Do that again.

“Practice makes permanent,” my Tae Kwon Do instructor used to say, “not perfect.” Nothing is perfect. He would often speak of masters spending their lives trying to perfect one form, one strike. While I think that leads us down the road of Jack Torrence in The Shining, (“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” ad infinitum) there is a value to refining your technique rather than simply doing the same thing over and again in the exact same way.

The primary way to do this is to have someone else read your work. Ideally, you can find a writers group in your area. With the growing popularity of NaNoWriMo and easy access to blogs and other outlets, more of us are coming out of the woodwork each year. People find themselves needing to express their feelings, thoughts and attitudes through words, and this gives you a great pool of readers from which to draw. There are also Facebook groups and websites devoted to writing which may yield readers.

The advantage of having someone else read your work is that it can be difficult to see your own errors. You know what you’re trying to say in a sentence or paragraph, so your mind fills in the gaps. It’s what the mind does best, find patterns and extrapolate across gaps in data, just as it does with the blind spots everyone has in their vision due to the way the mammalian eye is formed.

Another reader may pick out a word or phrase you’re not quite using correctly or sounds unnatural, or tell you when a sentence just doesn’t convey what you want it to or make sense to them. I often find that when another reader points out that there are a lot of passive sentences or some other issue, I suddenly see it, where I had read through that section a number of times. A fresh set of eyes is always helpful.

You can also put a piece of work away for a few days or weeks to distance yourself from the expectation of what you should be seeing on each line, allowing you to edit your own work. This, however, maintains the solitude of the writer. If you enjoy this, then you miss out on other perspectives and valuable feedback, as well as being in danger of practicing a technique which doesn’t work and may be hard to break away from later.

So go out and find some like-minded individuals, take some workshops, and make your writing a group event. Not only will it be more rewarding in the friendships you can build, but your work will improve!

Other Words:
This week, I wanted to introduce a new section to the writing blog. This addresses another important part of writing: reading. To expose yourself to new ideas, recharge after spilling your imagination on to the keyboard and reenforce good writing, you should be reading. Personally, I’m reading through older sci-fi, in particular a book I picked up at the Salvation Army a year or two ago, but have finally gotten around to reading: Earthclan by David Brin. It’s actually two books in one volume, Startide Rising and The Uplift War.

Both of these stories are set in a world of the future wherein humans have meddled with the genes of dolphins and chimps to ‘uplift’ them to human levels of intelligence and communication. In fact, the captain of the starship around which the story revolves is a dolphin, as are most of the crew. That in itself would provide a lot to work with, but there’s more, including a galaxy full of other star-faring races which have in turn been ‘uplifted’ by previous star-faring races in exchange for a time of servitude where they learn the structure of galactic society and find their place in it.

I find the treatment of the psychology of dolphins vs humans and the interactions between them very well thought out. These aren’t just humans with flippers instead of arms and legs, but have their own culture, their own prejudices and affinities. I’m only partway through the first book, but will provide a more thorough review when I’m done.

Next week, I’ll cover the other book I’m currently reading, Minotaur, by a friend of mine.

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2 thoughts on “Do that again.

  1. Don’t forget to mention that, if you’re trading stories, the fastest way to alienate a potential ally in the writing process is to simply skim their work or to provide feedback based on what you expected to read and not on what was written.

    Leaving feedback on someone’s story is a crucial process which could (among other things) flag plot holes and discrepancies; sentence structure issues that leave the reader confused & befuddled; word choices that interrupt the flow of the story or misuse of a word; and character inconsistencies.

    Because there are so many areas a reader could leave feedback on, it’s usually best to indicate which area you are looking for help in. For example: a reader will probably not leave feedback on word choice and grammar issues if there is a larger underlying issue — unless they are asked to — since the reader would probably view fine-tuning an early draft a waste of everyone’s time. If you’re intentionally breaking one of the ‘rules’ of writing, it might also be wise to forewarn a reader to get them geared towards leading a story in a certain direction otherwise they might just tag it and be done. (ie: excessive use of passive, tense choice, narrative style, etc)

    Working together and being clear about what is expected minimizes confusion and frustration. IMHO is that people leaving feedback/story critiques should “Give the other person the information that you would find useful for yourself.” For me that means tags of “confusing” “check grammar (read as: sentence doesn’t make sense)” “word choice issue” are ❤ because they isolate sections and issues and provide a starting point for what *I* need to work on. I do not expect my readers to rewrite sections of the text, simply to tell me what work, what doesn't work, and highlight major flaws/stupid errors. If I agree, I will address them in the manner I think most appropriate (since different critics will provide conflicting information and it is up to the author to decide what is really a 'problem' and what is 'reader error'/skimming).

    But then again, each person's different and I have been told that flagging sentences/sections as "confusing" or "grammatically challenged" is unhelpful in the extreme! So, be clear, be courteous and when in doubt, ask the author what they are looking for/trying to do. Writing and feedback should be about improving our craft, not about ego.

    Also — to new writers looking to turn their hand at starting to write — if you get feedback that you don't understand, LOOK IT UP! There's no shame in admitting that you don't know how a specific grammar structure works. There are no real hard and fast 'rules' to writing, and all rules can be broken & can be broken well, however, the chances are they're probably there for a reason. Look them up, learn why they do/don't work, and arm yourself with that added knowledge.

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