My previous post was published more than 3 months ago. I remember telling myself: I won’t distract myself from any other kind of writing until I have my current first manuscript ready. I originally targeted to finish it by January and Look! we’re almost in the middle of the year. Sigh… It took longer than expected but it’s finally done.
I initially had one friend volunteering to read it. She was an encouragement as I had told her it would be ready for January and having her asking about its status helped me push through the line and finish it. I soon found out I had two other volunteers to read it. That was exciting but it also made nervous. Extremely nervous. Why? Well, my mind was invaded by these thoughts:
What happens if the whole plot doesn’t make sense or is boring to death?
What happens if the whole idea of writing a book is not for me?
I’m an amateur writer and always have self-doubts about my writing skills. I’m usually not that insecure about life in general but writing is important to me and therefore I tend to feel vulnerable to people revising my manuscript. But then I gather myself, I exhale loudly and I think that this comes with the process. I have to learn to listen to feedback and trust in my work. I’m starting; there is a lot to learn. I have to accept the challenge and keep my faith that hard work makes the master.
And you how do you feel when people start revising your manuscript?
I finally finished my first manuscript of a fantasy novel I’ve been working for almost a year. I learned many lessons the last time I worked with a manuscript, one is that finishing the first manuscript is only a small step in achieving a readable book. Numerous rounds of editing and revision come after this, and they can become endless. They are not the nicest part of writing a book, at least not for me.
Last time I learned that before going into heavy editing, it is better to have a manuscript that you like, one where you feel satisfied with the story, the plot makes sense, you like the characters and they are likable. I learned that you have to be happy with what you wrote. You will need people who read your work, people who will criticize the plot, the characters and tell you how does the story feel. You will probably get lots of suggestions and you might need to rewrite chapters a couple of times more. Last time I understood there was no need to get into heavy editing if you were still working on the story development.
But for the first round of people who will read your work, you have to have a manuscript that is readable. This is the reason I felt I needed one round of revision for plot consistency, character check, setting description, and at least decent writing – a writing that will still be workable and can , of course, be improved.
I’m not going for restructuring sentences, changing verbs, or more in depth editing, but it is still taking time. A lot of it. Somehow my first manuscript has managed to end with around 110 000 words or around 410 pages, and even though I’m doing a “quick revision” it still takes time. I still have a full time job and other activities, but I’m trying to find at least one hour a day to work on this. In an hour I usually deal with 5 or 8 pages, which means it is taking a lot of time. I told a friend I would be giving her the book for her critique around February, but it is already March and I haven’t reached the middle of the book with this “quick editing.”
However, the writing process works this way, there is no easy path. Each day I’m a couple of pages done. A couple of pages more than yesterday, one paragraph more than before. I feel like doing tiny steps, but at least the steps are being given. And If I’m a couple of paragraphs done each day, then I guess it will come a time when I will finish the manuscript. One paragraph at a time. After all, writing is about the process itself.
Having flexibility in your job is awesome, but with flexibility comes responsibility. Not only in the work itself but also in our daily lives, having a balance between your personal and work activities. Working at home implies there is no physical boundary between your work and personal life. In an office, you might be able to leave work behind when you exit the office, but in your house, in theory, you can still be working on your personal time, on your family time, working still at night on your bed, and working while your family is around and doing a family activity. If you don’t define the lines, none of the activities gets the concentration that is needed.
I tried experimenting in several ways since I joined Automattic. Initially, I had a very similar schedule to an office job, more or less from 9 am to 6 pm. Then I…
When I started writing, I found the question about being a “plotter or a pantser”. Plotter would be the person that plans the story before they write and a pantser would be the person that only lets the inspiration guide and build the story as they write. Initially, I was sure I would fit the plotter role, I wanted to set up everything correctly before starting to write. It didn’t work that well. As soon as I started to write, characters acquired life and different scenarios/events invaded my mind. I remember thinking then that I was definitely a pantser and welcomed the idea of getting inspired as I wrote. I ended my first manuscript of my first project, ditching the plotting and welcoming the pantsing.
The end result was not the best. After some rounds of feedback and self-revision, I found out that the story had many holes in it. The story was weak and it wasn’t working as I wanted. I started to re-shape the story, changing chapters, deleting scenes, adding new plot twists, etc. But after several rounds, I still was unhappy with it. Now that I look back, there wasn’t a time when I totally felt confident with how the plot evolved.
Editing while writing
Then comes editing. When I started to write, without any previous experience, I reviewed/edited my reading after a couple of paragraphs or even after a single paragraph – trying to get the perfect grammar and writing. That didn’t last. This method certainly cut my inspiration and it would take me ages to finish a single chapter. Then my first NaNoWriMo came and I thought that this was the opportunity I needed to be able to end my first manuscript. And I sort of did it. I didn’t finish it, but I learn how to sit and write without giving a look to previous paragraphs. Editing would come later.
The result wasn’t the best either. There was terrible writing everywhere – not acceptable for requesting feedback. I had to go through a couple of rounds of editing before it was presentable. Those two/three rounds took me a lot of time, probably more than a month. And I really hated them.
What I found out this time
It was trial an error. I still did a couple of mistakes when I started to write my second project. I initially tried to start as a pantser – my objective to write until the manuscript ended and already dreading the rounds of revision in advance. But I already got a feeling that the result would be a plot filled with holes and a writing so embarrassing that would only lead me to endless rounds of revisions. I stopped after a couple of chapters. Why would I need to be either a plotter or a pantser? Why I had to decide between editing while writing or editing everything at the end?
