Taming Your Rebellious Writing

As a writer, conceiving a new idea can be much like deciding to conceive a child. Starry-eyed and full of anticipation, you dream about how beautiful and perfect this story will be. You imagine with romanticism the late nights of sitting up tending to it, picturesque, a labor of love. You think about how everyone will “oo” and “ah” over it, how amazing it is, and you’ll be so proud.

Then you put pen to paper, the idea is born, and it’s nothing like you thought it would be. You realize you have no idea what you’re doing, you’re way out of your depth. Am I even qualified to do this? you may ask yourself. You become convinced that you are not. You feel like a failure. You thought this would be so fun, but you had no idea how difficult and frustrating it would be, how out of your control everything would feel.

Some writers bail out at this juncture, leaving their story on the steps of the proverbial firehouse. Others struggle through this period of infancy, through the terrible twos, all the way up to a crudely finished product. An awkward, rebellious teenaged story, which frustrates and at times mystifies you, and is still trying to figure out exactly what it is or wants to be.

Books like Right to Write by Julia Cameron, or programs like NaNoWriMo, aim to help you through the birth and early stages of your writing. The difference between being a writer and being a wannabe writer is nothing more than the actual writing part. As soon as you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard or whatever) you become a real writer, and so often feel the pain of being a real writer.

I joke that I typically hate my writing by the first word. I type “The” and instantly recoil. No, no no! This is all wrong! I’ve already ruined it. And so “The” becomes “It” but somehow that’s even worse. “Once?” Oh my gosh, why am I even trying? Clearly I have no business writing.

Learning to turn off your inner editor and just write is such an important step for so many people like myself. If you never get the story down, it is never born, and can never be more than an idea. Once it’s written, once it’s a story, then you can always go back and fix it.

But let’s be honest, staring at your word vomit splashed all over the page can feel even more daunting then those early infant stages. What do you do with it now?! It can fill you with the dread and helplessness of trying to get through to your rebelling teen who won’t speak to you anymore.

At this stage, the brave souls who have soldiered through splinter off once again — some stop speaking to their story, whom they no longer understand or relate to; some refuse to see it for the troubled mess that it is and choose instead to look at it through the rose-colored lens of a besotted parent. But then there are those who know they need to whip this story into shape, to get it ready to go into the world.

Just like your discipline, boundaries and tough love will help your teen, they will help your writing. But just like raising a strong-willed teenager, it’s a daunting task. Here are a few “parenting” tips for that rebellious story.

1. Start Fresh. When it comes time to start my second draft, I like to open a new blank document. Rather than try to wade through the mess of my first draft and discern what’s salvageable, I like to start again, this time with a better sense of where the story wants to go, where I want it to go, and possible ways of getting there. Often as I do this the better parts of my first draft come back to me, and I can copy and paste these into my new draft as I go. Now I’m able to see them cleanly and perhaps build off of them, making an entire paragraph as strong as that one sentence I loved, or a whole page as good as the paragraph. The other benefit of this is that I can be brutal. I can experiment with getting rid of or tweaking things that I would be scared to lose or mess up because I know they’re sitting safely in my original document, and I can go back to them anytime I want.

2. Join a writers’ group. Getting feedback on your work can be a great starting point in knowing what’s working and what’s not in your writing. You might find that things you thought were clear and obvious are not, or that things you didn’t think worked well were actually well received. Not only is it helpful to get feedback on your work, but it’s even helpful to hear people’s opinions on other people’s work, and to give constructive feedback, as well. The more you’re a part of this process, the more you start to write with a sense of what readers tend to love, hate, expect, be confused by, etc. A bonus benefit is that it will help you learn to take criticism. If you want to put your work out there into the world you have to expect to get feedback, and not all of it will be good. This can be a very hard thing to experience, and submitting your work to a group for critiquing will give you good practice.

3. Cut redundancies. A trap I often find myself falling into, and see others doing as well, is one of writing the same thing multiple times in different ways. It might be that I can’t decide exactly the best way or best place to convey something, and so I try it many ways; it might be that I forgot I had already written about it earlier in the story; it might be, as was once suggested to me, that I don’t trust my reader — I don’t think they’ll really get it or remember it if I only mention it once. This can be true when talking about entire paragraphs or even just an overuse of adjectives or adverbs. Whatever the reason for the redundancies, your writing will be stronger and cleaner if you say what you want to say once, narrowing it down to the best explanation/description/adjective.

4. Trim down or buff up. Many writers have the problem of overwriting and needing to trim the finished product down. I have the opposite problem — I write a skeleton version my first go-round that requires fleshing out. A knee-jerk reaction to altering the length of your writing is often that it’s the perfect length and wouldn’t work if altered. While this could be true, it’s always worth experimenting. I like to think of suggested or typical word counts for what I’m writing and think about how I would get there. What would I cut if I had to cut something? What could I add or elaborate on to get more words in? Once I start pushing myself I often find that the story could, in fact, benefit from trimming some fat and bulking up other elements.

5. Get a fresh perspective. I like to look at my finished work on paper, but if the thought of printing yours makes you cringe, even just changing the font or the program you’re viewing it in can help you see things fresh. You can also have someone else read it to you, or sometimes best of all is setting it aside and coming back to it after a break. There are lots of methods to help you see your writing through fresh eyes, but however you do it, it is almost certain to help you see things in a new and helpful way.

These are a few ideas to get you started on whipping your writing into shape. What other methods do you like to use?

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