The Hard Work of Writing

“Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” I’ve been guilty of saying just that to students in my Editing class. And while it’s true that I get to do what I love (and that, in itself, is a blessing), it’s not true that I’ve never worked. Many many days have been “head-down-plod-through-get-it-done-keep-going-don’t-give-up-the-manuscript-is-soon-ending” kind of days.

Editing is hard work.

And so is writing.

So my friend Kameron McBride (a BSU student and Midwest Writers social media intern) writes in his blog and makes the point that, indeed, writing doesn’t just happen like the cobbler going to sleep while the elves make the shoes. It’s sweaty, difficult, and painstaking work. We don’t (ever) wake up to a manuscript magically completed.

An illustration for the Brother's Grimm story "The Elves and the Shoemaker"
An illustration for the Brother’s Grimm story “The Elves and the Shoemaker”

So it’s a good thing we love it!

To be good at writing takes constant practice. Another BSU student and MWW social media intern John Carter discusses the importance of trying to create a schedule to keep him writing regularly over the summer. Then, of course, once “real life” is in place and summer vacation is a thing of the past (at least if you aren’t in academia), then that schedule and routine will be invaluable.

My friend L. Marie has been posting lots of writing process interviews. We writers must juggle life and overcome fear and discouragement. I love her post about this. (And, if you want more, read her whole lineup–especially if you’re into YA.)

Yep, this writing life is hard work–discouraging at times, frustrating, often unrewarded (except when we’re outstanding in our own minds).

And, like any skill, we need to work to improve. Sure, maybe some of us were born with an innate ability to put words together, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to learn or to hone our craft. As Barbara Shoup (director of Indiana Writers Center and, incidentally MWW faculty this year) points out in this blog post, the craft can be learned if you’re patient and willing to work at it.

Work at it.

Here’s what my friend and mentor Cathy Day says about it:

Convincing yourself each day to keep going, this means that you are a writer. The world will be sure to declare, “You matter, but you don’t. Wow, your work is exciting, but yours is old fashioned and dull.” What do you do when someone says, “Eh, you’re okay, I guess.” Do you stop? Or do you keep going? That’s the moment when you know whether or not you’re a writer.

Cathy says, “You must do it simply because you want to.”

Kind of like what Mo Smith (yet another MWW social media intern) describes here.

And it’s hard work.

But therein lies the glory. We want to do it so much that we’re willing to work at it. To stare at the screen on the tough days. To get up early and write when that’s the only time available. To keep on plugging when it fights against us.

That’s the hard part for so many. I hate to sound like an old fuddy-duddy (even if I am one), but in a culture where crimes are solved in a TV hour and purchases are made immediately online and we get upset if someone doesn’t answer our text within 60 seconds–well, have we lost what it means to work at something tirelessly?

We each have to answer that for ourselves.

Your Most Important Writing

My friend L. Marie posted a thought-provoking blog about what qualifies as success for us writers, so I wanted to repost it here and add a few thoughts.

Like her, I’ve spent much of my life working behind the scenes as an editor. You won’t find my name on too many book covers (maybe a couple, but long out of print); instead, I might appear on a copyright page (“Project staff includes”) or in the Acknowledgements (“Thanks to my editor”) or maybe neither of the above no matter how much work I may have done.

And you know what? That’s okay by me.

Sure. I’d love to land a six-figure book contract. I’d love to go on a book tour. I’d love fame and fortune and the new shoes all that money could buy (not to mention helping my kids pay off their college loans).


Who among us wouldn’t want that?

But I tell my students that being published ought not be their standard of success. Trust me, plenty of books get published and simply don’t sell. Yes, it’s an important pursuit and I hope all of my writing friends are able to see their name in print. So keep trying. Keep writing articles and essays and stories and books, keep blogging, keep sending out those query letters and proposals, and above all, keep writing. L. Marie compares it to a marathon–actually running it is a success story in itself.

But here’s the thing. Don’t think less of the other writing you do. The unpublished stuff.

That note to a dear friend who’s going through a tough time.

That long-past-due letter to your grandmother to let her know how much she means to you.

That note of encouragement to a fellow writer.

That manuscript gathering dust in your drawer. You had to write it to pull yourself out of the depths of some despairing situation, or to get your head around some pain, or to write your way to an understanding and a peacefulness with your world. Yes, that manuscript. The one they have to bury with you because it simply can’t ever see the light of day.

And that’s okay, too.

The gift you have of writing–the ability to put words together in a special way–is valuable in all kinds of places, in all kinds of situations. And it may very well be that the most important writing you do will never be published for the world to see.

But it may make a difference in someone else’s life . . . or it may just have helped you continue on your journey in a better state of mind.

And when it comes to writing, what more could a writer want?

