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25 Mar

The secret ingredient – I’m going to do that thing again—you know, where you quote someone else’s blog post and then respond to it. Just by way of warning.

“Is there a ‘secret ingredient’ to writing well?”

Mark Pilgrim, of dive into mark, recently wrote the following in a post on the quality of writing on the web, namely in blogs:

“I grew up being taught, believing, and teaching others to believe that there were only two things you needed to do to become a good writer:

  1. Read every day
  2. Write every day”

He then goes on to wonder why, even though they read and write every day, most bloggers can’t write. Is there, as he concludes, a “secret third ingredient” to writing well?

I’ll start with the obvious, and that is that reading just anything is not good enough. The old programmer’s adage, “garbage in, garbage out,” applies here—simply put, if you read crap, you’re most likely to write crap. As Mark points out, most of what bloggers read is the writing of other bloggers, so what goes around invariably comes around.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s just assume that all bloggers read the small percentage of good writing out there (on the Internet, I mean, since everyone knows that bloggers don’t actually read ink on dead trees). This would seem to indicate that something has, indeed, been left out of the traditional equation.

Shall we take the nature side of the nature/nurture argument and say that some are born writers and others are not? There is much to be said for natural talent, but I think just chalking it up to talent is a bit of a cop-out. Plus, it means that people without talent will never be able to write well, and that’s just not a very pleasant thought.

Yes, I do think that talent has something to do with it, but I like to think of it more in terms of “inclinations” (by this I mean the apparently obsolete definition of “natural disposition”). Certain people are inclined to writing, just like certain people are inclined to mathematics, or music, or basket weaving. Does that mean someone without an inclination for writing can never write well? I don’t believe so. In fact, I think that anyone can do anything reasonably well with enough time and effort. Without the inclination, you may never be a truly great writer, but you can still learn to write well enough so that your readers will not bleed from their eyes.

I think I just touched on what that secret ingredient might be: effort. Or, better yet, actual desire and willingness to do what it takes to improve. You can read all the classics you want, but unless you actively apply what you learn there, your writing is not going to improve. Learning does not happen by osmosis—you cannot go to sleep with a book under your pillow and wake up the next morning with all that knowledge in your brain. You need to actually put effort into it. Writing is the same way.

Education in writing also helps, because it provides a structured environment for learning and can foster the desire to improve, and you also generally have the knowledge and experiences of (at the least) a decent writer to draw on. That, of course, is one other thing that such an educational environment provides, something I think is also very important in learning how to write well: feedback.

Shortly after we were married, my wife and I spent six months in Mongolia. I was helping a friend start up an English language school, and I was put in charge of organizing curricula and creating teaching materials. Because of my knowledge of computers, I was also eventually put in charge of designing our school’s website—never mind that we didn’t have an Internet connection at the time (along with nearly everyone else in Mongolia).

With my copy of Netscape’s WYSIWYG web page editor (I think it might have been called Composer) in hand, I stepped into a brave new world of heavily beveled buttons, tiled backgrounds, and nightmarish user interfaces. Since I didn’t have access to the Internet, I had no idea what the current trends were. More importantly, though, no one else knew anything about web design either, so there was no one to tell me just how horrible my pages were. I was quite shocked when I came back to Korea and saw how everyone was building web sites. Granted, it was still only 1997, but I had already missed the boat.

I continued to work on a personal web site, and I thought what I had was pretty decent. It was certainly a lot better than what I had cooked up in Mongolia, but it was still quite amateurish. What really got me going was joining a forum on graphics and web design, among other subjects (the Ozone Asylum). There I not only got to see the work of some amazingly talented designers, I also got their feedback on my own work. What you see before you today here at Liminality may not be perfect, but it’s a far cry from my Mongolian nightmare. And it never would have happened without the feedback I got from the great people at the Asylum.

