Tuesday 22 September 2009

WRITING TIP: In Pursuit of Excellence (Part 1)

Ernest Hemingway may have had to struggle through his revisions in laborious longhand, but today’s technology has many advantages for a writer.

With the plethora of technical tools available – from supersonic computers to software programmes that offer help with plotting and characterisation - it’s easier than ever before to write that novel we’ve always wanted to. But there is one insidious disadvantage of writing in a technologically advanced era. It is simply too easy to become a lazy writer rather than striving to be an excellent writer.

Two of the many causes behind a lack of excellence in writing today are:

• Comparative competitiveness
• A publish-at-any-cost attitude

Comparative competitiveness is a death-knell to personal excellence. We can become so hooked on comparing our own writing with that of others we forget the only worthwhile comparison is to what we have written before. Ask not: is this novel better than that published novel? Rather ask: is this novel better than my last one? How can I improve this page, this sentence, this one word?

Excellent writing makes a unique contribution to the world. It can be funny or tragic; be genre or literary fiction; offer light-hearted entertainment or profound wisdom, but it is unique. Any imitative writing is naturally going to suffer from a comparison to the original. If comparative competitiveness is striving to do better than others do, then excellence is striving to do better than we did before.

Writers who pursue excellence should pay close attention to what makes others successful writers or not. But we should still write our own stories with a sense of pride and passion that constantly drives us to improve on all we have written before. And it is only then that we will begin to exceed our own expectations of personal excellence.

"There is vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action and, because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly... to keep the channel open." Martha Graham, dancer

Along the Eastern Bypass highway into Johannesburg, there was a recent billboard advertisement for the latest “Survivor” TV reality show. ‘Cheating isn’t allowed,’ it blared. ‘It’s positively encouraged.’ When did winning become more important than playing the game with honour and integrity and personal excellence? When did being published-at-any-cost become more important than writing the best story we know how to write?

As a driving motivation for writing, the dream of publishing fame and fortune is, per se, not a deterrent to excellence. But it can become a problem if one forgets to look on every book we write as a service we’re offering our readers.

We should write every story, not only because we want to be A Published Author, but also because we want to give our readers the best value for money that we can. Whatever the demographics of our targeted readers, we owe it to them to produce the best work we possibly can. Anything less is cheating. And, unless we constantly strive to improve the quality of our writing ‘service’, we are cheating ourselves as much as we are cheating our readers.

So, as authors, how do we pursue excellence? You can explore different ways of pursuing writing excellence by clicking on these links:

Prepare the mind
Build towards excellence
Realise excellence


Amanda Holly said...

Good post Ann! Can't wait to read the next instalment! :-)

Oh and love the Martha Graham quote. You have a knack for finding these gems!

Ann Victor said...

AMANDA: I'm glad you enjoyed the post and the quote. :) It's one of my favourite motivations.

Judith Mercado said...

Were we separated at birth? That Martha Graham quote is one I treasure! Thanks for reminding me once again of its wisdom. It brought to mind another favorite quote, this one from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession... Do that which is assigned to you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much."

Ann Victor said...

JUDITH: Ha! When I read your blogger profile I wondered that myself! :) *Love* the Emerson quote - it's going into my motivation box right now! :)

Marilyn Brant said...

Ann, what a fantastic post--thank you!! I love and appreciate the reminder that we're striving to better ourselves, not compete against anyone else. It's tempting to be blown away by the commercial success of someone like Dan Brown, but I know The Lost Symbol is not one of MY stories... So, I can only tell mine in the best way I know how.

p.s. I love the Martha Graham quote AND the Emerson one (thanks, Judith :).

Ann Victor said...

MARILYN: And it's good that you reminded me that writers are also only human :)! I agree it's very tempting to wonder how we can be the next Dan Brown or J K Rowling, but part of being an "excellent" is accepting our limitations, and working around them to concentrate on honing our strengths.

Pamela Cayne said...

"It is simply too easy to become a lazy writer rather than striving to be an excellent writer."

Amen to that, Miss Ann! It seems like so many people out there today have tried writing just because they had a laptop in front of them, rather than the desire inside.

In light of that, I'd like to share one of my favorite quotes by Robert Browning: "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"

Here's to us always exceeding our grasp.

Ann Victor said...

MISS PAM: Another *great* quote for my motivation box! And so true. we must know our limitations, but that doesn't mean we can't strive to break through them. That's part of using our strengths in pursuit of excellence.

RJayce said...

An excellent reminder to all us inspiring artists, Ann. I'm sure it's not only writers who struggle with this instant access to everyone else's success and measuring ourselves against it. Love the post about uniqueness, we are what we are and we should be more concerned about being the best of what we are than trying to equal or better what others are... okay, I've confused myself know, but that's the way I interpret that quote:-)

Ann Victor said...

ROBYN: Nice to 'see' you here! And I know exactly what you're saying & agree with your interpretation. So does the Bhagavad Gita, which says (here's another quote!!!):

"It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly, than to live an imitation of somebody else’s life with perfection."

Anita said...

Just before sitting down to write today, I opened this post. THANK YOU! My focus sometimes becomes the rush to get it done. Why? I just want people to read it and love it. I don't want them to go, "Yay, she got it done in nothing flat."

lotusgirl said...

I worry about our world when cheating is encouraged even for the sake of entertainment. I strive for excellence, but fall so short mostly.

Ann Victor said...

ANITA: Time is such a precious commodity these days. I sometimes feel everything happens in a rush and that I get so easily trapped in that rushrushrush mode when the only goal is to be able to cross off something else from my to-do list!!

LOIS: One lifetime is too short to achive perfection! :) To me what's important is the *striving* towards excellence. We may not ever achieve perfect excellence, but if we at least *try* we can only get better and better! :)

Casey McCormick said...

What a lovely post, Ann. I often fall prey to comparative competitiveness. This has been a lovely reminder to knock it off. : )

Ann Victor said...

CASEY: Glad you enjoyed the post. Is is just so easy to fall into the trap of comparing oneself to others but, really, what's the use of comparing the oak and the willow? They both have their own beauty and that what's we as writers need to remember. We may not be the next JK Rowling or Dan Brown, but our stories have their own beauty.

Leonie Anderson said...

Excellent post, Ann! Look forward to the next installment!

septembermom said...

This is an excellent post, Ann. Thank you! It is too easy to be a lazy writer, or fall into the trap of "copying" what you think is popularly in fashion in order to get published. To be true to oneself as a writer should be the ultimate goal. Love the Martha Graham quote.

Thank you so much for your lovely comment about my poem. I really appreciate your thoughtfulness and insight :)

Ann Victor said...

LEONIE: Lovely to have you visit the blog! Glad you enjoyed the post.

SEPTEMBER MOM: I agree, the ultimae goal should be to write true to our own unique voice rather than just wanting to get published. (And your poem was lovely!)

Lady Glamis said...

Excellent post! This spells out a lot of things for me, especially the concern I have for writers who seem to be writing just to get published. Very frustrating to me. The only thing I can do is just keep writing the best books I can write. That's all that matters to me, anyway. Published or not.

Ann Victor said...

LADY GLAMIS: It can be frustrating and that's the danger of comparative competitiveness. Far better to concentrate, as you do, on just writing the best we can write at this moment in time.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Ann, I am catching up on reading blogs and this one was perfect! It is so easy to get caught up in finding what will publish and forgetting about how to make what you do better. Thanks for the fab reminder. Cehers!