This post was started in Jan 2014, and completed today.
My blog started out as a random cache of brain farts and rants, and I think that won’t ever change. It’s a woodshed where I hone my fundamental (tactical) writing ability. It’s also an R&D center for my (strategic) writing and thinking. And I reflect on my life as I go, so I also refine and improve my objectives along the way.
So change is inevitable if you keep blogging. As long as you keep an open mind and you allow the world in, it’s literally impossible to write the same thing over and over again, even if it seems like that’s what you’re doing for a few months or years. (Here I’m reminded of something that YungSnuggie said about Kanye West– how he sounds new and fresh because he allows broader music to influence him, and yet he still keeps a “signature Kanye” sound because he does the production himself. And I’m also thinking now about a ribbonfarm article about different levels of freedom as expressed by an artist- something about predictability and growth. I think both of those things will be worth your time more than this post.)
Choosing better things
Back to my own blog: What has changed? Ability, for one. But that’s not very interesting- anybody who does something for a period of time is going to get better at it. That’s a very vague, imprecise statement. What exactly got better? I think I choose better things to focus on now, because I take a wider view (from experience). I notice more interesting details.
An interesting, telling detail that’s poorly described is a lot better than an irrelevant detail that’s well described. In fact, an interesting detail is almost always automatically described “well”- the fact that it’s interesting makes it “fresh”. No, sorry- an interesting detail will always seem better described than an equally well described detail that’s not as interesting.
That’s how good songwriters “defeat” good technical musicians. Not-bad music done great isn’t as interesting or compelling as great music done not-bad.
Sometimes a seemingly irrelevant detail can have a “broader relevance”, some sort of witty, humorous or ironic effect. Maybe it creates foreshadowing, juxtaposition or some other sort of intended effect. Achieving this requires a deep understanding of the landscape you’re exploring, and you don’t get that by practicing embellishments. You get that by picking better, more interesting details. You get there through rigorous questioning and examination.
When you pick better details- things that challenge, amuse, surprise you, you naturally get better writing. The progress is not linear. Getting better requires being rather ruthless with past ideas and perspectives. Your initial projections are almost always guaranteed to be due for corrections. In fact, I’d be a little worried if you don’t find yourself having to change things up in a dramatic way from time to time. It means that you’re not learning, not growing- at least, not at the rate at which you could be. If you’re not making mistakes you’re playing it too safe.
Rhythm and pace
There are things that you pick up that are almost imperceptible, like a sense of rhythm and pace. You only observe the differences after extended periods of time. Have you ever looked back at your old Facebook Timeline posts from 2007, or maybe some old writings or emails? It’s dramatic how different the language is- it’s almost like reading the thoughts of a different person. You inevitably cringe at how some aspect of your expression was lacking in nuance. Maybe you were using too many big words in an eager attempt to impress or intimidate others. I used to use lines like “I’m not so arrogant as to say…” which on hindsight was unnecessarily self-obsessed. I’m totally self-obsessed, of course, but that doesn’t mean that it needs to show in my writing.
(July edit: Heh, I’m reading this 6 months after I wrote it, and I find myself cringing at how unnecessarily tedious my writing is. I’m guessing this will continue to be the case.)
This post ended abruptly, as many of my vomits do. Maybe I was writing on a commute and reached my destination. Let me try and wrap up what I think I was trying to say.
Becoming a better writer
Writing about becoming a better writer is a funny, humbling, self-referencing thing. If you’re a decent enough writer, and you’re self-aware, you know that you’re going to cringe at your own advice sooner or later. But it’s worth doing anyway, because it’s scaffolding that helps you make your thoughts more precise. Even if it’s relatively ugly in the transitional stage. (We’re always in the transitional stage. We’re always in beta.)
I think the single most important thing I’m learning about becoming a better writer is to focus on the objective, on the end-goal. What do you want to achieve with your writing? What do you want the reader to feel? You have to look at your work with a reader’s eyes, and get a sense for how they’re going to feel about it. Which parts are going to bore them? Which parts are going to excite them? Which parts just get in their way? What is the journey you want them to take?
As a general rule, it helps to immerse yourself in as much of the reading and research as possible, and then try to force yourself to make things as succinct as you can. Draw two sets of sketches- one that captures as much detail as possible, and then one that uses as few lines as possible. You never really know what exactly you’re trying to say until you make the effort to summarise and compress it. I know Ribbonfarm has some good things to say about this- about writing density.
The main thing I’m getting out of this trainwreck of a post is a sense of amusement at how this ended up so cumbersome while saying so little. When I scan through these words, I conjure up a wealth of images and thoughts, but that’s because they correspond to things inside my head. I imagine anybody reading this would just get confused, frustrated and annoyed. (But hey, I’m writing primarily for myself here, so if you’re reading this you’re a little weird. You brought this on yourself.) What should I do? I should start over. I should wipe the slate clean, think about what the most fundamental truths are, and figure out the best way to position them. Then wipe the slate clean, again. And this is the whole process. This is the pleasure of it. It’s awesome to look at your old writing and cringe. Because it means that you’re getting better.