When I was first learning to play the guitar at the age of 14, I was frustrated. Even after I learned to chord cleanly, nothing ever sounded quite the way it had when I’d heard it on the radio or when my uncle or others had played it. I checked and double-checked my chording, the progressions and timing between chords, and even how I was holding the guitar. Nothing seemed to make a difference. When I played for others, if anything it actually sounded worse than when I played alone.
I finally I asked my uncle (the guy I’m looking at in the pic), “When will I be able to play like you do?”
He just grinned and pointed at my guitar. “When you stop thinking of that thing as just another toy.”
He was right. When I began to respect my guitar and the discipline, I learned quickly. Like any other craft, it took respect, diligence and practice. Talent doesn’t hurt anything either, as evidenced by the existence of folks like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Duane Allman, Jimmy Page, Chet Atkins, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Eric Clapton and many more. But there are a lot of great guitarists who make money at their craft but have never gotten famous.
Writing is no different. Although some writers are profound enough or prolific enough to achieve fame, many make a living with their craft without ever becoming household names. But “craft” is the key word. Writing is a craft, and to master it, the writer must study and practice, always striving for perfection. The fact is, great writers never stop learning.
The others, those who will never become great writers, fall into two general categories. The first group consists of those who believe the ability to use two long lines and a short one to create a capital letter A renders them able to write. Their motto is The reader will know what I mean, which in my experience as an editor equates to I can’t be bothered to do the actual work. The second group consists of those whose work has been published (self-published or otherwise) and they’ve taken that as a signal that they can learn nothing more. Ten minutes browsing in a bookstore or reading excerpts online will tell you that simply isn’t so.
If you want to be a successful fictionist—by which I mean a writer of short stories, novellas, novels, memoir and creative nonfiction—you need a driving desire to Get It Right. That’s what separates professional writers from those who just “kind’a sort’a think it might be neat to knock out” a few short stories or a novel.
For a professional writer, the first draft is for himself; everything else is for the reader.
Believe me, I understand the frustrations of trying to get a sentence or paragraph or passage Just Right, but the difficulty inherent in creating something brand new is the joy that enables the writer to keep breathing. There’s a great deal more to it than simply putting in the time. As Hemingway wrote, “Writing is something that you can never do as well as it can be done.” Most days he wrote only 400 to 600 words, but those words comprised a finished, polished passage. Some writers “just write” then go back and polish later in a second or third draft. But regardless of the individual writer’s ritual or technique, I’ve never known a successful professional writer who would risk anything short of making his or her writing as perfect as possible.
But won’t a really strong story carry weak writing? Generally, no. Consider, even though your overall story might well be wonderful, if any part of it confuses a reader or makes the reader wonder about inconsistencies or stops the reader cold, that story is not ready for publication. The writer should polish endlessly to get those glitches out, not because he can actually achieve perfection but because he should be embarrassed to present such work to the public. In the publishing world more than anywhere else, you truly do get only one chance to make a first impression. “Good enough” simply isn’t.
The point is, it isn’t the reader’s job to decipher your writing. The first time or two that most readers encounter confusing passages or egregious errors, they will simply toss the work aside and vow never to buy anything else by that author. So even though the writing might well improve later, fewer readers will take a chance on it. And why would they buy that author’s work again? The fictionist’s job is to entertain the reader. The reader’s job is to be entertained.
By the way, if you’re interested in becoming a professional writer, I’m offering a free introductory seminar on February 15 entitled “Taking Your Writing to the Next Level.” I’ll conduct the seminar in south Tucson. If you want to earn a regular income from your writing, if you strive for perfection in your craft and want your work to outshine all the other submissions in the publisher’s in box, these seminars are must-have. For information, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘Til next time, happy writing!
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