Elements of Style

My internal editor (you know, that annoying little voice that criticises everything you write, as you write it) has been getting too bolshy recently.

Instead of getting on with my draft, I’ve been getting myself bogged down with style. I don’t like the way I’m writing. The draft doesn’t have the right ‘voice’ – not even a tiny hint of it. Of course it doesn’t help that I’m not really sure what the right ‘voice’ will sound like; it’s a case of ‘I’ll know it when I see it’.

I can tell my self over and over that it’s more important at first to get the words written than it is to get them right, but my little internal editor is sitting on my shoulder tutting into my ear all the same.

So tonight I turned the tables and put him in the spot. ‘Think you know about good writing, do you? Well, go on and tell me what it’s like, then.’ I pulled a load of books into a pile on the floor of the living room and began to go through them – what’s good in this? I like that bit – why? What makes me cringe at that bit?

(NB. This is one of the things that I like about being single. I can do mad(dening) things like that without getting into an argument or needing to explain myself. Of course, if I wasn’t single then I might have something better to do on a Friday night…)

Looking through the books I discovered one great and obvious truth: it’s far easier to pick holes in something than it is to pinpoint what it is that makes something work. There was always that ‘je ne sais quois’ to all the really good passages – the rightness just dissolved as I tried to get to grips with it.

But then looking for passages I didn’t like was fun – my little editor was in its element. So although I didn’t manage to find the holy grail of ‘how to write good’ I picked up a few tips about what I should try to avoid, and I feel more confident about being able to go back to my first draft at the editing stage and make it better (or more to my liking at least). By looking at someone else’s writing I could be more objective about what it was I didn’t like – and so (my theory is) I’ll be able to see these traits in my own writing and sort them out, rather than just get upset that my first draft is rubbish.

Now I’d better go and get those books packed away!

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2 Comments

Filed under Language, Motivation, Self sabotage, Writing

2 responses to “Elements of Style

  1. writinggb

    Hi, there! I know what you mean about that pesky internal critic. I am working on revising/expanding my grandmother’s memoir, and I often find myself intensely criticizing what I am writing. It doesn’t help, I suppose, that I am an English Professor! While a lot of my students are talented and interesting, let’s face it — I’ve seen a lot of atrocious writing in my day. And I tend to be hyper-critical of my own writing perhaps because of that experience. “Oh, how cliche!” “Your readers will see right through that device.” “Too many weak verbs!”

    Anyway, I just wanted to encourage you to keep fighting the good fight. Those critics really have no place in our writing lives while we are drafting. For goodness sake, there’s enough to think about without also having to fight off that voice of doom!

    Good luck,

    writinggb (writinggrandmasbook.wordpress)

  2. Sarah

    It’s good to know I’m not the only hyper-critical one out there!

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