1. BookLover
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    BookLover Contributing Member

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    The More I Try, the Worse it Sounds

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by BookLover, Apr 14, 2014.

    I'm curious if anyone else experiences this or has seen this happen to other writers.

    I'm trying to improve my writing, like everyone here, but my attempts seem to be making things worse. I have what I consider to be my strengths such as characterization, plot, sub-plots, etc. Well my stories and characters overall, I think, are good. I have a lot of good ideas. (Doesn't everyone think their ideas are good? :p )

    My weaknesses, in my opinion, have more to do with my actual sentences. My descriptions need improvement, my sentence structure isn't varied enough, and I have a bad habit of re-using certain words over and over. I don't catch it until I read over my work and realize "Wow, I used 'definitely' three times in that one paragraph." :D It's these little things within the sentences and the paragraphs that need work. The bigger aspects of the overall story, I feel, are golden. It's all these darn little sentences that connect the bigger aspects that are screwing everything up. :p

    I should mention I'm still in my first draft, so I'm not even sure if I should be worrying about all this stuff just yet, but I am.

    So here I am trying to re-write my sentences so they have better rhythm and more variety. I'm also trying to include better descriptions, better metaphors, and so forth - And it's ruining it! It's messing with the flow of things. My somewhat poorly written/meh/okay paragraphs sound about ten times worse after I've revised them and ramped things up. They sound lame. They sound like I'm trying too hard. Which I am. I'm consciously working at it whereas before I was just writing. It just flowed. The stuff flowing out didn't sound all that wonderful, but it came out naturally. Now that it's not coming out naturally and I'm instead putting actual work and thought into how my sentences sound, it's mucking up everything.

    As you can imagine, this is very discouraging. Lots of people on this site say that you can improve your writing if you put work into it, but that's not working for me. What comes out of me naturally isn't spectacular by any means, but it's better than what's coming out of me when I actually try.

    It dawned on me that maybe it wasn't just me who had this issue because I've read some other writers' works that seem to scream "Trying too hard!" And what advice does one give them? Don't try so hard?

    Should I stop trying? If I stop trying, how will I improve? Do I need to try even harder? Do I not try but keep writing and hope that magically over time my writing will get better without me thinking about it?

    I don't know. I'm at a loss. Any advice would be helpful. I think writing might be sort of like walking. You walk without thinking about it, and you do fine. However, when you actually start consciously thinking about each step, the placement of each foot, how high you lift your leg, and so forth, you start to walk all weird. Over-thinking can be a bad thing. The problem is how can you improve if putting thought into it isn't the solution?
     
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2014
  2. xanadu
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    xanadu Contributing Member Contributor

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    It sounds like you're getting hung up on the micro-level issues. Everyone does, especially at the beginning. That's because it takes a lot of trial and error, a lot of reading, and a lot of experience to get technique down. I agree--if you try to write with all the rules in mind, you won't ever write anything. You'll be too busy checking each and every word to make sure you're "allowed" to write it. That won't do at all.

    You say you're still on your very first draft, and that you prefer your natural output. So just write, and forget the "rules," forget trying to make everything perfect from the outset. Because it won't be. Editing as you go is a very viable way to work, but sometimes it's easy to get so wrapped up in the little details that you lose your forward momentum.

    So keep pushing forward, get to the end or at least to a certain goal, and then take a look back. Have some other eyes look over it as well, and see if what they say matches what you think. You definitely won't know how to fix everything right away, because there's more to writing fiction than simply "getting the idea down on paper." You realize that already. But that also means you can't pressure yourself to get it right the first, second, or even the third time, either.

    Definitely don't stop trying, because trying is not the problem. The problem is a combination of not living up to your own expectations, and holding too tight to the "rules" we writers love to spout off any chance we get. I had the same problems. The key is to keep writing, keep trying, and keep learning. Understand why we love some of these rules--what they really mean and what common writing issues they seek to correct, instead of taking them at face value and trashing your precious words (which may not be wrong at all). Seek out new techniques and understand the whys and what-fors. When you understand the reasons, it starts to become second nature, and you'll see your style and voice changing to suit it. But that won't happen overnight, and you can't expect it to. Because then you'll get discouraged and put the pen away, and that's an even bigger mistake.
     
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  3. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    I hate to break it to you, but it takes a long, long, long time to get to a level where you can spruce up your drafts into something that isn't half bad. If you are starting with little skill in writing, you can't expect it to improve straight away just because you are trying. People say to throw away first three books you write, because it takes three books, about a million words or more to, hone your craft to a level where your stuff has a chance to be liked by readers who don't know you. Keep working at it! It's good you can see the faults in your writings, because being your own worst critic will help you get to the next level.
     
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  4. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    That's my main problem, something I've tormented myself over for the past decade, thus probably ruining any fun I had in the writing process. I was too hung over the details, hung over what was allowed or not allowed. I was too busy expecting my first drafts to be super excellent, up top, something of the likes of JK Rowling and Stephen King.

