Everyone can write, but that doesn’t mean everyone does

not everyone can write

…or should, for that matter.

There’s a persistent myth I’ve run across several times both when I was a teacher and now in my professional life, and it goes a little something like this: writing is a learned behavior, everyone writes because of social media, email, texting etc., therefore everyone is a writer! In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth.

To be fair, the first two statements are true: writing is definitely something that anyone can learn, and with how much information is passed through the internet, words and language are just in use quite a lot more than they might have been before, but that absolutely does not make everyone a writer, and the idea that it does is bad for anyone interested in writing as a trade.

So first a disclaimer, I don’t see any reason to support the idea that writing is a lofty, artistic thing that only a few privileged people can attain. That’s clearly not the case because anyone can learn to write. But the keyword there is learn. The problem I want to focus on is the claim that everyone who can or does write is a writer. It gets a little bit like saying everyone uses a computer, so everyone’s a computer scientist. Obviously, that’s just not the case.

The same thing is true of writing. Sure, everyone uses words and language, and nearly everyone can string a few sentences together, but that’s not the same thing as being a writer. The difference between someone who can put sentences together and a writer is that a writer is someone who has trained, studied, and honed the craft of writing. Not everyone has done so, not everyone has the time, and most people don’t have the inclination. I’m not even really talking about formal education or training, either. You can be a self-taught writer too, but the point remains: writers are people who study and people who practice. More importantly than definitional discussions though is that the idea that everyone is a writer actively works against anyone interested in writing professionally.

Here’s what I mean: employment prospects, job security, and pay are all directly linked to how specialized your work is and how easy your position is to fill. This is the reason an engineer who works on producing a car gets paid more than a mechanic who works on it later. Nothing against mechanics, but the engineer is a more specialized position. The same is true for writing. It is a specialized position that not everyone can fill. This idea that everyone writes or everyone can write, only makes writing professionally seem like a less specialized skill than it actually is. This hurts employment prospects, pay, and it gives a false impression of the overall value that professional writers can bring to almost any industry.  

All of this doesn’t even bring up the topic of writing as an art. That’s a muddier puddle than I really want to step in, but it’s worth considering alongside the broader topic of writing as a trade. I’m not convinced that everyone can produce literary art, either. I’m not even convinced that I can, really, but the idea that everyone is a writer might not be really helpful for the literary world. I don’t claim to know as much about that, but I do know there’s a lot of garbage literature out there. I know that’s a personal taste thing, but I wonder if we wouldn’t get better literature if we didn’t have the everyone’s a writer mindset.

Unfortunately, I hear this sentiment about everyone being a writer expressed by writers a lot, and I just don’t think it’s doing us any favors. It’s a nice idea, I suppose, but I’d rather see writers standing up for themselves and for the time, effort, and practice they’ve put into the craft. So if you’re a writer or if you’re studying to become one, claim it. You don’t have to be arrogant about it, but you’re working on a skill that is important and that not everyone has. That should be a source of joy and pride for you.

-PWC

Robots writing

 

Not a robot

Sometimes spam comments lead to some interesting thoughts.

I’m not a particularly frequent blogger on this site. I would sure like to be, but I have other things that are often a constraint on time, and since that’s the case, my blog writing tends to be a little on the slow side. I could probably update more, but I once tried to blog every day for a month. I quickly found that the quality of what I was writing was in steep decline as I tried to keep up with that pace, so since then, I’ve been a consistent writer, but a fairly slow one.

The only trouble with that stance (if you keep a blog like I do) is that you’ll eventually run into the kind of spam comment that goes something like this: “Hey, I’ve noticed you don’t update frequently. Here’s some advice/software program/educational tool/etc. that you can buy from me!” Usually, they aren’t even that clear. I got one of those recently, and it was for a tool that helps writers produce articles. The interesting part is that it’s essentially an AI writer for blog posts. As someone who is fascinated by both the English language and technology, this had me intrigued.

Essentially, the “tool” is an automatic thesaurus. I had to find a free version since I wasn’t about to pay $50 dollars to satisfy my own curiosity, but the one that I found allowed me to type into one box, submit what I typed, and change small bits of the text. For Example, I took the first paragraph of this piece as the input, and here’s what I got back after submitting it:

I’m not an especially visit blogger on this webpage. I might beyond any doubt want to be, yet I have different things that are frequently a limitation on time, and since that is the situation, my blog composing has a tendency to be a little on the moderate side. I could likely refresh all the more, yet I once endeavored to blog each day for multi month. I rapidly found that the nature of what I was composing was in soak decay as I attempted to stay aware of that pace, so from that point forward, I’ve been a predictable author, however a genuinely moderate one.