I took a break after a couple of chapters. Then I started reviewing everything I had written. I wrote a little bit more – with a better mindset of the story in mind and continued writing. Then I reviewed my last written words, changed them into a more decent writing and continued. The result:
I write a couple of chapters. I go back to read them and do a general revision of the writing itself. I analyze the plot a little bit before continuing. I do a little bit of planning for the next chapters and continue. It’s a mix of all methods above. And I found that it works for me. There are no longer surprises, fears, or even apathy to future rounds of editing. There is no structured planned plot that cuts my inspiration but I also don’t write with no horizon in mind.
I edit my writing as I go. I don’t do it immediately, I let it sit for a couple of chapters so that it doesn’t cut the flow or the feeling of writing freely. I go back to review the writing of previous chapters to make sure that I have a decent writing over there, knowing that at the end it won’t be a terrible manuscript, that it will be readable and that might only need few editing before requesting feedback. I like my own method. And I’m not suggesting it to other people. I’m only saying that each writer has to find its own way to do things…
I usually wouldn’t have selected this book if it weren’t for a reading club at my work. We wanted to improve our writing as part of improving our communication skills – most of it is written. But why wouldn’t I pick this book if one of my main passions is writing? Because the book is directed towards nonfiction writing and when thinking of myself as a writer, I believe I’m mostly labeled as a fiction writer. But communication at work is written so it made sense to check how my writing was in the non-fictional world.
What was different from this book?
The author, William Zinsser, explains with examples (the only way to learn) how to find your own voice. He gives a huge importance in finding your true self, your true voice. He encourages you to find the passion and enjoyment in your daily writing tasks and to never forget your own principles and the ones of the story you want to talk about.
But how is the sound of our writing voices?
Your writing voice should be as you are, not how you talk, but how you perceive things in your head. Zinsser gives the following advice:
“Don’t flight such a current if it feels right. Trust your material if it’s taking you into terrain you didn’t intend to enter but where the vibrations are good…”
The importance of finding the right words
The right words don’t necessarily mean the complex sounding ones. “Just because they’re writing fluently doesn’t mean they’re writing well,” Zinsser mentions. How many times we read a book with lots of interesting new words, and we find ourselves wishing we had more vocabulary. But sometimes we don’t need this, we only need to find the right words, the ones specific enough to show what we mean. There is no need for complexity, rather for specificity.
When we write fictional books, we tend to overthink the writing process too much. As we write, we’re trying to sound good and to ensure our text looks not simple – not amateurish. We want others to notice we have a great vocabulary and in this effort, we sometimes lose our own voice. I have tried many times to edit my manuscripts in an effort to make the text sound smarter – not simple – but using words that weren’t true to my own rhythm and voice.
And how about simplicity and clarity?
Sometimes we take too much effort in describing a scene or a character that we lose our sense of direction. “Clutter is the disease of the American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words…” Zinsser mentions. And although this quote refers to American writing, it still applies to all the writing world and even to all languages. How many times I have found the same issue in my mother tongue Spanish.
Part of this clarity is to question ourselves: Is our story, the narrative, the description of scenes, and especially dialogue making sense?
Enjoying the process
We spent too much time thinking about the finished work. We tend to visualize or think too much about when the manuscript will be ready, when the book is going to be in a readable stage, and when a possible publishing time could come. We imagine the end line too often and we don’t find ourselves enjoying the process. We are writers, the process of writing should be “our thing” not going after editors and publishers. Let us enjoy the process for the time that is needed.
As Zinsser mentions: “The writer, his eye on the finish line, never gave enough thought to how to run the race,” and “You won’t write well until you understand that writing is an evolving process, not a finished product.”
How much are we willing to defend our work and to dare to be ourselves?
No matter how much editing we do ourselves, our manuscripts will suffer one day with other editors. We have to make sure that our writing and our voice are still there. “What you write is yours and nobody else’s”
I’ve struggled with this issue a lot. I want readers to recognize my voice. But sometimes, I’m so lost in having a decent product, in having precise sentences and paragraphs, good words, believable characters, believable setups, etc, that I lose my voice in it. Whatever comes out of our manuscript, it has to be ours, it has to show our own personality. As Zinsser puts it, “Writing well means believing in your writing and believing in yourself, taking risks, daring to be different, pushing yourself to excel”. This mindset is key, how many times we suppress our thoughts and expressions while we write; an inner voice saying “no, that sounds ridiculous, people won’t understand it.” But we have to understand that there is a difference between readers not able to follow a story structure and not be able to follow the author’s sense of wit and voice. We shouldn’t worry about the latter, we should just go with our guts.
We tend to forget so much of these tips. We’re scared what readers of our manuscript will say, how copywriters will find the text and how editors will see it. We’ve been told rules such as not repeating words, but sometimes they are needed for a reason, sometimes the repetition is there to provide emphasis and to give it a specific rhythm (like the double sometimes in this sentence). Many times when we change our words just to obey rules, we change the effect we are trying to give to our voice, to our characters, and to our story.
What other advice was also very helpful about this book?
Zinsser treats comedy as a good resource for writing, as a good way to show your personality. This doesn’t mean that you have to tell jokes, but it’s related to the wit with how you tell things. In most cases, this might be the best way to show the true you.
In summary, I really enjoyed the book. Even if I don’t intend to write a non-fiction book, it still had plenty of useful advice, useful not only for non-fictional writers but also for fictional writers, so I definitely recommend it. You can get the book here.