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Thread: How to Write With Confidence

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    How to Write With Confidence

    “What you write is yours and nobody else’s. Take your talent as far as you can and guard it with your life. Only you know how far that is; no editor knows. Writing well means believing in your writing and believing in yourself, taking risks, daring to be different, pushing yourself to excel. You can only write as well as you can make yourself write.”
    –William Zinsser

    How to Write With Confidence
    Part One of Two

    Every writer, successful or struggling, has experienced frustration at some point in his career. Few of us have ever escaped creative frustration, the notorious “fear of the blank page,” and the inevitable rejection. It is the rare writer who has never asked herself “Oh, why did I ever think I could write?” Yet for most of us, we have no choice: we can’t stop writing.

    One way to gain confidence in writing is practical and – forgive me – obvious. Mastering the basic tools of the trade - the basic rules of grammar and usage - can go a long way toward alleviating the fear of making an amateurish mistake. With learning, practice, and time, facility with the vagaries of our beautiful language can almost become second nature, and thus no longer a cause of worry.

    Not only should our use of the tools be correct, we should also strive to use them effectively, if not artfully. That’s the next step toward gaining confidence: how can I make my writing the best that I can make it?

    Some general tips toward that end:

    –- Write in clear English. This is solid advice from Zinsser, E.B. White among other experts.

    –- Never underestimate the power of a vigorous verb. Choose active, rather than passive,
    constructions. Avoid overusing forms of the verb “to be” and other linking verbs that depend on nouns or modifiers. Avoid using adjectives and adverbs as mere decorations and enlist them only when they can contribute to the meaning of the sentence.

    –A writer does the reader a service by providing him with “concrete details,” Zinsser says. These are “easier to picture than vague abstractions.” Another problem with abstractions, those amorphous ideals –- “love, freedom, patriotism, happiness,” –- ad infinitum is that the same word can mean something different to each reader. An ambiguous abstraction can muddy the waters which the writer desperately desires to make clear and drown the precise point which she is trying to float.

    –- Both Zinsser and E. B. White maintain that short words and sentences are easier to read. That is undeniable to a certain extent, but at the same time we want to avoid choppiness or monotony. When the prose is too “simple”, there is a danger that it might sound simple-minded or juvenile (at one point in his book, Zinsser warns against writing down to the reader or patronizing him.) With practice a writer may strike a kind of “rhythm” by varying the lengths and structures of his sentences.

    –Speaking of sentences, in the process of writing, one may find herself spending an inordinate amount of time on just one pesky sentence. According to Zinsser, there’s a “quick fix” for that:

    “Surprisingly often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it. Unfortunately this solution is usually the last one that occurs to the writer trying to disentangle himself. First he will put the troublesome phrase through all kinds of exertions -- moving it some other part of the sentence, trying to rephrase it, adding new words to clarify the thought or to oil whatever is stuck. These laborious efforts can only make the situation worse, and the writer is left to conclude that there is no solution to the problem. Not a comforting thought. When you find yourself at such an impasse, look at the troublesome element and ask, ‘Do I need it at all?’ Probably you don’t. It was trying to do an unnecessary job all along –- that’s why it was giving you so much grief. Remove it and watch the sentence spring to life and breathe normally. It’s the quickest possible cure and, very often, the best.
    I, for one, can’t refute Zinsser’s argument. Writing is just like an seldom-worn garment in your closet or a questionabl leftover in your refrigerator: when in doubt, throw it out.

    Knowing when to cut or delete is a mark of maturity among writers. It is also a sign of courage. As Isaac Bashevis Singer remarked, “The wastebasket is the writer’s best friend.”

    Not being afraid to cut sentences, paragraphs, even entire passages out of one’s writing might seem antithetical, if not counter-intuitive, to a writer wishing to achieve confidence. Yet revising, rewriting, editing, and proofreading are essential, if not mandatory. For a handy guide to rewriting skills, click here.

    Following through with revisions and polishing up the work until it is in optimal shape should help to lessen any lingering doubts the writer may have about its quality. The goal remember, is to “write as well as you can make yourself write.” That includes a willingness to make changes and even dump your “darlings,” because mediocre writing can usually be made good, and good writing can often be made better.

    Apart from to developing skill in the techniques of writing, there remains another problem involved in achieving confidence, the possible solution for which will be suggested in the second part of this thread, which continues immediately below.
    Last edited by AuntShecky; 02-07-2014 at 12:30 AM.

