Writing Words vs. Writing Fiction

The core of this post was written in March of 2004 in response to a post by Kelly “Jaquandor” Sedinger of Byzantium’s Shores. I find it delightful that the link to Kelly’s post still works, and that Kelly is still writing. Here’s the old post; and then I’ll have some more words at the end.

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Over here, Jaquandor discusses whether blogging is bad for writers. It seems a correspondent had suggested that blogging is simply another form of procrastination, and of no benefit to a professional writer.

It seems to me that there are two aspects to this question: first, is blogging beneficial to one’s writing? And second, is blogging beneficial to one’s career? Certainly, while one is blogging one is not trying to find an agent, sending out manuscripts, or writing salable prose. I can see that for some writers, blogging might be a dangerous distraction.

But, not being a professional writer, I’m more interested in the first aspect–how does blogging affect my writing skills? And I think the answer is simple: if the three most important words in Real Estate are “Location, location, location,” then the three most important words in writing are “practice, practice, practice”. If you wish to write clearly and well, you can never get too much practice in putting your thoughts and visions into words. And if you approach blogging with that in mind, then it is excellent practice. The daily format is especially helpful at turning writing from being something you do every now and then, when especially inspired, into something you can do whenever you like.

The horror of every student is the five or ten or twenty-page paper. I still remember my surprise when, some five years or so into my career as a software engineer, I realized that I was often writing documents of much greater length than that. That was my first lesson–writing is much easier if you have something to say. And the great advantage of doing technical writing is that it emphasizes clarity and directness, two qualities I find valuable in any kind of writing.

I’m a history buff; I once brought home a copy of the celebrated Hobbes translation of Thucydides. I soon discovered that Hobbes’ translation is celebrated because of Hobbes’ Herculean command of English prose style, a style fraught with sentences containing seemingly dozens of clauses–Herculean, because only a Superman can do the necessary heavy lifting. It’s the sort of writing where you need to read each sentence three times to be sure you understand it; and it takes you twenty minutes because the sentences are so long. It might, perhaps, be an accurate reflection of the original Greek; but it’s no kind of way to read Thucydides, and to date I haven’t done so.

But I digress.

A little over seven years ago, I started writing and publishing book reviews on the web. I started out updating the website daily (it was nearly a proto-blog in that regard) but after a few months gravitated to a monthly format. At the end of each month I’d sit down with the stack of books I’d read during the month, and spend several hours reviewing each one. I don’t claim that every review was a miracle of clarity and style, but over time it, along with my technical writing, taught me to write on demand. Writer’s block be damned!

In fact, I think writer’s block is widely misunderstood. A few years ago, when I began to write more seriously, I read quite a few books on the subject. There’s a certain category of book–I’m thinking of Writing Down The Bones and So You Want To Write that treats writing as a semi-mystical activity. These books emphasize something they call “writing practice”, which amounts to written free-association. The goal is to stifle one’s “inner editor,” that little voice that says, “This is garbage!” and to write down the contents of one’s heart before it can be censored or edited.

I tried doing this kind of writing practice, and I did not find it particularly helpful. Indeed, I’m not entirely sure what it’s supposed to accomplish–unless it is simply intended to help those who have never written to get words down on paper, so that they see that they can. For my part, I cherish my inner editor. For me, it’s that little voice that says, “That sentence is too long. Delete those three words and that comma, and it’ll say the same thing.”

Or perhaps it’s a way for people to practice writing when they don’t have anything in particular to say. And that, I think is the key to writer’s block, and the prime difference between writing fiction and non-fiction. For non-fiction, such as a book review or a technical document, the material is before you. You must put it in some kind of order, and present it clearly, but the content already exists. Your concern as a writer is not what to say, but how to say it, and in what order.

When writing fiction, however, the material must be made up. Figuring out what happens next is hard; writing it down is relatively easy–provided you’re used to expressing your ideas and visions in words.

And that’s where blogging helps. It’s practice at the craft of writing, at training the words to be your servants rather than your master. And then, when the muse strikes and you’re ready to perpetrate some literature, your servants stand ready.

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I found this post today while looking for a “Blast from the Past”; and was bemused, because I’d made a mental note a couple of weeks ago to write a new post on very much the same subject, with very much the same conclusions. Writing fiction has its unique challenges—you have to know how to tell a story, and you have to have a story to tell. And then, you need to put it into words. If you’ve never been in the habit of getting words down on paper and making them do your will, I can imagine that trying to do all of that at once would be paralyzing.

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