“Writing Scares Me” is not the name of a book: it’s the final option on the poll of the July 6 open forum in this series, “Which Book Got You Hooked on Reading?” (A nod of thanks here to Aravir—I borrowed the poll from one of his diaries.)
Writing does indeed scare a great many people. They hate it because they fear they aren’t good at it. They also think it will take too much time to produce even mediocre writing, let alone a good piece of work. To make writing less fearsome, I’d like to let you in on a few secrets (full disclosure—this is based on something I wrote for the people in my workgroup many years ago), and then provide a template for writing a diary for this series, “Books That Changed My Life.”
But first I’d like to share Pat Schneider’s Five Affirmations with you. She created the Amherst Writers’ Method and teaches it to students.
From Writing Alone and With Others: The Five Essential Affirmations.
- Everyone has a strong, unique voice.
- Everyone is born with creative genius.
- Writing as an art form belongs to all people, regardless of economic class or educational level.
- The teaching of craft can be done without damage to a writer's original voice or artistic self-esteem.
- A writer is someone who writes.
In other words—you have a perfect right to write! As an intelligent person who’s lived enough years to garner some wisdom, you may want to impart what you’ve learned to others. Your voice deserves to be heard.
Now, if you’ll follow me over the squiggle, you’ll find the secrets and the template.
There are three secrets of successful writing that most people never learn.
Recognize that writing involves two different personae--the creator and the critic. Recognize also that successful writing always invokes both the creative and critical processes--BUT NOT AT THE SAME TIME!
The creator comes first.
Tip 1: Never let the critic in until the creator has finished the first draft.
Tip 2: How do you convey complex information in understandable form? To use this tip, you must think of the most important person in your life (the person in question should speak and understand English, which lets out your cat or dog). This tip is based on an excellent book by Ernst Jacobi, Writing at Work: Dos, Don’ts, and How Tos (Rochelle Park, NJ: Hayden Book Company, Inc., 1976).
Now. Tell yourself that this important person understands NOTHING at all about the subject you’re writing about (chances are that 90 percent of the time this will be true). Let’s say it’s the year 1983, and your Significant Other says, “Darling, what on earth is a personal computer? You keep talking about them. I’ve never seen one. What is it?”
How would you explain to this person what a personal computer is? Would you begin, “Well, honey, way back in the nineteen forties there were two guys named Mauchly and Eckert, and they begat ENIAC, which begat UNIVAC, which begat....”
No way! Your Significant Other didn’t ask you to go into a long song-and-dance routine about the history of the mainframe computer. Nor did he or she ask about the difference between a mainframe and a personal computer.
Your reply should have been along these lines: “Well, honey, a personal computer is about the size of a microwave oven—that is, it’s small enough to sit on a desktop. It has three parts—the monitor, the keyboard, and the system unit. The monitor looks like the screen on the little 13-inch TV we gave the kids for Christmas. The keyboard looks like a smaller version of the typewriter keyboard that you use to write letters.
The system unit looks a lot like a VCR—it’s a square box about four inches high. With a personal computer you can do all kinds of things: write letters, set up a household budget, balance your checkbook, and keep a lot of records—like the list you have of everybody in your family and my family: what their hobbies are, what they like to eat when they come for dinner, and their phone numbers.”
In other words, when you need to convey complex information to someone, put it in terms that person can understand, and use examples they can relate to. Don’t suck the person down into a bog of details. Outline the picture in black first, then shade in just enough details to let your reader get the whole picture. If there is an excruciating amount of detail that you feel it’s essential for readers to know, put it into an appendix and let your text direct them to it.
Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, tell ’em, then tell ’em what you just told ’em. When you were a kid, your third-grade English teacher told you that these were called the introduction, the “body” of the text, and the conclusion.
This involves nothing more than organizing your thoughts before you begin to write. To kick-start your writing process, think of the way your high school English teacher made you do it: in increments. First she made you come up with three possible topics, didn’t she? And the next week she made you pick one of those topics.
The week after that you had to bring to class a list of three possible sources you were going to consult for the research on your term paper, and you couldn’t use the family encyclopedia as one of the sources—remember? You had to actually visit the library. Then she made you break down your topic into an outline with a beginning, middle, and end, the middle being organized to discuss several aspects of the topic, and the beginning and end serving as introduction and conclusion.
Then she made you write an abstract, didn’t she? And the week after that you had to hand in the real bibliography, and the week after that, the introduction, right? So by week 14 of that 16-week semester, you had no trouble writing that term paper.
So do that now…bearing in mind you have hours to do this, not weeks.
When the creator has finished, let the critic take over. Recognize that in the first draft, everyone writes horribly, even good writers. Looking for good stuff in the first draft is like panning for gold--there will be a nugget or two of the good stuff in a load of…well, let’s call it sand. You need to turn that sand into gold dust.
Your first draft will be in passive voice, riddled with clichés, and filled with misspellings, typos, and homonyms for the terms you really intended to use. Don’t beat yourself up over this! The difference between successful writers and unsuccessful writers is that the successful ones say, “Boy, this stinks. I’m going to fix it.” And they do. Then, and only then, do they pass it on to their managers or their editors.
Tips to remember in your role of critic:
Tip 1: If you’d never heard of any of this, would YOU understand what you just wrote?
Tip 2: C’mon, do real people talk like that? Don’t be pompous. Get real.
So there you have it, the three secrets of successful writing: the first is that the writer must let the creative process flow unimpeded; the second to organize your thoughts before you begin to write, and the third is that good writers edit their work before releasing it to their readership.
And now for the template for a “Books That Changed My Life” diary:
It's really easy to write a diary when you think of a book that's changed your life, because the diary consists of three main paragraphs.
In the first paragraph, all you need to do is introduce the title of the book and the author, and mention the circumstances in which you encountered it—did you buy it, borrow it, or receive it as a gift? How old were you? Were you still at school, or were you working?
In the second paragraph, you could provide a quote from the book, or briefly describe the contents, or tell something about the author. If it’s a classic and has been reproduced on line as part of The Gutenberg Project, you could provide a link. Or if there’s an entry in Wikipedia about it, you could link to that.
In the third paragraph, you would state how reading the book changed your life—by making you aware of politics, or history, or seeing the world beyond your own cosmos of home, family, friends, and school, or thinking about things in a new way.
A tip: Instead of using the title of the book for your diary headline, you might think of a provocative question or related title. That might generate more attention than simply listing the title.
For example, consider the June 8 diary headline by a recent diarist: Books That Changed My Life: “Climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
The diarist felt this might generate more traffic to the diary than the title, “To Kill A Mockingbird,” because people have been familiar with that title for a long time and might not be moved to find out anything more about it. People often do feel moved to seek the answer to a provocative question or find out about an intriguing statement.
There should be at least these three tags: Readers and Book Lovers, R&BLers, and Books That Changed My Life, but you can add others, depending on your subject.
In conclusion, I hope the affirmations, secrets, and template will help you not to be so scared of writing--if you are. And now, a challenge: I'll bet you can produce a good diary for "Books That Changed My Life" in less than an hour! Who's going to try it?