Hmm. Perhaps the paid version is better than the free one, but I sincerely doubt it. Here’s the thing: first, writing advice is always and will always be to use the words you know. If you have a limited vocabulary, reading more and reading with a dictionary can help. Second, no bot, no AI, and no writing tool is going to get results that anyone wants. Human language is incredibly complex and far too nuanced for any technology, so these kinds of “re-writing” tools are just going to make any piece of writing worse than it would already be.

The sad part is that these tools are marketed toward freelance writers a lot of the time. Sometimes writers get paid by the word, so I can imagine it would be tempting to use something like this as a way to lengthen a piece and get a slightly bigger paycheck. The thing is, someone is going to read the piece later, so even if there are a few more words, there is going to be some editor somewhere that will read it and realize it doesn’t make any sense. My piece of advice? Stay away from tools like this, write on your own, and work on finding your own voice.

-PWC

I didn’t write anything in March: Some thoughts on persistence

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Writing is tough work, and I think that is what turns so many people off of it. Sitting down at a computer with a blank screen can be daunting, and knowing where to start can prove overwhelming. Also, where speaking is a natural, biological thing we do as humans, writing is an invented technology and must be learned. Like anything worth doing, the work is hard to do. That being said, there really is one thing that can make it a little easier, and while this is mainly about writing, the advice here applies to anything that requires an element of labor in order to become good at something.

And so on to the point: I didn’t write a single thing in March. Various preoccupations kept me away, and while I could make plenty of excuses, what it really came down to was that I wasn’t leaving myself time to write, and so didn’t get very much accomplished. Of course, time off is both helpful and healthy, and it can lead to new ideas and better work as well; however, it can also lead to complacency, which, if you plan to write, is an easy trap to fall into. Basically, it’s far easier to not write and dream about that story or that blog post, than it is to actually sit down and do the work. The trouble, of course, is that story is never going to be written without the work that goes into it. There’s a quote that’s broadly attributed to Dorothy Parker (though there’s some evidence that it wasn’t original to her), that goes something like, “I don’t like to write, but I love having written.” I think this captures the sentiments of a lot of writerly types fairly well: we all like to have work that’s finished, but actually doing the work can be, well, work. And nobody likes work.

That, I think, is what makes it easy to step away from writing. At least it does for me. That being said, without the work, nothing is ever going to be accomplished. One of the major misconceptions about writing is that it’s some kind of magical process. It isn’t. Instead, it’s much more like training and developing certain habits of mind. As a parallel, if you wanted to paint, play piano, or get really good at running marathons (if you’re into such torture, I suppose), the logical idea would be to practice and train. That’s the only way to get better at those activities, and it works the same way for writing. Training for writing will lead to more and better writing in the same way that practicing the piano will make you better at piano. It isn’t rocket science, but it is surprisingly hard to do. This is where persistence comes in. I’ve heard the term “grit” used to express similar ideas, but I like the word persistence a little more. Persistence has an element of stubbornness to it that I think is important in the context writing. Basically, if you’re going to be a persistent writer, you are going to write. And that’s it. You’re not waiting for the voice of God for inspiration; you’re not daydreaming about published work or academic accolades; you’re writing.

I suppose the moral of the story, then, is don’t have a month like March was for me. This might be the closest I’ve come to a motivational post, but sometimes the reminder is helpful: if you want to write, and if you want to be a better writer, you’ve just got to keep writing. It will mean that you’ll produce a lot of stuff you wouldn’t want anyone to see, but that is what the backspace button is for.

-PWC

Abandoning major themes: storytelling advice from The Last Jedi

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Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Star Wars: The last Jedi came out in December of last year. It’s now April, so that makes this post just about 4 months later than it should be. I took the advice of a good friend and didn’t see it in the theater, so here we are after I finally got around to seeing it. The Last Jedi was a mediocre movie, even taking into account the rest of the Star Wars canon (and yes, I do mean the prequels), and it made a number of major mistakes along the way. The critiques of the story and the way that it treats the background lore of the Star Wars universe are many and varied, so I’m not trying to add to that mix. Instead, I want to focus on something that I haven’t heard a lot of people talk about when critiquing The Last Jedi: the major themes that the movie dropped from the overall story and what advice writers can take away from the failings of the movie.

First, some groundwork. In a story, the theme is what the story is really about. This is different from the plot in that the plot is all of the action of a story, and a theme is what the action is supposed to have us thinking about. Most good stories, and especially ones as expansive as Star Wars, have a number of themes that are supposed to draw our attention and get us thinking. In Star Wars, a good example of a theme is the way that various users interact with The Force. The Force itself is amoral, but the way that individuals use it determines its morality: they end up on the light side or the dark side. The theme, then, is getting us to think about how we interact with power, and what, as individuals, we should do with the powers and abilities we have. One of the ways that you can tell this is a theme in the story is that over the course of eight movies, it is an idea that keeps coming up again and again. This makes it different from the plot because each of the individual movies has its own plot lines. So far, so Star Wars.

