Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Writing To Be Read

As the number of people writing online steadily approaches the number of human beings on Planet Earth, the question of "why write?" is coming up more and more often in various circles of web scribblers.

I think it's a really good question.

Two years ago, a lot of people writing for the web might have answered, "For the community," or "For the money," but with social media sites hatching faster than tadpoles in the spring and per word rates for online freelancers plummeting down a virtual ski slope, I've noticed the answer to that simple question is getting more abstract and complex.

Writers have always been wont to blather on about their 'process' and so forth, and I can blather with the best of them, trust me, but it seems to me that sensible answers to that question fall into three basic categories, and for any given piece you have to choose one and only one:

  1. Writing for yourself.  Plenty of studies show that journaling leads to better emotional health, so if you are writing for yourself, you want to write whatever comes into your head and not worry about sentence structure or anything else for that matter. The point is just to get your thoughts and feelings out of your head and onto the page and move on. Dump that emotion. Introspect your ass off. Who cares what other people think of your writing? It isn't about them, it's about you. So write what comes out and let it go.
  2. Writing for other writers. This is dangerous territory, but plenty of writers go there, thinking that this is the path to becoming a true writer. It isn't. I personally find that other writers make notoriously bad critics. Their egos get in the way as does their enormous desire to be liked or to be authoritative, often at the same time, which is scarcely even possible. In short, writers tend to get all wrapped up in themselves. Your writing? Oh, that.'s good, it's bad, I don't know, let me take my emotional temperature this hour and I'll get back to you in a day or two. Another problem is that groups of writers tend to fall into an annoying holding pattern of showing off for each other if allowed to do so. Soon they are all penning prose so terminally artistic that it  becomes indecipherable to human beings of any stripe. However, if this is why you write, for the regard and company of other writers, there are plenty of MFA programs out there that will happily take your money and subject you to all the cloistered torture you can stand, and more. 
  3. Writing to be read. If you are writing to be read, a very different, very specific set of rules (rules which are optional under reason 1 or reason 2) instantly applies. You have to say what you mean. You have to say what you mean in language ordinary people can understand, and you have to say it in a compelling manner so readers will keep reading until they get to the end of your writing. You also have to have something to say. All the delicate poetic metaphor in the universe won't make a reader keep going if you're basically just masturbating with words. A lifetime supply of adjectives and adverbs does not a writer make. 
Elmore Leonard once spoke of his own editorial technique this way:

"I look at it, and if it looks like writing, I rewrite it."

Put yourself in your reader's place. When you look at your stuff, does it look like writing? (Look ma! I'm writing!) Or are you sucked into the story too fast to notice the writing, enticed into the substance that the words are used to convey?

Think about it. Go have a sandwich then come back and read it again.

Then, if it looks like writing, you know what to do.


Lynda M. Martin said...

How true, Pam. Why write? For some of us it's because we have to. And we hope some out there are reading us, but even it they weren't, I'd still write, and I suspect, so would you. Lynda

UninvitedWriter said...

I'm one of those people who have to write. I feel miserable if I don't write.

Pamela Grundy said...

Me too. I write no matter what, I really think it's hardwired or something. It isn't very popular to say this out loud, but I don't think a person can learn to be a writer--you are either a writer or you aren't. Anyone can learn to writing basics or learn to write better, but to my mind being a writer is just something you are or aren't, like you are or aren't a person with brown hair.

Camille Olivia ~ said...

DEEE-lightful! Just found your blog. I'll be coming back often. Love your voice. Hugs to ya~