Jan 22, 2013

Why You Don't Want to be a Perfect Writer

Ray Bradbury teaches me to focus on detail.
I've come across writers dismissing writing classes as a waste of time.

I'm wondering if those people are attending the right workshops, or if they're attending with the best attitude? Being a course junkie, I've seen the usual personality types that come to courses and there's always a few people that are terrified of 'failing' the activities. They're certain they'll be the worst in the class and humiliate themselves. Often they won't read out their work, or participate in discussions. They'll sit up the back and build an invisible forcefield around themselves and it works. But it doesn't just stop humiliation getting through, it prevents feedback, encouragement and growth in their craft.

At the other end of the spectrum are the students who need to come first at everything. They're incredibly competitive and can sometimes be harsh with critiques (both receiving and giving). They'll sign up for a beginners cooking class, even if they're a seasoned chef because they want to come home after every class and say, 'I really wowed them tonight, I'm way better than the teacher'. They walk away reassured, but haven't pushed themselves outside their comfort zone, as a result their writing hasn't had a chance for growth.

I don't want to be the best writer, and I'm not afraid of being the worst. I've written a lot of crappy stuff. In fact, in writing workshops, on the spur of the moment, all my writing is clunky and crappy. But I'm learning and improving. I don't want to be the best writer, I want to be the most-improved. I don't believe the sum is greater than the parts (well okay I do, 'cause the maths people insist but only if by greater they mean more). More is not better, it's just more. I don't want to be the best writer, I want to be the best writer I can be today. And I want that level to be way lower than it will be next month. 

I read authors' works and acknowledge how much better they are at sentence structure, description, dialogue, weaving themes. Then I put aside my jealousy and celebrate their skill. Talent you're born with, but skill can only be acquired by working at it. So, I work at it.

I'm using short fiction to tighten my writing style and I've been studying Ray Bradbury's stories. Simple, approachable, magical. I'm practicing zooming in on a small detail, to make the story come alive, the way Bradbury does. I've also challenged myself to write in second person, because he pulled it off so beautifully in one of his stories.

I hope as writers you can feel proud of your progress and excited about the lessons to come. Embrace the learning. You don't have to take on writing classes to learn, there are many ways, but writing classes can still be a good source of information.

What challenges are you going to tackle to push your writing?


  1. Hey, I just finished Bradbury's Driving Blind. He's one of those authors (amongst many others) who leave me thinking, 'Yep, my writing is crap.' But I agree, we can appreciate such talent and do our best to learn from it.

  2. Good post, Charmaine! You're right. We should all wan to be most improved. I study certain authors, as well. That's how I learn. Can't say I've put some of my 'how to' books to good use though...some of the tips help, not all.

    Hugs and chocolate,

    PS I love some of the stories you share. My favorite one of yours is the chick at Starbuck's.

  3. I've taught students who want to be first in everything; there are students like that in every class, no matter what the subject is. The thing is, they're often very smart, but they make it seem as if they care more about the grades than they do about learning. Because of that, they end up missing out on a lot.

  4. Excellent post, Charmaine - always better to improve on our own work no matter what level we're at than worying about the competition!

  5. This is a really great article and I try to live by this advice.

  6. I think there's always more to learn and also stuff to ignore (if it doesn't feel right for you). You can't decide what works for you until you know your options.

  7. There's no end to learning. For most of us, improving is an honorable goal.

  8. What drives me the craziest is when you say to someone, "Hey! Here's something you can improve on!" in the friendliest way possible and they take offense because you don't think they're "perfect the way they are." You're so right: we should always, always want to improve!!

  9. Erica - yes, I also give myself a moment to grieve after reading an excellent author--them move on to learn from the writer. Glad to know I'm not alone.

    Shelly - I need to actually finish some of those how-to books too.

    Neurotic Workaholic - I know, it almost makes me giggle, it's the same with kids in the classroom. I do worry for those who aren't open to move forward.

    Rosemary - I've never been competitive in nature, I lack that type of drive, so maybe I just don't get where they're coming from. I agree we need to focus on our own progress, because someone else's writing being poor does not actually improve the quality of your story, only work can do that.

    Clarissa - Thanks, me too.

    Mooderino - Exactly. I can read how-to books or go to workshops that don't seem to have a lot of content relevant to me, but you can always find one thing to take away which makes it worthwhile.

