Thursday, January 27, 2011

Quantity and Quality - Not What You Think

In a recent exchange on the #amwriting thread on Twitter, I said that I had only written about 400 words. Someone responded: "Quality, not quantity!" When I thought about those words, though, I realized that this axiom doesn't quite work with my approach to writing.

Quality? I hope I eventually get there with everything I write. My method of getting there, though, is to sit down and force myself to write the scene, even if I'm not sure where I'm going or what's going to happen later in the story. I brazen it out, feeling foolish and seeing the clumsiness of the words.

Then, I fix it. I go back and forth, changing redundant words, seeking the perfect way - or at least a clear way - of saying what I want to say. I may have only had 400 new words on my computer screen, but there were probably another 300 I deleted en route to better phrasing. Like Penelope, I weave and unravel. Unlike her, my objective is to finish the job.

After I have a washcloth or face towel of writerly fabric, I smooth out the phrasing, add details, and take out all the "reallys". Sometimes, I shift whole blocks of words because I've gotten ahead of myself and the material needs to be put into chronological order. With novels, I write the scenes as they come to me and then list them on calendar pages. Once I know 'when' everything is, I reorder the scenes and fix them, reweaving the golden thread of continuity, until they fit together again.

But before all those repairs comes the moment of throwing the words down on the page: the "Well, here goes!" moment. I learned that from journalism. We'd come into class, which was set in a room with typewriters and reams of papers (yes, I know I'm dating myself by admitting that). The professor would have certain facts written up on the board - the famous "Who, What, Where," etc. He would tell us: "Write a page and a half on this. You have X minutes." Naturally, this led to a lot of panicked typing. When the time was up, we had to turn in our work, finished or not. I wondered then why we so rarely got our work back with grades. Now I know why... the point was to get us to write, to set aside our fears of being imperfect.

These days, I occasionally hear people complain: "They don't teach you how to write in journalism, they just teach you to write to deadline. You don't learn anything about the art of it."

You can talk about the craft of writing all day, but you won't learn that craft until you actually write. The same with painting, playing music, dancing, sports... you develop skill and craft by doing. Later, in the higher level classes, our instructors did talk more about the skills and approaches to different types of articles, but first we had to learn to write. Imperfectly, of course, but... to write.

The art comes in the rewrite. At least it does for me.


1 comment:

San Diego Momma said...

I absolutely love this:
"After I have a washcloth or face towel of writerly fabric, I smooth out the phrasing, add details, and take out all the "reallys."

I write the same way -- with reckless abandon at first -- otherwise I'd never allow myself to start. Then, go back and prune.

Always love reading about other writers' processes.