September 28th, 2018

Why Learning Writing Takes So Long

I'm taking a break from first page critiques this month, because something is bugging me and I have to get it out.

Continue to send your pages, though, I'll be back next month with a crit!

I traveled to speak at a writer's group last weekend (I do that, you know. Contact me if you're interested). I was talking to a writer there, and she bemoaned the fact that she didn't have this down yet.  She was still making mistakes. I've heard this many times. I'll bet you've said it to yourself, too (God knows, I have). So I thought a reminder of what 'writing' entails, might help you give yourself a break already!

First the science: (and thank you to Roger Manning for explaining this to me).

Higher-order thinking, known as higher order thinking skills (HOTS), is a concept of education reform based on learning taxonomies .The idea is that some types of learning require more cognitive processing than others, but also have more generalized benefits. You can read more about it HERE, but I think a chart is easier to understand:

Trust me, there are a lot more items in the lists, but I didn't want to bore you. But take a look at the items here - any look familiar? Yeah. Most of them are used in creative writing! YIKES!

"The reason typos get through isn't because we're stupid or careless, it's because what we're doing is actually very smart, explains psychologist Tom Stafford, who studies typos of the University of Sheffield in the UK. "When you're writing, you're trying to convey meaning. It's a very high level task," he said.

As with all high level tasks, your brain generalizes simple, component parts (like turning letters into words and words into sentences) so it can focus on more complex tasks (like combining sentences into complex ideas). "We don't catch every detail, we're not like computers or NSA databases," said Stafford. "Rather, we take in sensory information and combine it with what we expect, and we extract meaning." 

When we're reading other peoples' work, this helps us arrive at meaning faster by using less brain power. When we're proof reading our own work, we know the meaning we want to convey. Because we expect that meaning to be there, it's easier for us to miss when parts (or all) of it are absent. The reason we don't see our own typos is because what we see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in our heads.

This can be something as trivial as transposing the letters in "the" to "hte," or something as significant as omitting the core explanation of your article. In fact, I made both of these mistakes when I wrote this story. The first was a misspelling in a sentence that my editor had to read aloud for me before I saw it for myself. The second mistake was leaving out the entire preceding paragraph that explains why we miss our own typos."

You can read the whole article HERE.

See? We're trying to complete low level tasks and very high level tasks at the same time! Can you imagine how complex your brain is to be able to do that?

Then there's the mechanics:

SPELLING

Yes, we have way more tools than they did years ago (Thanks, Word, for telling me when I'm wrong-most of the time), but this is the nit-picky, in the mud, the blood and the beer editing that make my eye twitch. Even when we're careful, we tend to read what we meant to write, not what's on the page.

Suggestion: Have Word, or another program, read it back to you. You'll hear things you won't see: missing words, clunky sentences, change in tense, etc.  OR, pay someone to do it. It's worth it to me not to have to go over that ms one more time (and you know I'm cheap).

GRAMMAR

Sentence structure, punctuation, adverbs, pronouns, dangling participles! There is SO much to know here, and finding out you're doing something wrong after your book is published is uber-embarrasing. Word can suggest, and Margie Lawson is the queen of rhetorical devices, but when it comes right down to it, you have to know this stuff to earn your chops as a writer. Personally, I'll never get Lay vs Lie (had a college professor try) and I'll admit to comma-drama.

GETTING THE STORY OUT OF YOUR HEAD, AND ON THE PAGE IN A COMPELLING WAY

It seems so easy when you're reading a good book, but anyone who's tried to write can tell you, it's like the Olympics; Those little girls make gymnastics look easy because they learned it right after walking, and then practiced for years.

The only thing that works here is sweat-equity. Sorry, but if I knew a faster way, I'd be using it. Keep writing - you'll get better.

STORYTELLING

This is probably the highest thinking of all. We all know a story needs a beginning, middle and an ending. Sounds simple. It isn't.

ALL THE REST

  • Writing fresh
  • What tense to use?
  • What genre?
  • Jump-off-the-page characters
  • which POV to choose?
  • Where to begin
  • Backstory

And you wonder why you keep putting e after I? Why you mix tenses?  Sheesh people, you're doing the equivalent of riding a unicycle and learning to swing a golf club, all at the same time!

It takes YEARS to master all of the above, and I haven't even mentioned voice! So give yourself a break. Give yourself time. Adopt a child's view of mistakes: they're just ways that didn't work.

Be gentle with yourself, people, keep going, and you'll get there. I guarantee it.

Do you scold yourself for mistakes? Friends who do? What's your worst offender?

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Like Laura's books/posts? There are two ways to get more!  Sign up for her quarterly newsletter, or her Write Stuff short podcasts on the craft of writing, and have them delivered to your inbox. What's easier than that? Want her to come speak or teach online to your group? You can do that here.  Oh and did she mention she has a December release?

