Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Picking Nits: From Competent to Good

Sometimes I feel like I am drowning in my own inability to work past my writing weaknesses. 

My husband plays a game called "Go." Your skill is ranked by a score, moving from 30K at the lowest, to a 9dan at the highest. It's very simple to learn, but the strategy behind the game rivals chess.  Anyway, when he first started playing, he was able to move up in ranks quickly. In a few weeks he went from a 30K to a 20K. A few weeks from that, he went from a 20K to a 15K. I don't know what his actual score is right at the moment, but I know that as time went on, it became harder and harder for him to get better. It's like your average in school. It was a lot easier to bring a D up to a B, than to bring a B up to an A. The higher you get to the top the harder the climb.

I think writing is very much like that. When you first learn how to start and finish a novel, you can see your skill improve in a very real way. You went from "never finished a book before" to "finished a book." That's a major accomplishment. Then you achieve "finished a book, and then edited it". Another big deal. 

All the while, you're learning about characterization, plotting, setting, dialogue, grammar, and description. You write and edit more books. You learn how to avoid info dumps, and how to make dialogue sound realistic, but not boring. You play around with pantsing versus plotting. There's a very real sense of Moving Forward.

Until you move to the Intermediate level. You know how to write a book. You know about three act structure. You know about building realistic characters. Maybe at this point you've queried a book that even got pages requested, but the agent passed.

You're writing at a competent level, but you're still not quite there. By no means does this mean you've mastered building realistic characters or writing an engaging plot, but these aren't your biggest crutch right now. "The characterization is very poor" is something that can be picked out from a rough draft easily. But feedback like "It was good, but I don't know, something was missing." is much harder to deal with. 

I read this post by Kristin Nelson, and it got me thinking. Go read the post for a minute. I'll wait.


Do you see what she said? Not, "The dialogue needs to sound more realistic," but "Dialog that didn’t quite work as hard as it should."

Here's another example she mentioned for passing on a manuscript:  "Not quite nailing voice in the opening."

Notice how she mentions "not quite" nailing the voice. In her other examples she mentions telling versus showing, and passive voice. A lot of these elements come down to nit-picky details that make ALL the difference in your writing. It's the difference between "competent" and "good".

A lot of writers, myself included, are working at this level. Learning how to write is hard, and it's not any easier once you move past the basics. You need to be brutal with your work. Not just making sure you're telling a good story, but that your scenes are doing several things. That you're not just writing realistic dialogue, but dialogue that characterizes, moves the plot forward, and adds some tension.

Mark Twain said the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug. The same is true for the rest of your writing. 

It's somewhat frustrating to try and spot you weak points, but it's also liberating. Sometimes I know there's something wrong with a certain passage, but I can't put my finger on what. I know there's places I need to improve, but it can be hard to figure out exactly where.

I saved this list from Kristen Nelson's blog and put it next to my editing papers. Because we can get better. We can improve. We might have to sacrifice some beta readers on the alter of necessity to do it, but we can figure out what weakness are holding our writing back from being great.

What resources have you used to improve your writing? What has helped you the most to become a better writer?


  1. Very astute observation. It really does slow down after you get past those first few giant hurdles.

  2. Thanks Joe. It took me a while to figure this out, and was only after a day where I wanted to tear my own hair out.

  3. The really interesting thing here--and I only noticed it after your blog fest--is that it boils down to editing. All of those excerpts from our past had a lot of potential, most of them were just stuck in unedited land. Editing is hard to learn (and hard to do).

  4. Rena: Oh my goodness, you are so right! I never thought about it like that before, but it's SO true!