1. Lae
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    Lae Contributing Member Contributor

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    Developing writing skills

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Lae, Mar 12, 2014.

    Evening all,

    I've been reading Jack bickham lately to try a develop some writing skill, it's very interesting to go over your work and actually see the mistakes yourself.

    My concern is that whilst I'm definetly going to improve, I dont want to follow Mr bickham's books as the bible of writing, I want other perspectives so I can get a really good overview.

    Any recommendations?

    Also what processes do you guys go through when correcting or drafting you work?

    Cheers
     
  2. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    The best way to avoid the problem is to read more widely in quality literature, not just for pleasure, but to analyze what the author has done and why. Do the points Bickham has made carry through with authors who are widely recognized and respected? How do they differ?

    The same holds true for any advice you see posted here: how have you seen it applied - or not - in your own reading? The more of this you do, the more finely you'll hone your abilities.
     
  3. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I second Ed. Read, read, and read some more. If you're reading critically, you should see an improvement in your writing.

    Don't consider anyone's books as the Bible of writing. There are no authorities when it comes to creative writing.
     
  4. vera2014
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    vera2014 Contributing Member

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    I own two of Jodie Renner's books on writing. She edits a lot of thrillers for a living and knows her stuff. I think her books are awesome, however, not all rules apply to all books. There are things I don't take too seriously. For example, she points out that the attention span of the modern reader is not as good as it was in earlier times. This isn't true for everyone--it's a generalization. I like thrillers but have no trouble with really large books. The Game of Thrones series did very well and those books were very fat.
     
  5. JayG
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    JayG Banned Contributor

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    There are lots of books. Sol, Stein has one, and he talks a lot about developing style, while Bickham and Swain focus on the nuts and bolts issues. I'd say to stay with what you have till you get through it, though, stopping when each new concept is introduced to fix your own work, and practice the point. Then go on to someone like Sol Stein. Donald Maass has a book that talks from an agent's point of view. I didn't learn a lot but it was interesting.

    When I first read Dwight Swain's book it drove me crazy. About every other page I had an epiphany, and whacked myself on the forehead, saying, "Idiot! Why didn't you see that for yourself?" Then I'd go over the work I'd already completed, fixing that point, so I would have a feel for using it rather than just knowing the point exists (and forgetting it by the time it was time to use it). I was spending a lot more time editing then reading. And after the fifth time, as finished editing and I reached for the book it suddenly occurred to me that if I began reading, two pages later I would be back to editing. By that time I felt so damn stupid that I almost couldn't force myself to go on.

    Luckily, good sense prevailed and I did. And that led to my first sale.

    One suggestion: six months after you finish the book read it, or Swain's book to review. I found that after had practiced the techniques for that long, and understood where he was going, I got as much the second time as I did the first.
     
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  6. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    i never recommend reading how-tos to learn how to write other than for aspiring lyricists or screenwriters, since those are the most specialized writing forms...

    for all other writers, the best way to learn how to write well is to be a good and constant reader of the best works by the best writers [does not = most popular]... some who can't learn well enough that way may benefit from a good writing course, but as with how-tos, there are far more bad ones than good ones, so you must vet them carefully before choosing one...
     
  7. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I'd recommend you do everything: read lots of good fiction (and analyze especially the ones you really like: why did you like them? How did specific scenes make you feel and why? etc), read how-tos (but understand that it's just one person's point of view on how art is produced and since so much of what makes good art is subjective, a lot of the information in how tos caters only to a particular style or genre, so take everything with a ladle of salt and keep your reading spectrum as broad as possible), find beta readers to comment on your writing (KaTrian and I have found some excellent betas from this forum, without their help our MS wouldn't be what it is today), beta read other people's works (we've learned so much from finding and fixing other people's mistakes since that process forces you to analyze every passage and it really helps you get a good feel and routine for grammatical stuff), and first and foremost write, write, and write some more. That's what writers do, they write. Try to write even a little every day. Granted, once you got your first draft, it becomes more about editing than writing, but our MS is in its... hell, I don't know, 20th draft or so, and even now we're writing new stuff into it after cutting out old parts that no longer fit the story / plot. We have written almost every day (there's maybe a dozen days a year we don't write at all) for the past 6 or so years and it shows on our command of the language; it's nowhere near perfect and probably never will be, but it's miles above what it was when we first started. We can't even read our first MS because it's so incredibly bad. Oh, and read and reread your own stories as well between reading fiction and how-tos: try to spot mistakes, try to find things you did worse or better than some published author, try to figure out why some scenes work and some don't and why they do or don't make you feel something.
     
