Reading time: About 3 minutes
If you’re trying to become a better writer, having a forgiving writing practice will make a huge difference…
I led a writing workshop for an organization last week. In the Zoom-based meeting, I challenged the 10 participants to interview me and, then, write a lede (story beginning) for the subject they’d interviewed me about. Then, I asked them to volunteer to read their work aloud.
Guess what happened?
No one volunteered. After a little bit of browbeating, someone finally agreed to read and her lede was fantastic. Then the next person volunteered and her lede was terrific as well. After that, I had to call on people by name, but every single one of them had written something that — at best — would have been well received by just about any editor in the English-speaking world, and — at worst — wasn’t the least bit embarrassing. Especially considering they had only 15 minutes to write and no time at all to edit.
But to hear participants talk about it, you’d have thought that their work was terrible, inept, bumbling or incompetent (pick your favourite adjective.) At the end of the exercise, the group’s supervisor said, “no one is allowed to say that their work is no good,” a sentiment I heartily endorsed.
This experience seems to put a lie to what’s known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, — a theory that most human beings tend to over-estimate their abilities. In other words, they think they’re really great at something when, in fact, they’re only mediocre. (In popular culture, this theory is amusingly illustrated by actor Jon Hamm in the show 30 Rock. Playing a successful doctor, who’s also a talented home chef, “Dr. Baird” actually has no talent or skill and had been skating through life on the strength of his good looks.)
But while the Dunning-Kruger Effect may be true in lots of areas — finance, cooking, driving, sports, music or speaking a second language — it’s almost never true of writing. Instead, most people tend to under-estimate their own writing abilities. (That’s why so many writers suffer from Imposter Syndrome.) I’m not sure why writing is such an obvious exception to Dunning-Kruger but it might have something to do with how we’re taught to write at school.
In grade school, high school and college, our writing is marked, usually out of 100. As a result, we come to see what should be a fun and interesting activity as something that imposes a judgement on us. And after 12 or more years of this sort of evaluation, we don’t even need the teacher or professor any more. We start imposing the judgement upon ourselves. We’re no good.
Furthermore, writing is personal. We often expose little private bits of ourselves when doing it and that makes many people understandably nervous and self-conscious.
As well, there’s a widely held misunderstanding that writing falls on a commonly accepted continuum of bad to good. And we all worry about doing something that’s baaaaaad.
But, in fact, writing doesn’t operate on such a continuum. Instead, it’s a matter of taste. What I see as ‘good’ writing might not please you and vice versa. That doesn’t make either of us wrong. We are both entitled to our opinions. Seeing any writing as universally good is about as sensible as seeing “yellow” as the most beautiful colour in the world. Or Jon Bon Jovi (whose 60th birthday is today) as the best musician. Or Van Gogh as the best artist. Yes, certain people will hold these views. But they don’t provide any sort of universal standard.
I suggest you suspend judging the quality of your own writing. Instead, see it as a practice and determine you want to get better at it.
And, to do that, you’re going to need some outside feedback from people you trust and who have some expertise — or at least a strong interest — in reading and writing. (Don’t ask family members!)
Remember, while we all love praise, it’s hard for everyone to hear negative feedback. Most often, we try to ignore it. We tense up, we begin to breathe more rapidly, we start to sweat — and after a very short time, our ears stop listening. Instead, we’re more likely to hear a soundtrack in our heads saying something like: “This person is a jerk. Why do I have to listen to this nonsense? I know way more than they do about this piece of writing…”
If you’re receiving negative feedback, frame it, so it helps you become a better writer in the future. What do I mean by “frame it”? An Adam Grant podcast on “How to Love Criticism,” suggests a useful idea.
Here’s what he says we should do: After every criticism (or edit) we receive, give ourselves a second score. Our first score is the edit itself, but our second — and far more important score — is how we responded to the edit.
Did we take it with grace and equanimity — no matter how rude or vile the editor/reader might have been? And did we learn something important and measurable that will change our behaviour in the future? If we can answer yes to both of these questions, we’ve become a better writer and likely a better person as well.
This idea of a second score suggests a second chance — a way of improving a situation that might have been uncomfortable or distasteful and still getting value from it.
As writers we need lots of chances, lots of opportunities to improve. Although Charlie Parker was a saxophonist, his instructions to musicians apply equally to writers: He said: “You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice.”
Have you ever been paralyzed by fear of writing? Don’t let this nasty psychological barrier make your life miserable or cost you missed income. I’ve developed an affordable 18-video series that will help you banish the fear. Plus you’ll get membership to an online group of others facing the same challenge. Have a look at it here.
My video podcast last week addressed whether it’s a good idea to write by dictating. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.
How do you manage your writing practice? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by March 31/22 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!