Confront Your Writing Hang-Up

  • 2 November 2021

With #PragProWriMo off and running this November, I wanted to share some of my thinking about becoming a better writer. Not by looking at the best of how I write, but at the worst. Motivation can only get you so far if you’ve got a hang-up about your writing.

Simple truths: Everyone writes. Some of us enjoy it. Most of us don’t. And consciously or not, almost everyone has some kind of hang-up about writing. It might represent a mild difficulty, or be something as serious as a root cause of writer’s block. At its worst, it might even be a nagging voice that tells you Sorry, you’re not a writer.

Let me tell you about my writing hang-up. I’ll even demonstrate it for you:

I’m a writer who’s still recovering from graduate school, where you’re positively reinforced—and often richly rewarded with praise and publications—to write extraordinarily complex sentences (no matter what the topic); the more complex the sentence, the more the need to avoid, as long as possible, any kind of terminal punctuation: a sentence-ending period, for example, completes a thought, and no thought is ever complete—so eventually you end up using every piece of punctuation on your keyboard (parentheses, commas, em-dashes, colons, semicolons), and the sentence you’ve constructed spans several lines, and it ends up in a completely different place from where it started.

That’s my hang-up, on full display in that sentence, right there. If you read that whole thing, I’m so sorry.

Sentences like that are what I’ve been working on hardest to improve about my writing. I’ve been making some progress, I guess, because it was actually kind of painful instead of natural to write that terrible, embarrassing demonstration above.

The worst thing about my hang-up with avoiding terminal punctuation is that I write sentences that are beyond saving. They’ve got so many twists and turns that there’s very little that can be saved or properly edited. Those kinds of sentences take on a life and trajectory all their own. I can’t control them any better when I’m trying to fix them than I could on a first draft.

You’ve probably heard writerly advice like “Just let it out! Draft and just keep going!” I’ve heard that, too, but it has never worked for me. It just produces the kinds of awful sentences like I demonstrated above. “Just keep going” is the worst thing I can let myself do, because my hang-up is that I will just keep going. And going. And going. Real Energizer Bunny stuff.

So I edit myself as I write. (Note that self-editing is no substitute for having someone else, especially a professional, edit your writing.) And by constantly working on my writing, I have become very familiar with the many kinds of bad habits I have. After I’ve fixed the worst ones, I can see others: I make myself keep my subjects near my verbs. I try to be sparing about dropping fancy inductive sentences, and instead go with a straight-up subject-verb-object pattern. Usually.

At best, the end result is improved clarity. Or at least writing that isn’t getting in the way of the material I’m trying to convey. There’s plenty of confusion in the mix with technical subject matter already—no matter how skilled a writer you are.

Maybe you’ve got anxiety about your command of grammar (everyone does). Maybe you’re laboring under a bunch of silly myths and lies about writing that you were taught in school: “Never use I,” “Never start a sentence with a conjunction,” or “Never end a sentence with a preposition.” Those are all lies. Maybe you think your writing sounds boring, or maybe you think you’ve not got a big enough vocabulary.

But here’s the thing about a writing hang-up: you’ve got to acknowledge it and hit it head on, whatever it is. Don’t let it become the excuse not to write. Let it be the thing you decide to fix—not before you write, but as you write.

Take my hang-up with long and winding sentences. I’ve found a technique for countering it. And that’s to read more writing by authors who do exactly the opposite of whatever I’m trying to fix in my own writing. Less David Foster Wallace, more Virginia Woolf.

But reading isn’t a good excuse not to be writing, either. To get myself primed to write, I often read just a few punchy, staccato sentences by someone like Hunter S. Thompson, something like this short passage from his classic “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”:

Steadman is now worried about fire. Somebody told him about the clubhouse catching on fire two years ago. Could it happen again? Horrible. Trapped in the press box. Holocaust. A hundred thousand people fighting to get out. Drunks screaming in the flames and the mud, crazed horses running wild. Blind in the smoke. Grandstand collapsing into the flames with us on the roof. Poor Ralph is about to crack. Drinking heavily, into the Haig.

That’s a whole paragraph with only two pieces of non-terminal punctuation (a couple of commas). As an added bonus, it’s funny. It’s visual. It creates a scene. And that activates the better, more creative parts of my brain.

Writing to teach others about technical subjects requires stringing together a lot of complex ideas. A short passage like Thompson’s is enough to remind me that I can have a complete thought or idea (like a burning clubhouse at the Kentucky Derby) and that I can convey it in a number of short, punchy sentences. Not everything can be short and punchy, but changing up from the monotony of longer sentences makes a big difference.

I work on my writing hang-up as a pet project of personal and professional improvement. But that’s really secondary to what I’m trying to do for readers. Every period is a place to rest. A short sentence invites a reassuring, I’ve-got-this re-read for uncertain readers. If readers can retread small or at least manageable steps, they’ll be able to follow me wherever I try to take them. There is no need to try to lead someone through the maze of one massive sentence.

Or so I keep having to tell myself.