The Art of the Book Review

I just got off the phone with my friend, L. Marie, who recently created a blog, “Thoughts about writing and life.” I’m thrilled that she’s blogging! We chatted about Literary Citizenship and how she needs this online presence in order to impress the agents where she’s currently shopping her young adult fantasy book. She has an MFA and is a terrific writer—but she realized that she needed to get online and join the literary world. I talked to her all about what we’re doing in our class; we talked through WordPress and how to add hyperlinks and tags. She’s on a roll now!

She’s also an avid reader, so I encouraged her to do reviews of books (her current blog is a movie review that ties into her writing). And wouldn’t you know it, our Lit Cit class is talking about that very topic this week. Book reviews are extremely important–especially book reviews by book lovers and writers who understand the craft.

That’s you.

Indeed, Robin Becker at Penn State has an entire class on book reviewing because “my own experience had led me to book reviewing. Years ago, just as my first book entered production, I asked a more experienced poet how to get my book reviewed. She replied, ‘Review other people’s work. That way, you participate in the conversation.'”

As citizens of the literary world, we should participate in the conversation about books by reviewing books and helping along other authors who are just getting started.

Sure, review the latest Stephen King if you want, but it will be a great help to another fledgling writer if you discover and love his or her book and write a well-crafted review. Post it on your blog, sell it to a magazine where it might fit, offer it to a newspaper in the town where the author will be doing a reading. Follow up with an interview and do the same thing.

But maybe, like me, you wonder how to craft a good book review. Well, here’s some help.

I’m new to this, so I come to the topic eager to learn. Our class website featured an interview with David Walton, author and prolific book reviewer, who offered his advice on writing book reviews. So I am passing along what I’m learning to you.

I love the pie chart included there; further detail about each category on that pie chart is here so that you understand what plot synopsis (35%), critical analysis (25%), showing off (20%), providing context (10%), and quoting from the text (10%) mean in the context of a book review.

I also discovered that there is a lot of conversation happening in the literary world regarding book reviews. I think I’ve stayed away because I thought: (a) I’m not high profile enough to write in the New York Times book review column, (b) I don’t know how to write a review, and (c) I don’t even want to comment on Amazon because isn’t that just people who either like or dislike the author or the topic and really write nothing about the quality of the book? (Charles Baxter calls this “Owl Criticism”: I don’t like owls; this book is about owls; I don’t like this book.) Indeed, many publishers are vetting their book reviewers to make sure they’re legit.

Well meanwhile, over at Amazon, there’s been plenty of conversation about fake reviews, with Amazon actually pulling down many suspect ones. (For help in writing one of those short Amazon reviews, check out this post.)

So what does that mean for those of us just getting started?

First, read the book.

Second, understand the craft and study the book well enough to be able to see what the writer is doing as a writer.

Charles Baxter’s “Owl Criticism” post puts it this way, “A reviewer is entitled to any opinion at all, but he or she earns that opinion based on a description and a judicious citation of evidence. . . . Is it too much to ask of a reviewer that he should know what he’s talking about?” He goes on:

The marks of a trustworthy review, therefore, have a kind of doubleness: the reviewer manages to assert somehow that the book under discussion is of some importance for one reason or another; and second, a good review provides a formal description of the book’s properties, so that you could reconstruct it from the reviewer’s sketch of it. This description is not the same as a plot summary, although a plot summary may figure into it. What a formal description does is to show what a book is about in relation to the form in which the subject matter has been shaped or located. In order to write such a review, let’s say of a novel, you have to have a basic idea of how novels are constructed; you have to have the technical knowledge that allows you to stand back from the book and to say how a book is put together. By these criteria, quite a few book reviews are worthless.

Los Angeles Times book critic, David Ulin, discusses the importance of well-crafted reviews:

Criticism matters — not because of how many people read it, or whether they agree or disagree with it, but because it is a way of engaging with literature. . . .

Books can stir this range of emotions also, which is why the act of criticism can be so hard. It’s not just about opinion but engagement, the sense of hope, of anticipation with which we come to a book, and the ideas, the feelings, with which we walk away from it, even, or especially, if they are not what we expect.

For me, this is how I know I’m doing my job: not by whether I like a book or don’t (whatever that means), but by what I learn. When I’m reading and writing well, books open up before me; often, they turn my preconceptions around. They make me think — not just about the flow of this text, but also about the flow of all texts: the different texts by this particular author, the different texts that I have read. I have, in other words, to confront myself, to figure out what I think, and then like all writers, to follow that line to its logical conclusion, for good or for ill.

For us writers, it’s a part of our craft to learn to write a good book review. It’s an art form. It keeps us reading. It allows us to learn from one another. It connects us in this literary world. It allows us to share good books with one another.

It helps us be good literary citizens.