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  8. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Ed and Mammamaia make good points. Read to study and avoid a lot of how-to books because most aren't very good. Two I'd recommend though because they focus more on sparking your creativity than rules are - Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and Turn not Pale Beloved Snail by Jacqueline Jackson.
    T. Trian & JayG & Vera all have the right idea too - when you do, or find something that works for you, you're on the right track.

    Me, I like to read poetry because it forces me to rethink how words & phrases can be used.
     
  9. MrReliable3599
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    MrReliable3599 Member

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    There are some good perspectives on developing writing skills, but only one side of the coin has been discussed.

    Other responses focused on the conscious, learning, awareness. Training for muscle memory is the other side of the coin. Whether its pencil on paper (I know people who still write this way - I'm dating myself again) or a computer word program, the more you actually write, the more directly your mind will transfer the ideas to your medium.

    Practice will condition the subconscious actions to be cleaner and more automatic. Most people on this forum use a keyboard to form words and sentences, but as a process, it seems more like we're just thinking words onto a page. We're nearly unaware of the process that takes place between our mind and the monitor. This isn't the case for a beginning writer, and the process is more defined the more repetitions we make.

    The same concept is true for phrasing. We might take some time to figure out the best way to express an idea. The next time a similar idea pops up, zip zing and it's on the page.

    Practice, practice, practice.
     
  10. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    @MrReliable3599, I agree that the better typist you are, the easier it is to just focus on transferring your thoughts onto the computer than on finding the right keys. That's just one of the reasons why I recommended writing every day. Before I started doing that, my typing speed was around 250 symbols per minute (without typing errors) whereas now it's 527 symbols per minute (again, without errors), which is a pretty huge leap and definitely helps to just focus on what I'm saying instead of searching for the keys, fumbling, backspacing, and retyping. It also helps to know all the necessary hotkeys of whatever word processor you're using since it always halts the action when you have to stop and click on the bolding or italicizing button or center the text and then align left again etc. Those are also much less annoying when you can just do them on the fly without having to move your hands from the keyboard to the mouse.

    ETA: This reminded me of one pitfall I try to avoid nowadays: there was a point when I became so conscious of avoiding making any kinds of mistakes, doing everything according to all the "rules," that after a while I realized I didn't enjoy writing nearly as much as I used to. I had lost that soaring feeling of freedom I experienced when we first started writing together with KaTrian; it was creation on the spot instead of carefully planning and calculating and whatevering practically every word. It just stifled the creative process, so that's when I took a step back, accepted that I had internalized most of the important conventions and rules well enough, we created a basic plot structure etc. that we'd follow, but apart from that, we went back to the more spontaneous style and lo and behold, the joy was back, it was fun again. And since nobody's paying me to do this, if it's not fun... well, what's the point? My livelihood isn't dependent on getting published, so I don't have to turn writing into a chore.

    Of course this way we make some mistakes, but that's where editing steps in: once we got the MS finished, we start working on the next draft and that's when we consider word choices and all that nitpicky jazz much more carefully. Sure, some writers are basically gods and can produce perfect manuscripts the first time around, but we're not quite there yet, so we switch back and forth between the writer's and editor's hats, but try to avoid wearing both at the same time.
     
