Having had over 900 professional sales in the last seven or eight years, I am starting to call myself a writer without feeling like a fraud.
To help me make decisions about what other kinds of writing I want to try, I have drawn up a list of my strengths and weaknesses as a writer as honestly as I can. Here they are, in no particular order:
- An omnivorous reading habit: I’ll read anything, and I read constantly. So far as I’m concerned, I couldn’t write if I hadn’t been in love with reading since I was four years old. I would also know much less about the possible choices when I write.
- A reliance on a spoken vocabulary: I believe that the standard for any language is how it is spoken, so I rarely use words in my writing that I wouldn’t say aloud. I believe this gives a directness to my writing that it wouldn’t otherwise have. I can define far more words than I use in anything except academic writing.
- An inner ear: I hear what I write or read in my head as though it were spoken out loud. Consequently, my writing has a rhythm to it that helps draw attention to it.
- A belief in the importance of truth: I don’t believe in objectivity or absolute truth. But I do believe that truth exists externally, and that some viewpoints are more valid than others, and worth expressing as accurately as possible.
- A difficulty in lying: Thanks to repeated exposure to George Orwell, I am convinced that a writer’s duty is state the truth, even when doing so means facing up to unpleasant facts about themselves or others.
- An awareness of structure: While I am proud of my ability to reel off memorable phrases, I am prouder of my ability to see the structure in a piece of writing, and to give a suitable shape to my own work. This ability is rarer than the ability to produce striking phrases, and more important to successful writing.
- An ability to draw analogies: In my experience, most people see differences around them. I see similarities, which means that I can often suggest something new to them.
- A belief in the need for fairness, and for acknowledging other viewpoints: This belief has nothing to do with being friendly and everything to do with improving the development of my thoughts. I deepen the development of thoughts when I consider alternative explanations. I also give myself more to write about as I explain why my chosen explanation works and what is wrong with other ones.
- A perception of multiple-causes: I do terribly on multiple-choice questions unless “All of the above” is frequently included. To pretend that one or two reasons are enough to explain most things – especially people’s motivations – is to introduce inaccuracies and falseness into your work. And, by acknowledging multiple-causation, I find still more to write about.
- A memory strong on recognition, but not outstanding on recall: Often, I cannot dredge up a memory myself. But if someone or something triggers a memory, my mind is better than almost everybody’s. I suspect that recognition is more important than recall for a writer, because, when a memory is buried, all sorts of interesting connections are made to it in your mind. By contrast, I suspect that a photographic memory impedes this imaginative process, which is why I’m glad that I don’t have one.
- A reluctance to edit: By the time I finish writing, my mind is already moving on to something else. I can only edit myself by an act of will, and I’m still not very good at it.
- An over-use of transitions: I’m so obsessed with structure that I would start every sentence with one if I let myself. As things are, one of my routine editing tasks is to delete most of the “first of all”, “on the other hand”s and other transitions.
- A phobia about fiction: Above all else, I want to be a fiction writer. It means so much to me that it’s taken me years to actually be able to write it. Poetry? Essays? Articles? No problem. But, when I try to write fiction, I freeze up.
- A straining after effect: I am far too fond of the original or striking phrase, perhaps because my first professional publications were poetry. I’ve taken years to learn that a really pithy expression might not be good for the work as a whole.
- A handwriting that is indecipherable: In elementary school, I won prizes for neat handwriting. Then I became a university instructor, and wrote so many comments on student essays that my cursive writing became illegible. I switched to printing, and it also became illegible – even to me. I’ll write things down in the middle of the night so I remember them, only to have no idea come morning what I scrawled.
- An over punctiliousness about references: Not only do I rarely leave “this” unqualified by a following pronoun, but I make a point of using names rather than pronouns. While these habits make for absolute clarity, they often sound awkward, especially when I use a name too many times in the same sentence or paragraph.
- A love of weasel words: “Appear,” “seems.” and other qualifiers appear far too often in my work. I’m not sure whether they are a remnant of too many academic papers, or reflect a world view in which very little is absolutely certain..
- An over-emphaticness: In compensating for the qualifiers I use naturally, I often go too far and sound too blunt, or even rude.