    I think both Jazzabel and xanadue has it spot on. Keep practicing your craft, get it critiqued a lot, but at the same time don't be a complete nazi about it. You're allowed to experiment and goof off a bit in your first few rough drafts. But most importantly, don't stop learning. Read a lot, write a bunch of stories. That's how your craft matures.
     
  5. Poziga
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    Poziga Contributing Member Contributor

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    If you're not confident in your writing and think you make mistakes, post a short excerpt of your writing to the workshop.

    Believe me, it helps a lot!

    I posted two workshop entries and learned a lot from the critiques. Also, it helps reading other members' works and critiques and see for which things you shouldn't allow to sneak on your papers. Also, write down the advices you think are important. On the picture below you can see my wall, and that's not everything. Some of them are very useful and some of them I already knew. But every once in a while I walk towards the wall and check the notes.

    You won't understand everything if you'll try and read, I doubt you speak Slovene + my handwriting sucks. :p
    Just wanted to tell you that keeping notes on important advices is useful. When revising, I check all of the notes and try to find mistakes or bad paragraphs in my writing and then fix them.
    IMG_0426.JPG
     
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2014
  6. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Just out of curiosity, what does the quote on the red card on the bottom of the picture say? :D
     
  7. Poziga
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    Poziga Contributing Member Contributor

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    "When you write, you're telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story" - John Gould.
    I find it interesting. :)
     
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  8. TLK
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    TLK Active Member

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    A few tips:

    1) Read. Try and think of a scene/location in a book of which you have a really vivid or definite picture in your head. You'll have this picture because the author has described it in such a good way. Go back, find where it's described and analyze the language and techniques. How does it differ from yours? Are there any tips you can pick up?

    2) Have a thesaurus open next to you (or on the web). Fairly self explanatory, I find it always helps!

    3) Don't worry. Yet. If you're still on your first draft, keep writing and get to the end of it. By then, you'll have a clearer picture of the story in your head, what you want it to be and, also, you'll probably have thought of a few things you want changes anyway, regarding plot etc. Then it's time to go back and make edits. Your new view point of your writing, combined with your improved writing ability - because it will have improved by the time you've finished your first draft - will make it a lot easier to edit, and edit well.

    Hope this helps!
     
  9. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    If you're trying hard and your prose is getting worse, it means that what you're trying to do is the wrong thing. You're struggling westward through the jungle when you should be struggling eastward, if you know what I mean.

    The good news is that you recognize you have a problem. That's always the first step towards solving it.

    There are books that can help you with sentence structure. Check out Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style by Virginia Tufte, Notes Toward a New Rhetoric, by Francis Christensen and Bonniejean Christensen, and the Teaching Company's course called Building Great Sentences, by Brooks Landon.

    I wouldn't rely on a thesaurus. (Sorry, @TLK!) All that will do (most likely) is induce you to replace a wrong word with a worse word. It's usually better to try recasting the sentence than replacing words.
     
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  10. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    I'm going to have to second what @minstrel said (and what others have said before except for grabbing a thesaurus--the only time I use one of those is when I know the word that fits, but I can't think of it, and I need to cross reference it with other words, even then I need to make sure it feels and sounds right and means the right thing). BTW, thanks for the book suggestions, M. :D

    I might add you shouldn't feel bad. It takes a long time to build up writing skill. One must read a lot and write a lot. It takes practice. A carpenter probably won't build a perfect chair the first time around, but after doing it some many times, the flaws begin to decrease and the less fine tuning he will need to do to finalize it. The thing a bout writing is that it's like 30%-40% writing, and 60%-70% editing. The drafting, editing, and revising is where most stories discover just what they are and the kind of voice they want to have. That is also where we grow our sentences, or shorten them, rearrange them and otherwise play with them.

    It helps to have a clear vision of the style you want to write in so you can practice that and make everything in a particular work fit together. In my experience with bad writing, trying harder to sound better usually makes things a little worse. You have to find your groove or niche or voice and say what you need to say. We must also get over our continuous self-criticism, at least enough to write and get to the editing process. It's hard figuring out just what's good, but once you learn to identify what's bad and start cutting that, the good will start to fall into place as you develop your style. Not two carpenters use the exact same technique. So it is with writers.

    Hope that helps. :)
     
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  11. Smoke Z
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    Smoke Z Active Member

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    I will often archive a particular chunk, maybe grab the first two paragraphs if those work, and just start over. My latest bout had my copy-pasting or modified-retyping stuff from two other versions that I had archived, but after I was working with fresh dialogue and realized that I had already typed a good line.

    I also like to let things ferment. Sometimes I have parts have already been fermenting in my head, but they also need to spend some time undisturbed on the page. Occasionally I'll even leave a "note to find the right words" in the work until I feel like dealing with it.
     
  12. Bryan Romer
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    Bryan Romer Contributing Member Contributor

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    I use a thesaurus a lot, but I already know all/most of the words in it and how they should be used. They just don't always come to mind when I need them. So reading a lot, if just to expand your vocabulary, is useful.

