-heartedly second your list–especially the first three. I agonize over all of those, to be honest. However, I don’t think most folks realize how imperative it is to read aloud if you want your prose to be at all musical. You have to hear it to get the sound right. At least I do.
    I joined Sandra’s group since she recommended I consider it, if I ever decided to try fiction. Don’t know if I will ever have the guts–or the time.
    Again–terrific post, my friend.
    Hugs,
    Kathy

    Reply

  4. Sharon
    Oct 11, 2012 @ 14:41:33

    “Write to learn / Learn to write” — title of my high school English textbook. This concept always stuck with me that writing is self-discovery as well as craft. It is indeed a journey.

    “You can doubt your doubt.” –Joseph Goldstein (meditation teacher, and Jewish too 🙂

    Reply

    • Lisa Wields Words
      Oct 11, 2012 @ 14:44:06

      The journey of writing is definitely a journey of self discovery. I love the Goldstein quote, as I often doubt my own doubts so much that I doubt I’ll every stop doubting. 😀

      Reply

  5. Julia Kovach
    Oct 31, 2012 @ 16:43:28

    Lisa, your advice is excellent! I have obtained the same advice from several writing books and have found it to be sound and effective. I also notice when others don’t follow it……..dull beginnings…..places in a sentence that stump you or interfere with the flow. Reading aloud reveals the flow of a sentence or thought. And choosing the right words – sometimes the simpliest ones is really important too. Nothing worse than forced language in an attempt to sound sophisticated or educated. A word of advice that I keep in mind is: Always remember your reader and don’t forget yourself. In other words, keep your voice and your message, but remember the reader. Make it easy for the reader to continue reading – flow, language, proper punctuation, etc. Thanks for a great read here, Lisa! xoJulia

    Reply

    • Lisa Wields Words
      Oct 31, 2012 @ 16:49:29

      Thanks for your encouraging comment. I love that advice, Always remember your reader and don’t forget yourself”. I think people often struggle with that, because they haven’t found their own voice.

      Reply

  6. termitespeaker
    Oct 31, 2012 @ 16:59:51

    Sometimes when you simply can’t see the forest for the trees and the sentence remains a knotty mess that will not flow, it’s because you’ve gotten tired. The best thing then is to quit writing for the day and come back later, at the time of day when you’re at your sharpest (for me it’s early in the morning), and it’s amazing how promptly the problems will solve themselves.

    Reply

    • Lisa Wields Words
      Oct 31, 2012 @ 17:07:39

      I tend to write better in the morning as well. I am a huge proponent of “shitty first drafts”, so often I’ll just write the tortured knotty mess down to get it out of my head and go back when I’m fresh to fix it.

      Reply

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