As a storyteller, it’s important to think about what kinds of themes you are trying to write about, and how they interact with the plot, because the interplay between the two is what can make or break a story. Also, if you have a story that comes in multiple parts, a reader is going to be expecting the theme to carry through all the varying parts of the story. This could be individual chapters; this could be books in a series; or it could be individual movies. For example, I’m currently re-reading The Lord of the Rings, and a theme that repeatedly comes up all the way from The Hobbit to The Return of the King is that the humble halflings, the least of the peoples of Middle Earth, are the ones who save everyone. The idea being that it isn’t always the strong and the mighty who end up being heroes; sometimes, heroism comes from the least likely places. Now what would happen if halfway through, Tolkien just dropped this theme entirely? Say somewhere in The Two Towers, Gandalf takes the ring of power and uses all his might to blast open the gates of Mordor and throws the ring into Mount Doom. It would be an interesting twist, but would ultimately make for a very different story, and, at the same time, it would render all of what the hobbits had to do fairly useless.

The idea of this slight rabbit trail through Middle Earth is that if you abandon major themes of a story, you really fundamentally change the world you are writing in. Further, if you make those changes without solid explanations that make sense in the fictional universe, you’re going to lose your audience. That’s exactly the trap that Star Wars: The Last Jedi fell into, and it goes a long way in explaining the low audience score on sites like Rotten Tomatoes. There are probably more, but here are three themes that The Last Jedi abandoned without any good explanation.

  1. Family relationships: at the core of the Star Wars story is a theme about how fathers and sons relate to one another. What was Vader’s big reveal in to Luke? “I am your father.” What was Anakin’s surprise in the prequel movies? “There was no father.” Further, Anakin’s complaint about Obi Wan’s training? “He’s like a father!” The line that brings Darth Vader back to the light side? “Father, please!” A line Luke doesn’t finish because he’s getting electrocuted. Even more broadly, other family relationships come into the story as well. The thing that motivates Luke into nearly killing Darth Vader is that Vader finds out Luke has a sister. Anakin’s turn to the dark side happens after his mother is killed. You get the idea. The Last Jedi throws this theme completely out the window. There was plenty of buildup about who Rey’s family was going to be in The Force Awakens, and what was the payoff? Nothing. Rey’s family was no one. It’s interesting to see Star Wars branching away from the Skywalker bloodline, but there’s not really a solid, in-universe explanation for why this happens, and it completely drops a huge portion of what Star Wars is about. It also leads to problem number two.
  2. The Force: one of the single most brilliant things about the Star Wars prequels is that it made The Force biological. I know this got a lot of hate initially, but hear me out for just a second. This explanation of The Force took the abilities outside of the mystic mumbo-jumbo of the original trilogy and gave it a real explanation that works incredibly well in the Star Wars universe. This explains, for example, why Darth Vader is so powerful, and yet manages to be struck down by Luke. With Vader missing most of his limbs and being “more machine now than man,” he doesn’t have the organic tissue to actually harness and use The Force; however, his great power is transferred, genetically, to his son and daughter. Thus, Luke, having most of his limbs, is able to use The Force in a way that Vader cannot any more. This also explains why Leia is able to use the force in a limited way as well. Even without training, the biological power is such that she is still very strong in The Force. This even explains Kylo Ren who, although not a very impressive villain, is still very powerful: he’s still part of the Skywalker bloodline, and so still has the same power. Again, this is where Rey and her lack of a family becomes a problem. We get the idea that she’s incredibly powerful, but why? Where did it come from? Especially if her parents were just nobodies, how exactly is she so powerful? If it’s some kind of genetic mutation, wouldn’t that potentially mean other physical mutations as well? After all, we know she does have parents, so it isn’t some kind of born from The Force thing the way Anakin is. Dropping this theme creates too many questions, and, again, without a solid explanation, it isn’t doing the story any favors.
  3. Galactic Politics: answer this, if you can: why are the rebels rebelling? There isn’t much in the way of explanation given in the original trilogy, and from all we can tell, The Empire seems to be a fairly stable political structure with the infrastructure to employ plenty of people, and the funds to create enormous weapon systems. By all accounts, this makes the rebellion seem more like a force (no pun intended) for destabilization than anything else. There are two things that can go a long way in explaining why the rebellion is rebelling against The Empire, but we have to go slightly outside the movies. First, we need to ask a question: was The Empire really employing everyone? The actual answer is… no. In some of the books and comics set in the Star Wars universe, it gets revealed that The Empire is selling and keeping slaves to do the work. The movies touch briefly on slavery in the prequels as well, but this is mostly a non-canon explanation. That being said, it does go a long way in explaining how The Galactic Empire was able to grow: conquered planets weren’t just destroyed; instead, they were enslaved. Second, there’s a question of funds. Where exactly does The Empire get the money for what it does? The answer from logic and what we already know about real political systems is taxation. Yes, The Empire sells slaves, but that can’t be their only source of income. There must be some kind of taxation system in place. Additionally, there’s a lot of smuggling in the Star Wars universe, so we can make some interpretations about that too. Does The Empire set up trade regulations? Are they fixing prices or banning particular things? Since all of those tend to create black markets, we can assume that The Empire is doing all of that. So the crimes of The Empire are slavery, possibly heavy taxes, and possible over-regulation, banning, and price fixing. There’s one we haven’t touched on though: earthly empires do one thing the most: colonization. We can probably assume that The Galactic Empire was also setting up colonies on other planets, and we can also assume that colonization doesn’t look very different in space than it does on earth. So the cause of the rebellion, if anything, is quite possibly more libertarian in nature than anything else. They want freedom from slavery, taxes, regulation, and colonization. What does The Last Jedi do with this theme? Nothing. In fact, it changes it from liberty to hope for the oppressed and poor. This makes the rebellion in The Last Jedi more proletariat than libertarian. Now there’s the obvious response that The First Order is a different political system, and that’s true; however, from all that we can tell, they seem to be copying the political dynamics of The Empire. We can probably assume that they are also copying some of the crimes of The Empire as well. So is there an explanation for the change in motivations? Nope. At least, not an in-universe explanation.

