By: Marilyn L. Davis
“People are afraid to write books because they fear people will read them and find them worthless. Write as if nobody is going to read it and throw your work into the public dustbin. Somebody may find it and consider it a treasure.” ― Bangambiki Habyarimana, The Great Pearl of Wisdom
Why In The World Does Any Writer Take The Risks?
Writing is such a revealing profession. Our thoughts, feelings, and opinions are out there for public scrutiny. We bare our souls, flaws, and present our newly created piece to our readers. We’ve labored over the topic, titles, and typos. We’ve revised, rewritten, and taken the reader into account. We hope it’s entertaining, educating or enchanting; however, before we torment ourselves with the whole, many of us agonize over each word during the creation of the piece.
- Is it the right word?
- Have I conveyed my intent with these words?
- Will readers understand the vocabulary?
- Will they like what they are reading?
Writing for me is conflicting. On the one hand, I want to be authentic and give readers a piece of myself in each post, but conversely, I don’t want to expose myself so much that a critique of the grammar or syntax will send me scurrying into the corner while I lick my wounds and soothe my tattered ego.
I discussed this dilemma with another writer who framed it like this, “Marilyn, what is your greatest fear in writing? Could your fears be any of these:
- Will your numbers top your last post?
- Don’t you have anything new to say?
- Are you afraid of success or failure as a writer?
Each of these questions gave me pause because there was a kernel of truth in every one of her questions.
Just in case you’re like me and hesitant or even terrified to post a new article, let’s dissect those four elements that contribute to our fears.
Is It the Right Word?
“The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”― Mark Twain, The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain
Language is common, but distinctive. By that, I mean that each of us has a particular word we’ll use even though there are others with a similar or comparable meaning. We each have an idea of how best to frame our pieces, but some of us want to make sure that we’ve conveyed the obvious and then include the subtle.
For the most part, we write in blogs, and short articles using the words of conversation. If we’re writing a technical paper, we use language that expresses our expertise in the field, and while it may not come across as stilted, it is often precise, and its meaning is specific to the industry
But we can become careless in our choice of words. When I wrote my recovery curriculum, Therapeutic Integrated Educational Recovery System, I wrote the Facilitator Manual, assuming clinicians would know the terminology, and the Participant Manual in everyday language or I explained vocabulary for client’s understanding in early recovery.
My editor questioned the choice of words in a passage. I justified my use of the words, saying, “Everyone who facilitates groups will know those words.”
She informed me that she was quite intelligent, and she was struggling, even after looking the word up in both a dictionary and a Thesaurus. Well, that caught me off guard. She is intelligent, exacting, and an excellent editor.
Have I Conveyed My Intent?
I needed to take her criticism into account and focus on my intent in a passage and how well or poorly I was communicating it.Because I respected my editor, I reconsidered my choice of words and changed several passages. Although I revised many paragraphs in one section, I didn’t change the meaning or objective of the passage; I just used a word that better communicated my intent.
“The word is only a representation of the meaning; even at its best, writing almost always falls short of full meaning. Given that, why in God’s name would you want to make things worse by choosing a word which is only the cousin to the one you really wanted to use?” ― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
We sometimes get complacent in our choice of words. If you look at the word, “brass,” it has a minimum of seven definitions:
- An alloy consisting essentially of copper and zinc in variable proportions
- The brass instruments of an orchestra or band —often used in the plural
- Metal fittings, utensils, or ornaments
- Empty cartridge shells
- Brazen self-assurance
- High-ranking members of the military
- Persons in high positions (as in a business or the government)
If you’re not 100% certain of a word’s definition, take the time to look it up, find synonyms and insert them into your sentence and see if one adds more nuances or further clarifies your passage.
Will Readers Understand?
There’s a fine line between writing concisely and succinctly so that readers aren’t left wondering about your intent and dumbing something down and offending the readers. On the other hand, are you just writing to impress your reader with your vocabulary?
I think of Thomas Pynchon and James Joyce. I made it through Ulysses, but I’ve strongly considered hurling Gravity’s Rainbow across the room more than once.
“Keep a dictionary handy, and maybe a desk encyclopedia if you get hooked.”
“If something baffles you, read on to the next moment of searingly bright light and don’t worry about it. With time and re-readings, everything (well, many things) will be made clear.”
“Just enjoy the ride. If you must have a linear narrative, take notes–by the end of any of the books, you’ll find that events are ordered into an ominous logic. If you must have closure, you may be SOL with Pynchon. As far as background material goes, just be willing to let yourself not know any of it, but be willing to go out and do a little research when a topic seems interesting to you.”
I used these approaches when I had to take biology, calculus, and physics; I am not willing to do this for pleasure; however, I do realize that their words speak to a far greater audience than I have, so I will concede that these writers and their books have fans and loyal readers.
Since I don’t have a fan page dedicated to my writing, I’ve got to go elsewhere to determine if my newest piece has merit. I’m fortunate that I have a group of trusted friends, other writers, and editors that can tell me if I’m bordering on Pynchon, or if the piece needs tweaking and revising. But it’s more than the craft of writing that people help with; it’s the pleasure or educational value they get when they read the piece.
Will They Like What They Are Reading?
I’ll write my best post and then ask those friends and my Editor-in-Chief, Scott Biddulph, to read it and give me a candid assessment of the writing, and hopefully, I won’t receive my piece back all highlighted.
“How many words are you having trouble with, sir?”
“Just the ones that I’ve highlighted.”
“I count at least a dozen, and I haven’t gotten out of the first paragraph.”
“That’s as far as I got, too. I’m not sure you and I speak the same language.”
Even if the piece is highlighted, I expect them to be honest, letting me know if there are unclear passages, if it added to their understanding of the subject, and, above all, was it entertaining or educating.
This last review is critical in my opinion. It lets me know if my trusted audience reacted favorably or if they just read it to be loyal. When they react favorably, it’s not just about good structure, but that these, purposefully chosen, words touched them emotionally.
Then I know that all the risks I took in exposing my writing achieved my unstated goal – make them think and make them feel.
And how was your writing today?