- A tendency to write lists: (Enough said)
A few of these points are probably universal – for example, I don’t think I’ve met a professional writer who didn’t read everything they could get their hands on. However, others probably reflect that I mainly write non-fiction, and still others are undoubtedly idiosyncratic.
Still, I offer them for whatever they might be worth. They are not the formula for success (of a kind), but I hope they might be interesting as one formula for success. I only wonder what I’ve left out because I can’t perceive it.
Posted in Bruce Byfield, journalism, Personal, Uncategorized, writing | Tagged Bruce Byfield, journalism, Personal, Uncategorized, writing | 9 Comments
5 Strengths as a Writer
27 CommentsMonday • September 24, 2007 • by michelle
My dear, talented friend Wanderlust Scarlett has tagged me to talk about my five biggest strengths as a writer. Oh dear.
As fellow writer Jon so astutely observed in Scarlett’s comment section, this will be quite a task for writers as “[e]very writer thinks they’re crap!” Let’s see what we can come up with.
1. Word selection. I’ll never forget when my 10th grade creative writing teacher praised a piece that I had written about giving my dog a bath. He loved that I chose the verb “scurried” and the phrase “dime-sized portion” and told me that I had a knack for choosing the exact right word/phrase at the right time. That has stuck with me, and I’ve made it a personal challenge to pinpoint the precise word I need and not settle for a workable but blah impostor. Thanks Mr. I!
2. Creativity. Yes, I have a vivid imagination, but sticking to the word theme, I like to make up words (particularly if silly puns are involved — hi Scarlett!) or just put them together in a way that no one else has. An example? “Workable but blah” above. It may not be grammatically correct, but I think it works.
My writer’s license is a broad one because I feel that the language is mine to play with, and if it gets my point across, well, a little grammar slide every now and again isn’t going to put in me in Writers’ Purgatory (not for too long, anyway).
By the way, I word-play in Italian now too, at least in speech. Last night I told P he is “ossoso” (oh-SOH-soh) which is my made-up Italian word for “bony.” You see, “osso” is bone, and “oso” is a common adjective ending in Italian (e.g., vento = wind; ventoso = windy). The real Italian word is “ossuto” but doesn’t “ossoso” just roll off your tongue?
3. Unpretentious/honest. I write like I’m talking to you, and I’ve had many people tell me how much they enjoy reading my emails and letters because of this. So I have to think I’m doing something “write.” Hah! Seriously though, these two concepts go together for me personally because being unpretentious *is* honest for me — that’s just the way I am whether I’m writing or not.
One of my favorite college professors, a Virginia Woolf scholar which only made her even cooler in my mind, wrote on one of my papers that “the reader feels like she’s in good hands.” I didn’t really get it at the time, but I knew it was a good thing and I’ve never forgotten it. I always want my readers to feel that, and so that’s what I try to achieve.
4. Organized and logical progression. Who would have thought that going to law school would have made me a better writer? I joke with people that they actually tried to beat all the good writing habits out of me, but of course that’s not (entirely) true. In reality, I learned to deeply analyze issues from every angle, look for holes at every turn, and then exploit tiny cracks in logic and make them seem like huge gaps. I also learned to present arguments one baby step at a time, spelling out for the reader exactly what you want him to know when you want him to know it.
When I put it that way, it almost makes sense that writers take a turn through law school, doesn’t it? Well, that’s because I’m conveniently leaving out the rest, but I do think it helped me to organize my thoughts and present them in a way that makes sense — crucial for any writer.
5. Passion for the written word. I’m blessed to be the kind of person who can do a lot of things pretty well, but in order for me to really succeed at something, I have to enjoy it. Or, to paraphrase Dicky Fox in Jerry Maguire: if my heart’s not in it, my head doesn’t matter.
I have a true passion for expression through words, and this enables me to write better, to *want* to write better every single day. I want to make people think, feel, or otherwise react to what I write, and it fills my heart with joy whenever I succeed. I truly love writing, and I think that shows in the final product.
So there are my five biggest strengths as a writer according to me. What say you, fellow writers? Let’s look on the positive for once instead of dwelling on how hard it is to really make it in this business. I can’t wait to read your strengths.
Posted in: me me me, meme time, writing