    Try reading your paragraphs out loud before making any changes. See if anything sounds off to your ear. If necessary, record it and then listen. Try a change, read again. Sometimes hearing the words spoken make the errors far more noticeable and the "right" corrections more obvious too.
     
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  13. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Yes! I cannot emphasize this enough, and I've said it many times in this forum. Read your stuff aloud! You catch problems you won't catch any other way. You'll straighten out your syntax. You'll get your rhythm right. You'll find those unintentional rhymes that make your prose sound comical when you don't mean it to.

    It may seem like a pain in the ass to do, but trust me: read your stuff aloud. Your writing will be better for it.

    Thanks, @Bryan Romer, for mentioning this and giving me another excuse to hammer this point home! ;)
     
  14. BookLover
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    BookLover Contributing Member

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    Thanks for all the advice! I suppose I'll just move ahead with my first draft and not think about how my sentences sound until editing time. Come editing time, I might come back to this thread and complain some more. :p (That'll be forever from now, though.)
     
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  15. TLK
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    TLK Active Member

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    Fair point, though I'd say "rely" is the wrong word. If you're using it to add different words in every sentence, then yes, you're not using it right. However, if you realise you've used the same word three times in the last few paragraphs (all for good reasons), then it's worth looking up another word for it.
     
  16. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    What's your point of reference? All of these things could be valid criticisms of your work, but how are you coming to these conclusions? Did someone with more experience writing than you point them out? Or, if these are your own conclusions, what are you using as a comparison for your work?

    I ask because you seem to still be struggling. That could be due to pursuing the wrong issues, as @minstrel said, or it could be because you are not applying the correct solutions. Looking at your specific complaints:

    Descriptions need improvement - if by "improvement" you mean that you need more of them, well it could be that your descriptions aren't always necessary or relevant to the story. Usually, when we describe something static - a person or a place, for example - it's to put the reader in the character's shoes to help him/her have a greater understanding of that POV. What you typically don't want to do is present long, detailed descriptions for their own sake.

    Sentence structure isn't varied enough - Have you ever thought about inhaling and exhaling? Like, "Now, I'm inhaling; now I'm exhaling"? Breathing suddenly becomes a chore. Same thing with writing. If you're worrying about things like sentence structure, you might very well be missing the forest for the trees.

    Re-using certain words over and over - I sometimes catch myself doing this. If I catch it while I'm writing, fine. Otherwise, I deal with it on editing.

    Since this is your first project, my advice is take one thing at a time. You need to complete the exercise of getting a story down on paper. Next step is reading the completed first draft aloud. Then, go back to your favorite literary works and see where your work does or doesn't measure up. At that point, you can start working on making corrections to your writing. But if you start making random changes to your storytelling before the story is even formed, you may bury yourself before you even get started.

    Best of luck.
     
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  17. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think that you may be working on too many goals at once, and that you'd do better to narrow your focus. I'd start by chasing simplicity.

    For example, you could do a sweep through a chapter or two just restructuring sentences to eliminate repeated words. This is difficult enough to be absorbing, because the best way to eliminate repeated words isn't to dig in the thesaurus, but to recast the sentences. For example, my original draft of this post had the paragraph:

    My first reaction is that you may be chasing too many goals at once. If I were you, I'd go after a smaller subset of goals, and I'd start with the goals that make your writing simpler.

    That's a lot of uses of the word "goals" isn't it? But just plugging in synonyms wouldn't help. So I rewrote it to make the first paragraph that you see above.

    I'd suggest picking one thing--eliminating repeated words, or eliminating repetitive sentence structure, or eliminating what I call "weakening phrases", or whatever--and making that your primary editing goal for a few weeks. When you get bored with that or you feel that you've reached a plateau in learning more about it, then switch to something else. By the time you're done with that first draft, you will hopefully have reached a reasonable level of confidence in several areas.
     
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  18. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Guess we all learn at different speeds. I don't find this applies to me. And that business of tossing the first couple books? That's nonsense. Some will, some won't write a first book they are satisfied with.
     
  19. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    This is what works for my writing style and skill level.
     
  20. Thomas Kitchen
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    Thomas Kitchen Proofreader in the Making Contributor

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    @Poziga - I love that your notes are a mixture of English and Slovakian (I'm guessing). :D

    Je to naozaj ukazuje, že máte spisovateľa myseľ!
     
  21. Poziga
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    Poziga Contributing Member Contributor

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    I too like the mixture. :D
    No no, it's Slovenian, I don't understand anything you wrote. But I translated it in google so: hvala za kompliment. :p
     
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  22. Thomas Kitchen
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    Thomas Kitchen Proofreader in the Making Contributor

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    Ah, zdaj razumem! Kdo potrebuje, da se učim novih jezikov, kajne? ;)
     
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  23. Poziga
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    Poziga Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hahaha odlično!
    A bit weird sentence, but still awesome. :D
     
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