You’ve also got to get them in the right order…

750 wordsSo there’s this 750 words site, which is a very simple (simple enough to be confusing, really) site designed to help wannabe writers (raises hand) get into the supposedly healthy “writing three pages a day” habit that has, on dit, been recommended by Various Famous Writers. Friend Emily mentioned it on Facebook and I signed up on ummmm Saturday, I did 750+ words that day, forgot all about it yesterday despite the helpful reminder email, and then did 750+ again today.

It’s different from, say, NaNoWriMo, in that 750 words a day isn’t nearly 50,000 in a month (more like 22,500), and it’s open-ended. And on the other hand you can’t be lazy one day and then make up for it the next.

Here is what I wrote today; what I wrote on Sunday feels a bit too personal and/or embarassingly bad :) to post in public at the moment. It is, probably predictably, about the process itself.

I’m not sure that what Real Writers have suggested in the past really meant just writing three pages of absolutely whatever sprung to mind, including grocery lists, the word “cheese” repeated over and over (like, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese), or even pure internal monologue like this.

Is that really something that helps develop writing skills? Or develope them, for that matter? (stet)

I can see this sort of totally uncensored, totally unjudged activity being either helpful or unhelpful, really, and I which is more likely is probably an empirical question. Contingent. Possibly different for different people, even, although it’s all too easy to suggest that for any given thing that might otherwise have a Right Answer.

There’s that scene in the L-Word where whatsername Jenny is talking to the creative writing teacher who has basically trashed her stuff, and what the teacher says is that she is just writing things that actually happened to her, perhaps thinly disguised, and Jenny agrees and/or admits this. And the teacher says that she won’t be a writer until she stops doing that, because just writing what actually happens is something else, she uses a word like “chronicaler” or “diarist” that’s clearly intended to be derogatory, and also says something sort of twee-paradoxical about things that actually happened not being true, or not being reality or something.

Awhile back, quite very awhile back, I used to (for some probably-small period of time) pick a word at random from somewhere (given how long ago, probably from the hardcopy dictionary or something), and then write some amount about that word, whatever first sprang to mind. (I wrote it with an actual pencil, on actual atomic paper, in an actual physical D-ring binder notebook, as I recall; how archaic, eh?)

Once Anne, childhood Anne, read a bunch of my writing (brave of me in retrospect, and probably even at the time, to have given them to her to read), and she liked it overall, but thought that the “write some stuff about a random word” ones were sort of forced, or artificial, or missing something, or at any rate, I remember, not as good.

And that’s the worry here I suppose, or something like it. That just writing without worrying about what one is writing will lead to the habit of doing that, of equating writing with writing-whatever, wearing away at whatever habits or standards of quality that one might otherwise have, and which one might do better carefully cultivating then actively wearing-away at. (Hm, how would one avoid ending that sentence with a preposition? “and one might do better carefully cultivating them rather than actively wearing away at them” I guess, but is that really an improvement?)

Not to mention actively developing bad habits. I don’t know if it applied to the pen-and-paper version, probably it did really in some form, but the temptation in this medium, with the word-count actively (but slowly) going up in the bottom-right corner down there as I type, is to always choose the wordier way of saying any given thing, to say the same thing over and over in various different ways even, to use N words when K would have done, for N greater than K.

One can just type and type and type, that is to say, making totally (or reasonably) coherent sentences (even though that’s not strictly-speaking required), while still not saying much of anything, or saying the same thing over and over.

And is that a good habit to develop? That is probably not a good habit to develop.

We walk out into the fields to harvest the pages. They grow on tops of the page-stalks, and also on the second-highest cluster of leaves, or cluster of what would be leaves if they were not pages. Below that level, the leaves actually are leaves, green with veins in the typical way, if somewhat more squarish than the typical leaf on any other kind of plant.

(See, the “on any other kind of plant” didn’t really need to be in there; there are things besides plants that have leaves, but the reader would have gotten it without that hint even.)

When the pages are ripe, they snap off of the stalks easily, with a slight tug just off of straight. Not too much off, so as not to tear the paper. And not too much straight, because then it may resist and not come off, and you may have to try again, and that would be inefficient.

