I'm a writer. I can tell I'm a writer because I write. This blog, mainly; I've been blogging since before it was called blogging. But blogging doesn't pay the bills (except for some people) and if I am going to be a professional writer I have to improve. Fortunately the blog provides the perfect place for me to practice.
I won't be modest: I'm a pretty good writer. I can turn a sprightly phrase, I have a good vocabulary, I can make myself understood. To some extent that comes naturally, but not entirely: I work on word choice, and I excise cliches when I notice them, but it's easy, and fun. What I don't do is plan the structure of what I write, neither at the article (essay? post? paper?) level nor at the paragraph level. I also don't revise deeply: when I write a blog post my revision consists of reading it once or twice to smooth out any egregious bumps.
In the interest of writing better, I'm reading a handful of books about writing, and the first one is called Ideas and Details: A Guide to Writing for Canadians by M. Garret Bauman and Clifford Werier. It's targeted at a university audience, people who have to write papers on things, but it seems to me that their advice is valuable for any writer. What I am concentrating on at the moment is their advice on structure and revision.
What they say about structure is the same old stuff we learned in Grade Seven (and Eight, Nine, Ten,...): figure out what you're trying to say (your thesis) and make sure your whole paper supports that.
You've already seen my first Real Writing Project: it's that post about my dad I put up on Monday. I knew I wanted to write "something about my dad", but you and I both know that "something about my dad" is not a thesis. I charged ahead with writing it anyway, and what I got was a bunch of disjoint paragraphs: about how my dad and I are alike, about our relationship, about the relationship we didn't have, about seeing my dad in the nursing home, about how I felt the day he died. I couldn't make it make sense. In the past I would have just cleaned up the grammar and spelling and posted it like that, but this time I decided to work with it and try and make it into something less amorphous.
I wrote down a brief description of each paragraph, cut them up and shuffled them around to see if I could see some unifying idea. I brainstormed some thesis ideas and narrowed it down to two: 1) grieving for someone with dementia can start long before they die, or 2) I mourn more for the relationship I didn't have with my dad than that I did. Obviously I went with Door #2. I think Door #1 is interesting and worth writing about, but most of the stuff I had already written was about my (non-)relationship with Dad, and that was what has been on my mind (for the last, oh, five years).
I rearranged my little paragraph slips of paper until I liked the flow, and then I rearranged what I had written on the computer. I had to write some new stuff and throw out some of the stuff which didn't work with my new thesis (I was sorry to cut some of it because I was happy with the writing, so I saved it to a "snippets" folder for when I write more about my Dad).
Then I revised, more carefully than usual. Ideas and Details wants you to revise five times:
- For ideas. Make sure you thesis still fits the paper.
- For details. Add and sharpen details.
- For paragraph structure. Is each paragraph about one idea?
- For word use. Conciseness, vivid verbs, metaphors, precise word choice.
- For spelling and grammar.
Of those, 1 scares me the most. Once I come up with a thesis I'm very committed to it and I hate the idea of making a big left turn when I've already written something. But if your paper doesn't match your thesis or your thesis turns out to be rubbish, your whole paper is rubbish. (Hopefully you've already noticed that before you get to the end of the first draft, though.) Anyway, since I had already rearranged and rewritten my post with the thesis in mind, I didn't have any problem with this step or the next.
I have never paid attention to 3 before. I have pretty good instincts as a writer (from reading so much, I suppose) and my paragraphs are usually naturally well-structured, but now that I'm a Real Writer I can't rely on instincts and nature, so I went over the post to make sure each paragraph had one idea and some supporting details.
Obviously 4 is my favourite revision step, and I had to stop myself from fiddling with words in every other revision step. 5 I didn't do properly (as you can see—I missed a word and only noticed it today). I tend to rely on my natural grammar and spelling talents and very seldom look things up. Well, I look up spelling; I never look up grammar and punctuation, as you might have noticed.
And that post is what I ended up with. I found that after all that work on structure and paragraphs I was quite unhappy with the whole thing; I felt it was stiff and didn't flow. I posted it anyway, and on rereading it today it's not as bad as I thought it was. I think I'm just not used to working so hard on what I write. I suspect every writer hates everything they write at some point in the process.
So that was the post-mortem of my First Real Writing Project. Writing this post (which I didn't structure or revise, incidentally, so you won't have to read a post about how I wrote this post) has served as an excellent distraction from the business of working on a real, pitchable article or pursuing business writing leads. Result!