    Last edited: Mar 13, 2014
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  11. JayG
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    JayG Banned Contributor

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    I see that a lot, but almost never from people making their living through selling their fiction. Reading is good, and gives us a feel for what the writing should be like, but strangely, though every one of us is a dedicated reader, and every one of us looks at published writing with an eye to picking up tricks, the writing in any online site us almost universally at a level where the rejection will come before the end of the first page. These are sincere dedicated people. So if the approach you suggests works, at least some of them would know that POV isn't about which personal pronouns you use. A few of them would be writing emotion based and character centric fiction.

    Do we learn the tricks of tennis from watching the pros, and playing with our amateur friends? Hell no. All the pros needed coaching. Did watching TV teach us screenwriting? Absolutely not. Any profession has its secrets and tricks-of-the-trade that aren't apparent. Fiction for the printed word is no different.

    What I find funny is that the idea that all you have to do is read, read, read published fiction was a notion promulgated by working writers with the express intent to deceive hopeful writers so as to protect themselves against potential competition (an interesting light on that is part of this paper on teaching methods for writers in the past). And amazingly, it's still working.
     
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  12. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Imagine if Shakespeare had had access to Swain and Bickham! I have no doubt he would have been a much better writer. :rolleyes:
     
  13. Ben414
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    Ben414 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm still new to creative writing myself, so I don't have much to add from experience. However, I heard JayG recommend Swain's book and I decided to go ahead and purchase it. I'm about halfway through it, and it has been amazing. It is a "nuts-and-bolts" book, but that seems like the best place to start and--for me at least--probably the hardest to pick up for those lacking experience. Reading other books with this knowledge has allowed me to view them in a different light. I used to think in terms of "this writing really flows well" or "I became emotionally invested in this character," and then I tried to repeat it without really understanding why it worked. Now, I think in terms of "there was great proportionality here," "the pattern of emotion was followed for readability," and "the tension peaks and valleys were contrasted well." I think it's important to understand the rules so you can logically decide whether to follow or break them.

    Also, thanks to JayG for the recommendation even though it wasn't for me specifically.
     
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  14. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    @JayG - Thanks for posting the link. It's a very interesting paper. However, if the point you are trying to make is that fiction writing technique can be taught/learned, I don't think you'd get any argument here, certainly not from me. If we all believed that, this site would either not exist or would be very different from what it is.

    As for the notion of "all you have to do is read, read, read published fiction", I'm not sure anyone here is suggesting that, either. I know I'm not. What I'm suggesting is that the novice writer can learn a great deal, not from casual reading, but from careful analysis and comparison of techniques. It means reading more slowly, going back and re-reading certain passages, making notes, etc. Sometimes, I'll read a work through, then go back and re-read for analysis. You recently mentioned in another thread that we in this forum don't do much in the way of critical comparisons, and you're right. I'd like to see that.

    As I've mentioned before, a lot depends on the person's individual learning style.
     
  15. Renee J
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    Renee J Contributing Member

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    Reading is good for seeing examples of techniques. So, while reading alone may not produce a great writer, only learning techniques (and the brief examples in the how-to lessons) may not be enough either.
     
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  16. JayG
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    JayG Banned Contributor

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    And what I've been saying, consistently, is that if you don't know what you're looking for, and at, reading does no good. Who learns more from watching a champion tennis player in action, the rank amateur or someone who recognizes what the player is trying to accomplish, and why? Studying other writers is for picking up on nuance not basics.

    I know what you're saying, but in the real world you cannot be the lone person here who has noticed and used this technique. We've all looked art the writers we admired, and trued to consciously emulate their style. But conspicuously absent from any online forum I've ever seen are the people saying, "It worked for me." I've seen lots of people advise others that all they need do is read the great writers and learn their style (not accusing you of that). But I've seen no professional writer saying that it was the best, or even a viable way. And every time someone has pointed out such-and-such a writer who supposedly did that the evidence hasn't supported the assertion.

