Writing Wednesday: If It Ain't Broke….

The French are the masters of contradictory concepts, such as the belle laide: the ugly beauty. Then there’s my personal favorite: the idiot savant, the learned fool.

These concepts are always hard to translate, but the idiot savant is someone who manages to perform brilliantly at something without really knowing the how or why. Sometimes, I feel that way as a writer. (Without the brilliantly bit!). An even better analogy might be ice skating. Have you ever glided happily along until you realize you have no idea what you’re doing, look down, get tangled in your own feet, and fall?

This is all a very long way of saying that a lot of writing happens on the level of pure instinct. Most of us who write do so because we read. We grew up as readers. The basics of narrative are imprinted in the pathways of our brains. We don’t necessarily know why a story works, but we can tell you when it does.

When we write, we call upon everything we’ve learned from all those books we’ve read. I’ve heard many writer friends refer to an intuitive sense of pacing and structure. When we talk about how we do what we do, it’s often a case of reverse engineering. We write it that way because it sounds right to us– but if someone asks, we have to stop and figure out why it sounds right.

All this is to say, maybe, like ice skating, it’s best not to look at your feet too much. If you’re a lifetime reader, you probably know a number of the tricks of the trade subconsciously, even if you may not have the exact technical terms to describe them.

I remember, years ago, as a teenager, reading a Writer’s Digest article on viewpoint and thinking, “That’s what they call that!” I’d been managing viewpoint in my manuscripts, using it for dramatic effect, limiting the number of viewpoint characters, because that was what I had seen done in the books I admired. It made sense. The article simply gave it a name.

This may sound counter-intuitive in a series of posts about writing, but… if you’re comfortable with what you’re doing, don’t over-analyse it too much. If it’s working, there’s no need to pick it apart. The point of the exercise is to put words on the page. If you’re already doing that, stopping to think about how you’re putting them on the page… well, it kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?

On the other hand, it’s when you do stumble over your skates that the technical background comes in handy. That’s when you want your toolbox of writerly tricks. But the rest of the time? If it ain’t broke….


  1. CĂ©line on June 6, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    What I find the most difficult right now (well, among other things I find difficult), is that I’m French, so I write in French. But I’ve been reading in English for the most of the last 10 years and I can barely remember how one is supposed to write in French. Most of what comes to my mind in terms of formulations and sentences (not ideas) is “inspired” by the English language. I guess I’m going to have to find books as good as yours, but in French… 🙂 (and no translation… )

  2. Gina on June 6, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    I really like this. That is always where my writing falls apart. Now I just need to get better at getting over it… I find writing in the middle of the night helps for some reason, but I’d like to find a way that doesn’t deprive me of sleep.

    Also, I just got Bad Manors in the mail today! Thanks very much. I might just start it this afternoon.

  3. Sheila on June 10, 2012 at 6:29 am

    I just wish I could write anything besides e mails and nurses notes…I am enjoying this series anyway…May I just add a comment on what I think are the 4 Rs that make a novel really good? They are Romance, Reunion, Redemption, Rejoicing. I love it when these are all in play.

  4. Angie on June 10, 2012 at 11:14 pm

    This struck at just the right time for me, Lauren! It’s good to remember to just rely on the instincts born of years and years of avid reading, for a start anyway. It can be so difficult for me to get into the swing of a manuscript, but once I do I wonder why I ever thought it was so hard in the first place…until I start to overthink, or “look at my feet.”

Leave a Comment