We’re talking about writing, of course, not web design, but the same principles apply. You can read Shakespeare until you’re blue in the face, write every day until your hand (or typing fingers) feel like they are going to fall off, and put every ounce of your heart and soul into trying to get better, but it still won’t be enough. Will you improve? Yes, most likely. But there is a limit to how much you can improve in isolation. You need the feedback of others if you want to take it to the next level.

Desire and feedback go hand in hand, but they are not everything. When I was at university I majored in English Literature & Creative Writing, and every CW major must, by necessity, begin with CW 101. CW 201 and on require the submission of a portfolio for review, but CW 101, as an introductory class, was open to anyone and everyone who fancied themselves a writer. I would like to clarify at the start that I understand why this is so and think this is a very good idea, it just happened to make for one very painful semester.

I took the class with a friend of mine, and we both considered ourselves good writers. We were not alone—apparently, everyone else in the class also thought they were the next big thing, a notable few being so blissfully unaware of their utter incompetence it was astonishing. During class, several people would read their work, and then we would go around the room and everyone would comment. In the beginning, my friend and I were merciless—tactful, but still merciless. We methodically and politely tore everyone’s work to shreds. When it was our turn to read, people generally had nothing negative to say about our work—to be perfectly honest, we were two of the better writers in the class.

One day, though, I looked up after gently but thoroughly dissecting one girl’s work to find that she was on the verge of tears. ‘Oh dear,’ I thought, ‘This is not good. I never wanted to make anyone cry.’ My friend and I finally realized that the purpose of the class was not to provide actual feedback as much as it was to merely weed out the incompetent. We took a cue from the professor, who would stare at the ceiling for a full minute or so before coming out with an altogether tepid comment carefully designed not to upset. Lacking that level of diplomatic ability, though, we would merely say, “Why don’t you get back to me on that” when our turn came to comment on a particularly awful piece. Our professor quickly recognized this as code for, “I have absolutely nothing good to say about this and I don’t want to make anyone cry again,” and never got back to us.

I remember the most critical comment this professor ever made only because it was so funny, and it was apparent that, after teaching excruciatingly bad writers for who knows how many years, he either had to say something or he would go completely bonkers. Yes, more bonkers than someone who already stares at the ceiling for minutes on end.

There was a guy in the class my friend and I called Bob. I don’t remember his real name, but we called him Bob because he sounded like Bob Dylan—although, unfortunately, he lacked Dylan’s skill with poetry. He would come into class with these incredibly trite and maudlin poems filled with clichés and metaphors that rarely made sense. One day he came in with a poem in which the male narrator was waiting for a certain girl to call. When the phone finally rang, the narrator ran to it “with the speed of a thousand anxious men.”

When he finished reading, an appalled silence filled the room as people tried desperately not to look at each other in wonder and disbelief. Most of us failed, of course, but our good professor stared diligently at the ceiling, and it was only then that I began to wonder if he did that not because he was thinking, but because it was the best way to avoid eye contact with the students. No one wanted to be the first to speak, so we all just held our breaths and stared at our professor as he stared at the ceiling. Bob gripped his poem in both hands and waited. Finally, our professor took a deep breath and then let out a slow sigh.

“I’m wondering,” he began, still staring at the ceiling as if he were lecturing to the light fixture, “if the speed of a thousand anxious men would be any greater than the speed of just one anxious man. I mean, it would seem to me that a thousand anxious men would most likely be tripping and stumbling over each other, and some would probably even get trampled, so all in all wouldn’t they actually end up being slower?”

Instinctively, everyone turned to look at Bob. He sat there, still gripping his poem in his frozen hands, with his mouth hanging open and a look of despair in his eyes. Someone snickered and that was the end of it—the nervous tension in the room was just too much and everyone burst into laughter. I honestly and truly felt sorry for Bob—man, if you ever read this, I just want you to know that nothing I ever said or did in that class was calculated to hurt anyone—but there was no helping it. I don’t know what major Bob eventually pursued, but it wasn’t creative writing.

