Archive for November 22nd, 2010

Having had over 900 professional sales in the last seven or eight years, I am starting to call myself a writer without feeling like a fraud.

To help me make decisions about what other kinds of writing I want to try, I have drawn up a list of my strengths and weaknesses as a writer as honestly as I can. Here they are, in no particular order:


  • An omnivorous reading habit: I’ll read anything, and I read constantly. So far as I’m concerned, I couldn’t write if I hadn’t been in love with reading since I was four years old. I would also know much less about the possible choices when I write.
  • A reliance on a spoken vocabulary: I believe that the standard for any language is how it is spoken, so I rarely use words in my writing that I wouldn’t say aloud. I believe this gives a directness to my writing that it wouldn’t otherwise have. I can define far more words than I use in anything except academic writing.
  • An inner ear: I hear what I write or read in my head as though it were spoken out loud. Consequently, my writing has a rhythm to it that helps draw attention to it.
  • A belief in the importance of truth: I don’t believe in objectivity or absolute truth. But I do believe that truth exists externally, and that some viewpoints are more valid than others, and worth expressing as accurately as possible.
  • A difficulty in lying: Thanks to repeated exposure to George Orwell, I am convinced that a writer’s duty is state the truth, even when doing so means facing up to unpleasant facts about themselves or others.
  • An awareness of structure: While I am proud of my ability to reel off memorable phrases, I am prouder of my ability to see the structure in a piece of writing, and to give a suitable shape to my own work. This ability is rarer than the ability to produce striking phrases, and more important to successful writing.
  • An ability to draw analogies: In my experience, most people see differences around them. I see similarities, which means that I can often suggest something new to them.
  • A belief in the need for fairness, and for acknowledging other viewpoints: This belief has nothing to do with being friendly and everything to do with improving the development of my thoughts. I deepen the development of thoughts when I consider alternative explanations. I also give myself more to write about as I explain why my chosen explanation works and what is wrong with other ones.
  • A perception of multiple-causes: I do terribly on multiple-choice questions unless “All of the above” is frequently included. To pretend that one or two reasons are enough to explain most things – especially people’s motivations – is to introduce inaccuracies and falseness into your work. And, by acknowledging multiple-causation, I find still more to write about.
  • A memory strong on recognition, but not outstanding on recall: Often, I cannot dredge up a memory myself. But if someone or something triggers a memory, my mind is better than almost everybody’s. I suspect that recognition is more important than recall for a writer, because, when a memory is buried, all sorts of interesting connections are made to it in your mind. By contrast, I suspect that a photographic memory impedes this imaginative process, which is why I’m glad that I don’t have one.


  • A reluctance to edit: By the time I finish writing, my mind is already moving on to something else. I can only edit myself by an act of will, and I’m still not very good at it.
  • An over-use of transitions: I’m so obsessed with structure that I would start every sentence with one if I let myself. As things are, one of my routine editing tasks is to delete most of the “first of all”, “on the other hand”s and other transitions.
  • A phobia about fiction: Above all else, I want to be a fiction writer. It means so much to me that it’s taken me years to actually be able to write it. Poetry? Essays? Articles? No problem. But, when I try to write fiction, I freeze up.
  • A straining after effect: I am far too fond of the original or striking phrase, perhaps because my first professional publications were poetry. I’ve taken years to learn that a really pithy expression might not be good for the work as a whole.
  • A handwriting that is indecipherable: In elementary school, I won prizes for neat handwriting. Then I became a university instructor, and wrote so many comments on student essays that my cursive writing became illegible. I switched to printing, and it also became illegible – even to me. I’ll write things down in the middle of the night so I remember them, only to have no idea come morning what I scrawled.
  • An over punctiliousness about references: Not only do I rarely leave “this” unqualified by a following pronoun, but I make a point of using names rather than pronouns. While these habits make for absolute clarity, they often sound awkward, especially when I use a name too many times in the same sentence or paragraph.
  • A love of weasel words: “Appear,” “seems.” and other qualifiers appear far too often in my work. I’m not sure whether they are a remnant of too many academic papers, or reflect a world view in which very little is absolutely certain..
  • An over-emphaticness: In compensating for the qualifiers I use naturally, I often go too far and sound too blunt, or even rude.
  • A tendency to write lists: (Enough said)

A few of these points are probably universal – for example, I don’t think I’ve met a professional writer who didn’t read everything they could get their hands on. However, others probably reflect that I mainly write non-fiction, and still others are undoubtedly idiosyncratic.

Still, I offer them for whatever they might be worth. They are not the formula for success (of a kind), but I hope they might be interesting as one formula for success. I only wonder what I’ve left out because I can’t perceive it.

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