28 responses to “Why Learning Writing Takes So Long”

  1. velma13 says:

    Have never found a post without some nugget of information or hope. it keeps me writing against all odds. Incidentally, I like your new portrait - it great, its you.

  2. Terry Odell says:

    And, on top of all this, there's the whole "story structure" thing. Being able to do all the above still doesn't mean you know how to tell the story. I love it when people say, "Oh, you write romance? One day when I have a free weekend, I'm going to write one, too."

  3. Laurie Wood says:

    Hi Laura, I love your HOTS chart! It's amazing what we're asking our brains to do and sometimes expect our brains to do when we also processing the trauma of illness or a loved one's death. It's no wonder we experience "writer's block"! Thank you for such a reassuring post. It's good to have patience and realize we all have our own path.

    • LauraDrake says:

      And patience with ourselves is not always easy, but if you can't develop that, I think you'll quit before you get that brass ring!

      • Jenny Hansen says:

        Patience with myself is NOT my thing. But, at least I'm still in the game. 🙂

      • Jenny Hansen says:

        I think growing up, the messaging (at least from one of my parents) was that you must be good at something before you did it in public. You must know all the facts before engaging in the debate. Writing just doesn't work that way. I think people shouldn't rush so hard to publish, but there's nothing wrong with floating out shorter forms of writing in the meantime, while you gear up for book length fiction.

        But most of all, that patience is so, so, so hard.

  4. jamesr403 says:

    How do you know? Are you inside my head? Wait, maybe I don't want to hear the answer to that.
    Your post was perfect, Laura. Yesterday I finished rereading Book 4 in my Surf City Mysteries. I had to make sure I knew how a particular relationship ended. Hooray -- got that right. Now for the other news (and I know you see this one coming). Yep, not one, but two typos. They missed all of the pre-pub readers. They missed me. Sigh. Anyway, now I have more understanding of the process. Thank you for a great post.
    And you're not really in my head, are you? Hello?

  5. I don't even worry about pesky things like typos and punctuation anymore! Hard enough juggling a thousand details, motives and descriptions while wrestling down thousands of words. Great article and I love the new photo Laura!

  6. Deb Richmond says:

    Laura, Thank you for the reminder. I've been working on one of my books for many years, and just when I think I've conquered one element of storycrafting, I find another area that needs a from-the-beginning overhaul. Friends and family say, "Just put it out there," but I keep learning new skills and know this book could be even better.

    • LauraDrake says:

      good for you, Deb, for not listening to them! When it's out there, and readers are reading, they don't care about why - they only care about quality! Give yourself as many years as you need. This is hard, and there's no prize for who crosses the line first.

  7. Fae Rowen says:

    I've been working with this (and older) taxonomy for learning for decades, Laura. What we don't know about the brain is scary. But I do know that writing friendships sustain me when I'm down. No taxonomy necessary there!

  8. Julie Glover says:

    I always think I'm a clean writer, until I go back and discover that it's not grammar errors I struggle with so much as missing words! My brain imagined them and I often re-read the sentence as if they're there, but they're not. It's frustrating when you're at Draft #11 and still finding missing words here and there. Alas, this is why having your computer read back to you and/or getting a great copy editor make a big difference. Thanks, Laura! Love your ever-practical encouragement.

  9. barbdelong says:

    Thanks, Laura! I feel so much smarter somehow!

  10. wendyleslie says:

    "Learning writing takes so long," too true - but the trip alongside Margie and you guys here, make it a fascinating journey no matter where the end or near-enough to it might be.
    Thanks for this post Laura, now it's back-to-the-drawing-board and the new ms beginning.
    Cheers,
    Wendy

  11. dholcomb1 says:

    I've been explaining that to friends, with different wording, for years. I do some editing on the side, and it's the simplest things which are missed. The brain misses them because you know what you're saying.

    And, here I am the editor, and I make the same mistakes in my own writing I correct for others. We're just human. Word doesn't always get it right, either. It only knows what someone programmed it to know.

    While spellcheck is nice, I still use Merriam-Webster and Oxford. Plus, different publishers use different rules, some follow UK rules, some follow US rules. I go with The Chicago Manual of Style since it's preferred in fiction, as opposed to AP and NY Times for media. And some rules evolve over time. Remember when email was e-mail?

    I've found editors get it wrong, too. I'll provide the rule if someone doesn't agree, and it's her choice for the final product.

    Writers--give yourself a break. But, please, don't write definite as definate. Drives me crazy.

    Denise

  12. […] We all want to write better, faster. Jane Friedman lays out 3 principles for finding time to write, Emily Temple shares 25 writers’ views on writer’s block, and Laura Drake tells us why learning writing takes so long. […]

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