    RIchard - And I hope the learning never ends :)

    Randi Lee - there's a lot of that online, people sharing stories with comments like 'what do you think' but they only want you to say 'great, loved it' they don't want to hear that they changed POV halfway through or used passive language. Feedback improves us, if we only get positive feedback we'll never get any betters.

    I was concerned this may come across as a bit of a rant, although my intentions were concern not complaint. Thanks everyone for the thoughtful discussions!

  10. Online workshop and craft book junkie here. (And proud of it.)

    I'm addicted to learning more and pushing my writing further. I never want to stop learning and challenging myself to do better, especially when I read a book I greatly admire. :)

  11. I agree with writing short fiction tightening up one's writing, generally. Certainly experienced that with a couple of flash fiction contests i entered in 2012.
    Some Dark Romantic

  12. Great blog, good question. I love learning, I just can't afford to do it as much as I'd like, and it's why I do the flash fiction contests. Sometimes I read others and wonder how I ever considered myself good enough to compete, and yet I know I have improved, but I also know I have a long way to go. Learning is progressive.

    I like your idea of studying other writers, I really need to do that.

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  14. If we look at writing as a competition (and sure it sometimes is) we will always feel we fall short. We need to look at writing as being unique--no one else has our voice. We do have that little something to offer, however small.

    Can't wait for those awesome writing exercises next week at writers' group!!

  15. I think that good writers are never completely satisfied with their work. There's always room for learning and improvement. It's an endless process.

  16. Great post, Charmaine, as per usual.
    Learning is a life-long process... there's always something new to learn, and that, for me, is a very exciting prospect! The students who are fixated on the grades are missing out on that aspect.
    I love the idea of studying other writers... and since I like flash fic I'm going to check out Ray Bradbury's stories.

  17. What a great perspective Charmaine. Being a good student is imperitive, in all areas of life. Enjoy the process to reach the destination, or the trip is a waste, eh? One of the challenges I am currently focusing on is with dialogue. I just read a book the other day, and in one scene the characters went in and out of a phone conversation --classic dialogue scene right? The author didn't use one "said", and I marveled at how it all played out so well in my feeble brain. Thanks for the insights!
    ~Just Jill

  18. Great post, Charmaine. And you're so right. I want to improve my skills and am always on the lookout for new workshops. I may lurk around as I don't want to excell but quietly absorb.


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  20. I love Bradbury's short stories. He was a truly amazing writer. There are some great thoughts also in his book on writing, Zen in the Art of Writing.

  21. What an excellent post! I love that: be the most improved and the best writer you can be at that time. What is the story Bradbury wrote in 2nd person? I'd be curious to read that one.

    Shannon at The Warrior Muse

  22. Bradbury is one of my all-time faves. I've loved everything I've ever read of his.

    Yes, I wallow in the way he writes like a greedy miser wallows in his money.

    I've just ordered a lecture series from Great Courses...Building Great Sentences. I can wait! Twelve hours of lectures (24 thirty minute sessions)!! Yay!

    I'm such a nerd.

  23. This is a great post. I do think that we all need to challenge ourselves and never loose sight of the fact that we need to be better everyday. Not because you are a bestseller author means you've learned everything you need to know. I love your attitude and I'm sure you have a bright future ahead.

    Hey, I love Bradbury but I haven't read that second-person story. Would you mind sharing the title? It intrigued me. Thanks for sharing!

  24. Best is pretty subjective anyway, isn't it? If you're best in your genre, there will be people who think all romance, or sci-fi, or horror or whatever is rubbish and that a proper writer would do something different.

    Being the best I can be is the challenge I'm working towards.

  25. Thanks for all the brilliant comments!

    I'll email those who enquired about the Bradbury story as well, to make sure you get the details, but if you happen to wander back here - the book I'm reading at the moment is:

    Ray Bradbury Stories Volume 1. It's available in Kindle and has about 100 stories. The story I referred to in second person is called 'The Night'. It's brilliant, I felt very anxious throughout the story, just as Bradbury told me I felt.

  26. These are great words of wisdom, Charmaine. I also believe that whatever we do, no matter how long we're doing it or how old we are, learning should always be part of the equation.

    Thanks, I learned a lot from this post!

  27. I've heard the phrase, "Never let perfect be the enemy of good and working toward constantly improving." I think that definitely applies in writing.

  28. Yes, yes, and yes. Such good words. There's always something more to learn, especially from others, no matter where one's at in life. Humility and hard work are a writer's friends. :0)

  29. You're right. When you compair yourself to other people one of two things happen; you get a big head, or you get depressed; neither is good.