OK, maybe I got a little carried away with that anecdote, but I kind of did it on purpose. I wanted to paint a clear and accurate picture of how I felt at the time toward the people who took that class with me. At the time, my friend and I were ostensibly pursuing majors in Computer Science, but neither of us was doing very well. I was put on academic probation first, which probably worked out for the better, as I was able to get straightened out before I did permanent damage. My friend struggled on for a while longer before giving up, and ended up having to stay an extra year to complete a completely different major. Me, I decided that English Literature was the major for me, and somehow my experience in CW 101 convinced me that that was the particular path I wanted to take.

I submitted a rather thin portfolio for CW 201, along with about two dozen other people, and I was one of those eventually selected for the class. This only reinforced my opinion of myself as what I believe the young people today call “the shiznit” (or maybe not—feel free to make fun of me if I got that wrong). When the class began, though, it quickly became apparent that my pond had suddenly grown much larger, and I wasn’t as big as I had thought I was. I listened to some truly talented people read some really good writing, and I found myself at a loss to think of anything negative to say. There was one guy in the class who was a great writer, but I often refrained from commenting on his work simply because I didn’t want to just gush platitudes like a fanboy.

That was where I began to learn the third element of our secret ingredient: humility. Without humility, desire and feedback will produce an enthusiastic yet very elitist and insular writer. All the good feedback you receive will only serve to galvanize you against the negative feedback, completely blinding you to the fact that you actually still have something to learn. What you will end up with is an extremely over-inflated opinion of your own abilities, unless you happen to be a writing genius, in which case you may end up having people adore your work yet dislike you as a person. I can live without either of those possibilities.

Humility, though, is a much misunderstood concept. Many people think that being humble means putting yourself down, and some even equate it with low self-esteem. I have a bit of a different view on humility, though. To me, humility is recognizing your skills and abilities for what they are and realizing that they make you no better or worse than anyone else. Humility is not an action, it is a way of thinking about yourself and the world—ultimately, I suppose, we could call it a “worldview.” When you answer a compliment with “Oh, no, I’m not very good at that at all, really,” you are being self-effacing, not humble. If you truly believe what you said, you have low self-esteem. If you do not believe what you said, you are merely doing the socially acceptable thing and eschewing a public display of pride or arrogance.

True humility means full recognition of your place in the greater scheme of things. Looking up at the stars can sometimes inspire fits of humility, because we suddenly realize how small we are in relation to the vastness of the universe. Even on a more local level (say, just Earth), we realize that we are one out of billions of people. Each and every one of these people has talents and abilities, and each and every one is important in their own way. Realizing that having more talent, ability, or learning in a certain area does not make you any better than those who may not have such talent, ability or learning is one step toward humility. The sudden awareness that there is someone out there who is better than you at what you do best is another step.

When I began studying creative writing, I was far from humble. By the time I graduated, though, I had learned a lot in that area. But when I look back now, I can see that I was still full of pride, and I know I continue to struggle with this today. At the very least, though, I have been able to overcome enough of my pride to accept negative feedback (i.e., criticism) and learn from it. It’s still not easy sometimes, but I know that it will make me a better writer. Am I a great writer? I don’t know—I think I am a good writer, and I think I have the potential to be great. But I also know that there will always be more to learn, and there will always be someone who can teach me.

So there it is, my view on the “secret ingredient” in becoming a better writer. Natural talent helps, of course, but it is not everything. More importantly, talent can lay untouched and undeveloped if we neglect the other elements in this formula. How many talents have gone unnoticed in the world because they were not accompanied by desire and humility, or didn’t have the right environment for growth?

I’ve written more than I thought I would—I expected this to be rather short, in fact. Part of that is just me getting carried away with some storytelling, but part of it is also discovering more than I thought was going to be there when I first started. It’s always nice when that happens. By way of summary, I’m including my recipe for better writing, colored in part by the possibly unhealthy amounts of fun I’m having with the new bread machine we bought recently.

A Recipe for Better Writing

Bake continuously in the fires of criticism until the excess is burned away and you are left with delicious, golden words. The longer you bake the better.

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