And no one wants to be inefficient…

It’s funny that I have (or at least pretended to have, for the purposes of word-count) these reservations about developing bad habits by doing the “three pages a day” thing, whereas I’ve never had that worry about NaNoWriMo, where the lack of internal censor just feels freeing. Maybe because NaNoWriMo is so much an all-out infrequent event, whereas the other is intended to be an everyday every-day habit. Or something…

(Astoundingly, even the combination of being linked to by Salon and writing this exquisite political satire has not yet led to international fame; but we soldier on…)

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2 Comments to “You’ve also got to get them in the right order…”

  1. I’ve just completed publishing a reasonably large body of words on my site – talking about the software that I designed, implemented, documented and cursed over a period of about 12 years. I had, at first, thought it would be easy to write some things and move on, maybe taking a month at it. Although I write a diary as well, it isn’t really enough to practice proper writing – maybe the teacher from the L-Word would consider my rambles as chronicling, and not worthy of note, but it’s a lot more so than the day-to-day email exchanges and online code reviews that are bread and butter.

    However, writing is one part of the body of work, I found, and I think this is what you were saying about bad habits. I got about 20 chapters written before I made a conscious effort to go back and review what I’d written (and spell check… oh my how bad it was), and that told me that my early chapters had content but were badly structured – mostly trains of thought – and the later ones had settled into being more verbose than they needed to be – using words that offered little of extra value.

    The editing that followed on showed me how childlike some writing was – “I did this then this then this” and similar over-complex sentences – and how it could change with a bit of thought. In my head I read some sentences in a small child’s voice and if it sounds like something they would say, and feels wrong, I change it. Contractions were something that I do regularly and naturally, but you tend to not see them as often in better written texts – but when reading you put them back, without it feeling unnatural. I would often write a sentence that would say one thing and then qualify it, or parenthesise a detail. I didn’t feel that worked as well, so I began splitting sentences up, and either removing the detail or making it a sentence in its own right.

    The editing influenced how I wrote, and the future reviews that I did could concentrate more on the content of what I was saying, rather than the way in which I was saying it. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t make a mess of things and need to re-write whole paragraphs during a review :-)

    I went further, and looked at readability metrics and produced statistics for the chapters. Those chapters that got very high scores (meaning they were more difficult to read, according to the metric), I reviewed more carefully, trying to reduce the complexity of the words and the simplify way that I was saying things. Almost always this improved the text – but it didn’t always improve the readability scores. Whilst it’s good to be aware of the metric, I think that writing to meet a metric doesn’t produce good writing – writing with the guidance of the metric helped to target areas that needed attention.

    So… and in my usual rambling way, I’ve drifted off the topic… my rambles were a long-after-the-event way of getting some things said, hopefully in an interesting way. I know that putting myself through that process helped some of my writing, but only because I reviewed as well as wrote. But then 750 words seems intended to set you up for the day by giving you an outlet for stuff that’s on your mind, rather than just as a way to improve writing. I use my online diary to clear things from my head that have annoyed me at the end of the day – I’m not a morning person and getting to work is the best I can hope for there :-)

    I’ll wish you all the best with your 750 words a day… and leave you with a small thought… I’ve been following your weblog since … oh, about December 1999, and I live in another country… so does that count as international fame?

    • Yay, international fame, indeed! And I think you get the record for Longest Weblog Comment Ever, at least in the current context. :) I’ve been reading your weblog / diary sporadically for ages also, although it’s been awhile since I was very good about actually keeping up with anything at all (except maybe xkcd).

      I also tend to write very nested and qualified and complicated sentences, and have also found that if I want to in fact be clear (as I often do at work, and don’t usually worry about on the Web haha), splitting them apart into more simpler sentences is extremely helpful.

      (As are short paragraphs. :) )

      Never tried any of them automatic prose-scoring things, that I can recall. Might be interesting; I am amused by your finding that concentrating the clarification efforts on the highest-scoring sections does improve the writing, but doesn’t lower the score any. That definitely says something!

      Thanks much for the comment; very gratifyin’.

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