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    Writing with Confidence, part 2 of 2

    Part 2 of 2

    Perhaps a writer has reached the point at which she has reasonably assured herself that she has a working knowledge, if not mastery, of the basic tools of writing. Nevertheless, something is lacking: those nagging little doubts lead her to think that her own ability to write well is teetering upon a shaky foundation. She still lacks the kind of confidence which external evidence to the contrary, such as legitimate publication and/or praise from her readers, would do little to remedy. And let’s be clear: a lengthy list of published work and/or popularity among one’s “readership” is largely irrelevant in determining how good a writer really is. The converse holds as well: a ream of rejection slips and the apparent lack of approbation does not necessarily mean that the writer’s body of work is no damn good.

    I’m not a psychologist or an expert on the subject of self-esteem, but sometimes it takes decades to realize the importance of the ability to separate one’s work from oneself. Rejection or acceptance of one’s writing has nothing to do with what kind of person the writer may be. Even though she has put what she believes is her “heart and soul” into a particular work, any eventual “negative” criticism doesn’t – or shouldn’t - mean that the world rejects this writer as a person.

    For beginning writers, it is crucial not to compare oneself with other writers. Remember the opening quotation in the beginning of part one of this thread: “What you write is yours and nobody else’s.” Your perception of the human condition, your personal world-view, your unique vision is yours alone. Who is to say that your response to the world is less valid –- less true –- than that of anyone else? The only difference is in the expression, the quality of which can evolve -– as we’ve said -- with practice and skill.

    William Zinsser makes a similar point clear with the direct statement that Writing is Not a Contest:

    Every writer is starting from a different point and is bound for a different destination. Yet many writers are paralyzed by the thought that they are competing with everybody else who is trying to write and presumably doing it better. . .I’ve often found that the hares are often overtaken by the tortoises who move resolutely toward the goal of mastering the craft. The same fear cripples the lonely free-lance writer, who sees the work of other writers appearing in magazines while his own keeps returning in the mail. Forget the competition and go at your own pace. Ultimately your only contest is with yourself.
    In his essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot explains how essential it is for would-be poets to be knowledgeable about all of the monumental poets through the centuries, and that new poets must be responsible for insuring that any new work they create is a worthy contribution to that continuing tradition. In 1973, the scholar Harold Bloom posited a literary theory which included psychological elements. With “The Anxiety of Influence,” as the malady is called, new poets are intimidated by the majesty of the great poets who have preceded them. The neophytes fear that nothing they write will be entirely fresh and new, nor will it be completely original because of the undeniable effect of the literary greats. Talk about pressure, of being “up against it!” Yet if Eliot’s admonition and Bloom’s diagnosis held sway, nobody would have dared to have written anything after Shakespeare – - or for that matter, Homer.

    Incidentally, it may be that relatively recent literary movements, such as postmodernism and “post-postmodernism” have discounted the “anxiety of influence” in that contemporary writers acknowledge that they are not only, as the cliché goes, “standing on the shoulders of giants” but also openly embracing the impossibility of being completely “original.” Often alluding to and parodying the works of past writers, postmodern writers are ironic, self-referential, and not above playing games with the reader. No “anxiety of influence” issue with them, and any problem with confidence is often softened or disguised with a sense of humor, which, in addition to having the ability to amuse and be amused, means the sense of putting things in perspective.

    Finally, the best way to gain confidence in writing is to gain, as Zinsser says, an “edge”:

    Where, then, is the edge? Ninety percent of the answer lies in the hard work of mastering
    the tools. . .Add a few percentage points for such natural gifts as a good ear, a sense of rhythm and a feeling for words. But the final advantage is the same one that applies in every other competitive venture. If you would like to write better than everybody else, you have to want to write better than everybody else. You must take an obsessive pride in the smallest details of your craft. And you must be able to defend what you’ve written against the various middlemen – editors, agents, and publishers - whose sights may be different from yours, or whose standards may not be as high. Too many writers are browbeaten into settling for less than their best.
    A confident writer will not be easily “browbeaten,” especially if she takes her work seriously, without – I hasten to add! – taking herself too seriously.

    Oh, and one more thing: don’t overanalyze:

    “If you intellectualize and examine the creative process too carefully, it can evaporate and vanish. It’s not only terribly difficult to talk about, it’s also dangerous. You know the old story about . . .the very clever animal that saw a centipede that he didn’t like. He said, ‘My God, it’s amazing and marvelous how you walk with all those hundreds and hundreds of legs. How do you do it? How do you get them all moving that way?’ The centipede stopped and thought and said, ‘Well, I take the left front leg and then I –‘ and he thought about it for a while, and he couldn’t walk.”
    –Edward Albee


    Sources:

    Richard Nordquist’s website: about grammar and composition
    http://grammar.about.com/b/2014/01/2...riter.htm?nl=1

    The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the Twentieth Century’s Preeminent Writers, edited from The Paris Review interviews by George Plimpton. New York: Viking, 1989.

