reading yourself

September 23, 2009

I’ve been talking with a friend about how some burgeoning writers don’t take criticism well, even when they’ve asked for it.  She has more experience on the fan fiction side of things, where apparently the same thing happens.

Writers’ defensiveness of their writing, original or fanfic, isn’t necessarily malicious.  It doesn’t necessarily come out of pride or arrogance, even when it drives those giving the critique absolutely batty.  Rather, I think it’s an issue of perception.

People start out writing the story they see in their mind.  After they’ve written the story, the paragraph, or whatever, they read the words on the page, but what they see is still the story in their mind.  But the two things aren’t the same.  Other people see the words on the page, which often, especially when written by someone who’s just starting out, don’t make sense.  People offering commentary are commenting on the words on the page.  But the beginning writer hears criticism of the story in their mind.  And the beginning writer says, “But what I meant was X, why can’t you see that what I meant was X, that’s the story I’m telling!”  But that’s not what the words say.

A huge step in a writer’s development is learning to see the words on the page for what they are, the way other people see them.  Words are external to the story in your mind.  The trick is learning to use words in such a way that will help other people see your story the way you want them to see it, the way it is in your mind.  But to do that you have to stop superimposing the story in your mind over the words that you’ve written.  You’ll start to see that what you wrote doesn’t actually explain what was going on in your mind.

Also, good grammar is one of the ways you make sure people understand what you’re saying.  Grammar is like math.  It has rules that you have to follow, otherwise people won’t know what you’re talking about.  I’ve heard people say, “Oh, you just don’t get my writing style.”  And I’m thinking, “That’s because you don’t have a style, you’re writing gibberish.”  You can’t write 2 + 2 = 5 and then get angry when people tell you that doesn’t make any sense.  Grammar’s the same way.  George Orwell earned the right to be able write 2 + 2 = 5 and have it make sense in the story.  You want to break the rules, you have to earn it.  So, practice the rules first.

19 Responses to “reading yourself”

  1. Jenn Says:

    “You want to break the rules, you have to earn it. So, practice the rules first.”

    An homage to Strunk & White? 🙂

    I agree on writers getting confused between what is in their head and what’s actually on the page. Your explanation of it is the best I’ve seen articulated. I believe this problem is why so many talented writers of fiction and non-fiction have trusted friends and family read things over so that they can point out these sort of logic gaps where the writer assumed something that wasn’t obvious to the reader.

    Though sometimes criticism does involve suggestions to rewrite or cut whole sections because a part of it just doesn’t work (in this story or for these characters). Or simply because the pacing doesn’t work well to draw the reader in. Though it’s still not an attack on the writer or the idea, just a comment that the idea isn’t ripe yet or it isn’t right for the context the writer used it in. The idea isn’t bad, but the current implementation is.

  2. Sabrina Says:

    I absolutely agree, especially about newer writers being unable to see the difference between what they wrote down and the story in their head. I know I still have a problem with that (getting better), but I also -know- I’m don’t see just what’s written. So I rely on a writing group and friends who went through the CW program with me (a ton of us UF fans in this particular Master’s program)–sometimes I’ll ask for specific feedback, but most of the time, I just ask them to read and tell me what think. What works, what doesn’t, because that’s when I’ll see where my discrepanices are in terms of perceptions.

    I have to say, though, I like to think I handle criticism well (doesn’t everyone ;P), but there are some writers out there who are too arrogant to accept that the story they’re trying to tell is not the one people are reading. Then they either turn it on the person doing the critique, or they just tune people out.

  3. “Reading Yourself” is an absolutely excellent post.
    Superb! Jenn’s comment is great too. I like Sabrina’s comment, but it should have been proofed (like read slowly out loud)- [part of why I hate e-mail style writing].

  4. Jim Van Pelt Says:

    Nice post. You gave me my lesson plan for this morning.

  5. Jim Van Pelt Says:

    Carrie, do you mind if I repost this at my Write-a-Book-in-a-Year-Blog for my high school writers?

  6. carriev Says:

    Not at all, Jim. Please feel free!

  7. Ty Says:

    If I’d had a teacher as cool as Jim Van Pelt at any point during my primary education, I’d probably have turned out much more awesome.

    Not one of my teachers, not even when I was taking honors and college prep English classes, taught me how to read myself. Not one.

    No wonder new writers have no idea how to do it.

  8. Jim Van Pelt Says:

    LOL! You’d have to ask my students if they think I’m cool. I always figure if the kids say anything you did was cool that you probably are in trouble as a teacher.

    I also figure that no teacher ever became great by following all the rules.

  9. carriev Says:


  10. EmeraldWolfHeart Says:

    I just got to say I totally agree with everything said. I am a person who writes for fun and for the entertainment of a select crowd that doesn’t mind when I make mistakes because no one’s perfect and its not like I’m trying to get published. Despite my relaxed reasons for writing I’m my own worst critic, I continuously read over what I said trying to make sure it forms the correct image in others’ heads. I’ll even wait a month after writing something then go back and read it so that images in my head I had as I wrote whatever it is aren’t so fresh.

    I’d like to mention though some people’s issues with grammar is that they were never taught proper grammar. All through my education (Elementary to High School) students are taught how to write essays and nothing else in order us to be prepped to write our college entrance essays. I can write an essay easily without any errors but when I’m writing outside essay form I start making mistakes like run on sentences. Oh and the loveliness of where semi colons belong.