    On Authonomy we once has one of the many writers of the Star Trek books drop in. The man made his living by writing and selling his fiction. His reaction, when presented with the "You can learn to write by reading," was pretty much the same as mine. So it might be that you're right. And I'll never argue with success. But first, I need to see it. I also have to comment that he eventually left in disgust. He would make a comment as to what publishers would and would not accept and people would respond with, "Yes but, this is what I do, or think," as though their opinion had equal weight and accuracy simply because rthat's what they chose to believe.
    I wasn't talking about style, but difference in opinion so far as presentation. and craft.

    But that being said, I would suggest any hopeful writer take a look at Elisabeth Bear's Dust for an example of how to keep the reader on the scene and in real-time, while presenting the story almost entirely in exposition, rather then in a tight POV (or any POV for that matter). It's not an easy read in the opening section because she simply dumps the reader into a situation filled with artifacts and attitudes for which the reader has no basis of comparison, as when she refers to a character as hir as against using, her. But Ms. Bear is a master, and if you understand POV, and the other conventions of telling a tale via the print medium there's a lot of admire, and perhaps learn from.
     
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  17. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Ms. Bear is now on my short list of must-reads. I'll let you know what I think.

    That's a point. On the other hand, I haven't seen much from successful writers on any particular method or approach. I don't see any of the other published writers from this forum (that is, the ones I know are published) speaking up about it, other than you and @mammamaia. I do not say this to try to disprove what you are saying, only to show the lack of consensus. I recall many years ago reading a collection of interviews called On Being A Writer. Unfortunately, the only question the interviewer asked every one of the participating authors was whether or not they used outlines. Sigh.
     
  18. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    I agree on Dwight Swain, and also the different books on the craft of writing by James Scott Bell. @JayG I think you definitely have a point when you say that studying other writers is for picking up on nuance, not basics. That's how I see it too. These two methods serve different purposes. And I've learned a lot about the basics from above mentioned authors.
     
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  19. JayG
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    JayG Banned Contributor

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    True, I guess...unless you count Sol Stein, Ben Bova, Bertrand Russell, Anson Dibell, Jack Bickham, Ray Bradbury, Orson Scott Card, Dean Koontz, Dwight Swain, James Frey, Stephen King, Nancy Kress, Ring Lardner, HP Lovecraft, Holly Lisle, and Robert Louis Stevenson. There are lots more, but they're the only ones I own (other then the specialized ones like screenwriting and comedy.
    Funny. You would think all the people who learned to successfully write via online forums like this would have, wouldn't you?
    Well this is something I almost never do. But damn it, I'm proud of it. Last year I self-released Water Dance, a romance. I didn't have the money to have it professionally edited so I did it myself, and caught grief for it, too. But in spite of that, from the beginning of November to today, over 7,000 people have looked at the sample on Amazon, B&N, and the iTunes store, and liked what they read enough to say yes to reading the story.

    I mention that not to claim it's well written, or that I have any special talent, because I don't. My point is that it was written using the basic structure and approach recommended by virtually every book on writing fiction. And until I began to study craft and apply it to build the platform on which to constrict my own storytelling style, my writing was filled with exactly the same high school English composition style writing that the workshops of every forum like this one are loaded with. And, I got only rejections. The only thing different between then and now is that I stopped guessing and trying to reinvent techniques that had been perfected more than a century ago.

    I'm not a genius. I steal all my best ideas. So maybe that's why I was more receptive to the idea of listening to what the pros had to say about how to write. But whatever the reason, demonstrably, they work. If someone like me can use them and manage to talk editors into saying yes anyone can do it.

    So here we have someone of small talent who uses what the pros say you need to know and I get a few publishing contracts and manage to convince people to read the stuff I self-release. Samantha and the Bear, is both conventionally published and self released because the publisher went out of business, leading me to self release. It's managed to garner thirty reviews on B&N, almost all of them favorable (on Amazon a couple of trolls from Authtonomy, who didn't like me saying the things you're taking issue with, here, posted revenge reviews to all my work that appeared on Amazon and killed sales, or the same situation would probably hold true there).