These are just three examples of themes that The Last Jedi dropped without any good, solid explanation, and like the example I gave from Tolkien, it makes for a really different story. Basically, for a universe that has managed to stay more or less consistent in its themes for years, these were huge departures from established work, and, understandably, estranged the established Star Wars audience. So what is the advice here? Let’s say you’re a new writer. You have a story that you’ve written and a theme you’ve developed, but you’re also working on a part two that is going in a very different direction and has a different main theme, but you still want it to be connected to the same universe. If you don’t find yourself writing a different story altogether, then the advice is this: think of a convincing explanation. The theme-dropping in The Last Jedi is not necessarily the problem. It will divide loyal fans either way, but if it had a convincing explanation for the changes, then The Last Jedi would have been much more acceptable. So make theme changes if you want, but in a multi-part story, the important thing to keep in mind is that a convincing explanation for the changes will go a long way in making a coherent story and keeping readers convinced.

As an aside, this is true for a lot of other businesses as well. One of my favorite bars, for example, was an Irish pub that decided (seemingly on a whim) to become a tiki bar. That change had about the fan reaction that you could imagine.

Always have a good explanation, people!

-PWC.

On getting stuck in a writing rut and what I do about it

I managed to get myself stuck in a writing rut over the last week, so of course I did what anyone would in this situation (or so I imagine) and did a Google search for writer’s block. I’m not really certain what I was expecting, but what I got was an incredible display of writing advice. Some of it was good, most of it was bad, and all of it was a little too self-helpy for me, so I thought I would add my own advice to the mix: keep the word count in mind. By this, I don’t mean that all you need is to add extraneous detail to get to a required word count– here’s looking at you, beginning composition students. Instead, I mean that writing sometimes needs a definable, clear goal, or it can become maddening.

My own goal is to write around 500 words per blog post. The number gives me enough space to actually say something interesting, but not so much space that I ramble on and on. That is, of course, in addition to the various other things that I write, but the 500 word minimum has given me a clearly defined goal when it comes to writing. That being said, here’s the advantage, and here’s what setting a word count goal can do for writing.

The main advantage of a word count is that it feels like an accomplishment. This is true even when it really isn’t and all you’ve written is a hot, steaming pile of garbage. We’ve all been there, but at least you made the word count, right? Typically, there’s something in the garbage pile that is worth saving, and it’s easy to write more than the goal. This means that my advice is to set the bar reasonably low when it comes to word counts. One hundred words is probably too low, but if that’s where things start, so be it: revel in the 100 words. The feeling of accomplishment will probably be enough to keep the writing going for at least another 50.

Setting a word count can also provide you with some much needed parameters. Writing is difficult, after all, and writing with no clear ideas can be even more difficult still. It isn’t much, but a short word count can give you a nice box to work in, and it can make a useful jumping off point if something needs to be longer. Again, no one is saying that you can’t write more. The problems only come about when the word count is consistently missed. That can quickly become demoralizing. Meeting the goal not only helps writing, but it can also make you want to write more. If 500 words is too easy, add another hundred and then keep going.

I tell my students every semester that I teach writing that it was a skill that can be practiced. I might argue that getting out of writing ruts and avoiding writer’s block are also fairly easy to practice as well. A quick, 500-word practice is enough to keep me writing, and as it becomes easier and easier to do, it might just be a quick warm-up instead.

-PWC