  11. ArcLight Says:

    Boy…that nail, you sure hit it on the head. There’s an online friend of mine that does a ton of writing and is always letting me know she’s done a new story but I never read them. They might be perfectly fine stories but the spelling and grammar are just *so* awful I can’t believe she’s sending them out in public like that. This post explains to me why she can post such things.

    Even in art they tell you that you have to know the rules before you can successfully break them.

    (not that, ya know, writing isn’t an art form….)

  12. Jenn Says:

    “All through my education (Elementary to High School) students are taught how to write essays and nothing else in order us to be prepped to write our college entrance essays. I can write an essay easily without any errors but when I’m writing outside essay form I start making mistakes like run on sentences. Oh and the loveliness of where semi colons belong.”

    I like to claim that having an MA in English really just qualifies me to do three things. One of them is know the proper use of semi-colons.

    And your comments on essays reminded me of another problem, which I personally have: I have difficulty writing any essay in a format other than 5-paragraph.

    On the earlier topic of editing, I was re-thinking things and came up with another “writer error” that’s probably more common with pros on a deadline than beginning writers: Becoming enamoured of a particular device to the point that the writing becomes stale and predictable. An example of this is Cold Case. If you watch it, the past three seasons have got them using “The suspect who has no apparent motive is the guilty one” to the point my friend and I can predict the killer.

  13. Markysan Says:

    An excellent post. It perfectly explains why you should learn to take the criticism. I’ve found that when a criticism irritates me, it’s because I KNEW it was wrong and I left it in anyway, figuring that no one will notice. Then when my trusted reader says “yeah, this part here made my brain stumble when I read it” I get seriously annoyed. Not at the reader but at myself.

    The truth is a bitter pill, but it’s more effective when it isn’t sugar coated.

  14. Sabrina Says:

    Ack. And on this post about grammar and being aware of what you’re writing. Sorry about that, Hennessey. [I write it, read it, edit it, read it again, but my eyes slid over those little parts that didn’t mesh correctly. (“I’m not seeing”->”I don’t see” is what it should have been, plus a missing ‘they’.) I hope it all still made sense.]

    I agree about the teaching of grammar. It was only a portion of my 7th grade English class–elementary school, 8th grade, and high school tended to focus more on essay writing, as well. But Modern English Grammar was required for the English degree at my college, [perhaps] suggesting early education was particularly lacking.

  15. David Bowles Says:

    I must admit that I think I know German grammar better than English grammar :\

  16. Mistakes are certainly easy to make. Lord knows I make lots and lots of them. Not to worry Sabrina, some things just hit me and I’ve got to spout off about them. Just figure that M.Q. is an old codger who has to fuss. After all we had to walk to school uphill (both ways!) in MY day. (And walk through 6 feet of snow – in 150 degree below zero weather – etc.)

    We also had to learn all 32 rules of the comma in early High School English, but I couldn’t recite them all now. And we had to write and write; and then read our work out loud for the class. Or; even worse, have someone else read them. [And don’t get me started on adverbial usage. I still scream when people say that traffic is moving slow. Just picture an old guy running around yelling “lee”, “lee”, “lee, damn it! Maybe this is why the old seem demented?]

    The point of all this is that we all have had different backgrounds and learning experiences. And our reception to things varies. Not only are our own heads all in different places, but the writer (and first readers, and agents, and editors, etc.) is (are) trying to bring ideas/thoughts from “you to me”. This is why Carrie’s post is so great – it’s dealing with perception: OUR OWN internal perception as well as the readers’. … I keep going back to Carrie’s third paragraph and wondering if I’m making any sense at all with this.

    Since I’m not sure, I’ll use the old guys excuse and say: “Me go now! Time for me nap.”

    P.S. [Note for Jenn: Does doing only “four paragraphs” be better or worse – or only mean I didn’t divide my paragraphs correctly. Love you all. (I really like “be better”. It drives others nuts while I run around yelling “lee”, “lee”, “lee, damn it!”.)
    Signed: Mike (MQH) [Working hard to become a REAL crotchety old man; it’s so much fun when you can get your brain to swirl.!!!]

  17. Jenn Says:

    “P.S. [Note for Jenn: Does doing only “four paragraphs” be better or worse – or only mean I didn’t divide my paragraphs correctly. Love you all.”

    I’m less concerned with the actual numbers of paragraphs than the style. I can do the correct format for a five paragraph essay, but if you asked me to write essays like James Thurber or Joan Didion I’d be lost. I can’t even concieve of the method, and so I can’t do it.

  18. Caitlin Says:

    Excellent post! This should be crosspost to every fanfic community out there. 😉

    It certainly highlights something I think most (all?) new writers go though. I’m forever seeing someone ask for critique on a story they wrote, and then they get defencive about every single point readers raise and try to turn it around as solely the fault of the readers for “not getting it”.

  19. Jim Van Pelt Says:

    Hi, Caitlin. I see that kind of behavior from high school students all the time too, although what I hear from them is this phrase: “You know what I meant, Mr. Van Pelt.”

    It’s a shocker when I explain that no, I didn’t.

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