    Zinsser, William. On Writing Well. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

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    Registered User miyako73's Avatar
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    Thank you, Auntie.

    "I’m not a psychologist or an expert on the subject of self-esteem, but sometimes it takes decades to realize the importance of the ability to separate one’s work from oneself. Rejection or acceptance of one’s writing has nothing to do with what kind of person the writer may be. Even though she has put what she believes is her “heart and soul” into a particular work, any eventual “negative” criticism doesn’t – or shouldn’t - mean that the world rejects this writer as a person."

    that separation is so current.
    "You laugh at me because I'm different, I laugh at you because you're all the same."

    --Jonathan Davis

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    Registered User 108 fountains's Avatar
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    AuntShecky,

    Thanks for the postings. Both of them are brimming with useful information and advice. I had to pass a writing/editing test for my current job, and in preparation for that, I basically memorized the first 50 pages or so of Elements of Style. More than 20 years later, I still refer to that little booklet often.
    Another general tip I'll add to the technical tips in your first post is for writers to to go through their manuscript and rewrite all the sentences that begin with "There is," "There are," "There was," and "There were." By taking out those two words, the rewritten sentence almost invariably takes the active voice and becomes sharper and crisper.

    I'll take the advice in your second posting to heart. Although I published a non-fiction book some years ago, I never tried to publish the fiction I've written over the years. In the past 15 months or so I've dusted off and reworked some of the old stories, wrote several new ones, and completed my long uncompleted novel. Full of enthusiasm, I began approaching publishers and agents and entering competitions. So far my efforts have resulted only in a couple of "honorable mentions." Disappointment and self-doubt are beginning to set in. So, I really appreciate the words of wisdom in your second post.
    A just conception of life is too large a thing to grasp during the short interval of passing through it.
    Thomas Hardy

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    Registered User Steven Hunley's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by 108 fountains View Post
    AuntShecky,

    Thanks for the postings. Both of them are brimming with useful information and advice. I had to pass a writing/editing test for my current job, and in preparation for that, I basically memorized the first 50 pages or so of Elements of Style. More than 20 years later, I still refer to that little booklet often.
    Another general tip I'll add to the technical tips in your first post is for writers to to go through their manuscript and rewrite all the sentences that begin with "There is," "There are," "There was," and "There were." By taking out those two words, the rewritten sentence almost invariably takes the active voice and becomes sharper and crisper.

    I'll take the advice in your second posting to heart. Although I published a non-fiction book some years ago, I never tried to publish the fiction I've written over the years. In the past 15 months or so I've dusted off and reworked some of the old stories, wrote several new ones, and completed my long uncompleted novel. Full of enthusiasm, I began approaching publishers and agents and entering competitions. So far my efforts have resulted only in a couple of "honorable mentions." Disappointment and self-doubt are beginning to set in. So, I really appreciate the words of wisdom in your second post.

    Auntie has a very good point here, which is don't be disappointed! Editors are not always sending out rejection slips because the writing is flawed, but rather because it isn't what they're looking for at the time, or it (the decision) is subjected to a personal whim. The shoes are quality shoes, but don't fit the audience wearer.

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    Registered User miyako73's Avatar
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    That makes sense, Steven--"The shoes are quality shoes, but don't fit the audience wearer."
    "You laugh at me because I'm different, I laugh at you because you're all the same."

    --Jonathan Davis

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    Employee of the Month blank|verse's Avatar
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    I'm sure there's some good advice here, but to take issue with the title of the thread, I would suggest that as soon as anyone starts to write 'with confidence' that what they're writing is any good, that's exactly the moment they should put down their pens / keyboards and stop writing.

    Be constantly on your guard and always question your own writing is the best advice I would offer.

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    Quote Originally Posted by blank|verse View Post
    Be constantly on your guard and always question your own writing is the best advice I would offer.
    I whole-heartedly agree. Whenever a writer feels 100% completely satisfied with her work, then she has done something wrong. Maybe the title of the thread should have been: "How to Write Despite a Lack of Confidence."

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    Auntie, good thread.

    But the best thing to do is just not write.

    'How to Not Write With Confidence'!

    As if anybody needed another poem. As if the world needed another short story, novella, mind, etc.

    It's kind of like whittling wood. Something automatic and useless. Your efforts might add up to a stool-- at least then you'd feel relief.






    J

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