    How can it be that those techniques work for me and a lot of well known authors, but the better way is to reverse engineer the writing to come up with what was in the writer's mind when s/he wrote it? In the end, won't you have nothing more, or less than you would get by reading what that author had to say about how s/he did it?
     
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  20. TheApprentice
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    Honestly, I was looking for a book to help me develop my writing skills. I will look into Jack Bickham.
     
  21. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Sorry, by "particular method or approach" I was referring to the question of self-analysis of quality works vs. reading works like those of Bickham and Swain. If Bertrand Russell, Ray Bradbury, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Ring Lardner and Robert Louis Stevenson credited specific writers for their success, I'd love to read what they had to say.

    And well you should be. My hat's off to anyone who attains success by writing. My goal is to do the same.

    I've been thinking about that since the last time you mentioned it. I'm not sure you need to come up with what was in the writer's mind. Only the effect of the written word. And the effect comes in an almost infinite variety. I scanned through Swain briefly - saw where your tennis analogy came from. ;) But I didn't see anything there that I felt was really necessary to know AND that I hadn't already learned in my other readings. But that's me, Jay. As I've said before, my approach takes more time, more patience and, most important, it has to fit the learning style of the person using it. That said, I would also add that even if one begins with Swain, (s)he really needs to read widely in order to see the elements in practice (and the exceptions to the applications of those elements).
     
  22. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Has anyone in this thread actually advocated an either or approach? To me it looks like most are suggesting people do everything they can (e.g. some can't afford or don't have writing classes available nearby) to improve as writers and better their chances at getting published, such as read lots of good literature, study their favorite authors and their writing in-depth, read how-tos, study grammar and the theory of writing fiction, studying the publishing industry, write a lot, communicate with other writers (whether it's just networking, discussing methods, styles etc. on internet forums, beta-reading, or what-have-you) etc.

    To me, that just makes sense, just like it makes sense for MMA fighters (as long as we're using sports analogies) to train under a competent coach, attend seminars and masterclasses (I guess the equivalent of writing classes), read instructional books and watch instructional videos (reading how-tos), discuss techniques, training methods etc. with other fighters IRL and on internet forums (like we do here), study videos of their own performances to see what mistakes they made in their previous fight, what they did exceptionally well, and what they could've done better (read and analyze your own writing to find your strengths and weaknesses) alone or with their coach / training partners / family / friends (beta-readers), study the fights of their upcoming opponents to find out the strengths and weaknesses of their competition and to pick up new tricks so they keep their technique repertoire current (read good literature), and, of course, fight (write). Why would they limit themselves to any single method of learning, be it watching instructional videos or training at the gym or something else?
     
  23. Tesoro
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    It seems almost impossible to start a thread about how to books without this debate over which is better but I completely agree with you. I dont look at it as either or but like different ways of learning. why is it that mentioning how to books has almost become a taboo and cause some people to disqualify you as a serious writer?
     
  24. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I guess I'm in the minority here because I'm advocating not using how-to books. All they do is lead to formulaic writing because with all the guidelines/rules they give you, there is little room for creativity. If everyone read how-to books, there wouldn't be any Nabokovs or Faulkners or Joyces.

    I do, however, advocate things like reading critically, studying grammar, reading literary theory, etc.
     
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  25. Simpson17866
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    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    @thirdwind WARNING: FALSE DILEMMA

    Reading literature gives you strategies (plans for where you want your writing to go), reading instruction gives you tactics (plans for how to make your writing go where you want it to).

    Strategies without Tactics (literature without instruction) are Destinations with no Roadmaps
    Tactics without Strategies (instruction without literature) are Roadmaps with no Destinations

    Either way, you make so many wrong turns that you run out of gas before you actually get anywhere.
     

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