Getting the Niggling Details Right

Ernest Hemingway sometimes compared writing to a boxing match, and in a certain sense he was right. Whenever you step into a boxing ring, there’s an excellent chance that you’re going to get punched. In the same way, whenever you write a story, there’s someone who figures you need a beating. It might be a literary critic or an editor, but most likely it will be someone in your writer’s group.

You see, in writing groups, people learn to criticize the works of others. Indeed, being critical becomes a habit. Some kind-hearted people seek to soften the blows, as they should, and use their criticism to help new writers develop their skills. But I’ve seen critics in writing groups who go too far. In one case I heard a young man tell a promising new writer, “You don’t belong here. Why don’t you go home?” The woman broke into tears and left the meeting, never to write again, as far as I know.

That’s unfortunate. It seems to me that when you start writing, you finish your story with a great sense of pride and accomplishment. Then you take your story to a writing group, and too often some hyper-critical person will trash your work, pointing out your typos and punctuation and excessive wordiness and cliché characters and so on, until you feel as if you’ve just been beaten up for trying.

In far too many cases, this leads to a kind of “writer’s block,” or a hesitation to show your work to others. It’s much easier to dodge a blow than to take a punch full in the face.

Of course, as a writer who just doesn’t want to get beat up, you then feel guilty for not showing your work. You’re told by others, “Getting every single detail right is so important! A single misplaced comma could get your manuscript rejected.”

I doubt it. When I took my first writing class at Brigham Young University, I wrote a story and took it to a student editor. I asked her to help me with my punctuation, my capitalization, and other things, because I wanted to get an A. The editor began reading, and by page two I noticed that her breathing had become shallow and tense. She proceeded to chuckle in the right places, to sniffle in the right places, but she didn’t put an editing mark on the paper after page two. When she finished, she threw the paper at me and said, “When you can write as good as this, no one gives a damn about punctuation.”

As an editor now, I know that she was right. I read stories trying to make sure that the story transports me fully, draws characters beautifully, creates powerful emotion, and so on. I’m not too worried about the niggling details. I can add commas in my sleep, and I can fix a word if it needs to be capitalized. Instead, I want your words to sweep me away into your story. Don’t waste your time doing endless rewrites, trying to get “every niggling detail” perfect.

A writer who is learning the craft might sometimes feel a bit beaten, a bit frayed around the edges. How do you get over that? Well, it might help if you just keep writing. As you write well consistently, you begin to get more praise. You get stories accepted by publishers, and you earn big checks. You might win awards or receive gratifying fan mail. So writing becomes easier and easier the more that you do it, and you rediscover the joy of writing.

It may be that if you belong to a big writing group, one where too many of the people have become so hardened in their habit of criticism that they’re always at each other’s throats, you might consider bowing out of the group and searching for something better.

Or maybe you just want to be like Rocky Balboa and keep taking blows that would kill a lesser man.

Dave will be starting a video blog of 5-minute writing tips next week, for those who are interested. More details to follow.


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