Friday, September 28, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Writing Is Not About Perfection

Welcome to Friday Fundamentals, a feature of this blog that focuses on basic tips to help you communicate effectively.  This time I want to share some thoughts about one of my personal writing mottoes, which is: "There's a million different ways to say something."

I tend to quote that motto to myself when I'm getting too wrapped up in writer's perfectionism.

Do you ever feel that you need to find the one perfect phrase that will capture your idea as nothing else can?  If you do, I can relate. Sometimes I can get so steeped in my search for perfect expression that I end up stifling my creativity.  I must often remind myself that there is no one right way to say anything.  In fact, the richness of our English language gives me many possibilities, each one as potentially valid as the next.

When I struggle too hard to turn my thoughts into just the right words, it's not good.   I tend to freeze in fear under the severe spotlight of my own criticism.  I lose my focus and become fretful. I clench up in frustration, and become fatigued by the effort of trying to steer, white-knuckled, down the too-narrow road of my own high expectations.

Here are some ideas that I -- and you -- can use to get out of that state of paralysis, and back into the easy-going, curious, nimble frame of mind that is the key to composing a fine and fun piece of prose.

1. Writing is Care-Giving

When I get so charged up about writing wonderfully, I need to pull myself aside and give myself a smack-down talking to.  I need to remind myself that writing is not about impressing. It's about helping. Writing is, in a sense, an act of caring.  You care about your message -- you care about getting other people to understand it -- so you carefully construct a verbal framework that helps people get from where they are (in their understanding right now), to where you want them to end up (after you tell them what you want to tell them).

An awesome author named C.S. Lewis once said that the act of writing is like shepherding a flock of sheep down a country lane.  Your main job, he said, is to close off all the gates and doors that lead to the side alleys and backyard gardens where you don't want your charges to go.  When you've removed all of those false assumptions that would allow your readers to go off track, and you cause them to understand the correct thing by default, you have done your job. Searching for the right words is not as important as removing the wrong words so your "flock" can find their way safely home.  (I wish I could find the source of this C. S. Lewis  quote which I remember reading long ago, but it's lost to me now.  If anyone knows where to find it, please tell me!)

If you can put yourself in your reader's shoes -- or brain, I guess -- and serve up a series of words that helps him find his way, then you are doing your utmost to care for him.  And there is no one right way to care for people.  Rather, caring puts the emphasis on the outcome, not the output.

2. Writing is a Craft

As writers, we need to remind ourselves that we're engaged in a craft, and each of us is formulating a distinct style of craftsmanship.  Differences are good.  Like the photo above, where each row house wears a different color that proudly reflects the tastes of its owner, each of us applies a different perspective to the writing we do, and it's all beautifully and randomly appropriate.  Writing's not just plain, stark construction.  Neither is it pure, sweeping creation.  It's a mix of the two.  Some days we'll feel more in tune with our inner artist than others.  But carpenters can still make a bench, even when they don't feel inspired.  We need to pay practical attention to our craft, and be diligent about pursuing artistic excellence -- but not to the point of getting upset with ourselves.  There's a job to be done.  Let's bang it out first, and sand it down later. Just get the project underway.

3. Writing is Kitschy

Don't take yourself too seriously, you writing fool.  It's all so subjective, after all.  Fads, fashions, common knowledge, connotations, persuasions and your own perceptions all change constantly.  You're not writing for the ages.  You're writing for the moment.   Just get over it.  Realize that you may very well recoil in embarrassment some day in the future when you read again the words you just put a final polish to ten minutes ago.   It's very likely that some of the phrases that sound so elegant at this present stage of your writing career will cause you crushing mortification later on.  It doesn't matter, because the opposite is also true: someday you will unearth a utilitarian piece of writing that you forged in haste today, never giving it a second thought -- and you will be astounded by its brilliance. In the kitschy words of a current catchphrase: "What-ever!"

4.  Writing is Just Kindergarten, All Over Again

It never pays to get too rigidly self-absorbed with your writing.  We're all kindergartners, trying our best to write the alphabet on our paper, our tongues sticking out and our erasers at the ready.  What was it that our kindergarten teachers used to say?  "Just do your best."  And then, when we cast our eyes enviously over at our classmate's solid capitals marching stoutly across the page, then woefully looked back at our own limping letters, what did our kindergarten teachers do?  They circled the best A on our tablet and said, "That's wonderful!  Try to make the rest of them like that."   

We need to speak the same self-encouragement into our own writing efforts, today and every day.  And when we get frustrated because those efforts don't result in perfection, we need to remember:  There is no perfection.  There's just a story to tell.  Then we need to affirm, "There's a million different ways to tell this story... " and forge ahead, applauding ourselves for giving it a shot.

How do YOU talk yourself off the ledge of literary perfectionism?  Leave a comment and let us know!  

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