We All Use Language, But

This has been brewing in my head since Scalzi posted about “advice to young writers,” wherein the first two points were 1) your writing is crap and 2) that’s okay, we all started out as crap and got better. (Insert, of course, a brouhaha from people who never read past the “your writing is crap” line to see what he meant by that, and how it wasn’t half so offensive as they assumed.)

I had an epiphany after reading through Scalzi’s advice and the responses to it.

If I hand you a paintbrush and tell you to paint the tree outside my office window, odds are you will suddenly feel awkward and clueless and utterly inadequate to the task. Even the physical experience of using a paintbrush isn’t that familiar to most of you, and it would take a lot of practice to get to the point where you could do anything good with it.

If I sit you down at the piano and tell you to play me a piece of music, all of a sudden you realize you have ten fingers, and now you’re asking them to behave independently and simultaneously in a way that is not at all like typing on a keyboard. And again, you would need practice before you could play much more than “Chopsticks.”

If I put you in front of a computer and tell you to write me a story, suddenly everybody thinks they can do it.

I think it’s easy for aspiring writers to assume they can do this because, after all, isn’t it stuff you do every day anyway? We all know how to hold a pen or a pencil and use it to form letters. Most of us, these days, know how to type. And we all use language. Isn’t that what writing is?

Yes, but.

There’s an undiscovered world inside that “but.” My epiphany was that I think a great many people fail to perceive the degree of craft that goes into telling a story. They see words on the page, but they don’t see the skills that are required to decide which word will be more effective, how to structure a sentence so it’s grammatical but doesn’t sound like every other sentence you’ve put down, how to get a paragraph to flow so the impact arrives at the right moment, how to build suspense and then resolution into a plot, how to reveal character through telling details instead of just telling, how to create images in the readers’ minds that will stay with them long after the book is closed.

Not everybody, of course. Some people look at a book and say, “I could never do that.” Some people start trying and immediately realize the difference between what they’re doing and what Admired Writer X did. But I’ve seen a lot of people who seem to think there isn’t a learning curve with writing, just like there is with anything else.

Or maybe they just think their learning curve all happened in elementary school.

A common truism among writers goes something like this: you’ve got a million words of crap in you, and what you’ve got to do is write them. Only then can you get to the good words. What this translates to in non-literal terms is, writing takes practice, just like everything else does. One might as well say you’ve got a million notes of crap in you, and once you’ve played them all you can start being a good pianist. Etc. The point is, few if any of us get to skip the practice stage, and if it looks like someone has, they probably just did their practice out of sight. Me? I wrote my million words of crap when I was a teenager, because I already knew I wanted to be a writer. Someone who makes that decision at the age of forty just has a later start, is all.

But it has to be mindful practice. It has to be critical. Banging out dozens of short stories, each one replicating the mistakes of its predecessors, won’t do you any good, any more than banging out notes on the piano without concern for what they sound like will make you a better pianist.

The practice is necessary because, until you reach the point where you have the basics down, you’re going to have a hard time getting to the finer aspects. To continue with the piano analogy — because it’s one I have personal experience with — so long as you’re having to think consciously that a note printed on that line is a D, and you need to stretch your hand X far to form a sixth, and this is where middle C is, issues like interpretation and expression are Right Out. Likewise, you need enough unconscious familiarity with word choice and the formation of sentences and the punctuation of dialogue that your brain can devote itself to higher thoughts. It doesn’t mean you’ll never pause to think about those more basic issues, but they won’t be eating all your attention anymore.

You know how to use the English language, yes. But do you know how to use it well? Do you know what to do with it on the page?

What we do isn’t half so easy as it looks.