Thursday, January 12, 2012

Top Mistakes Beginning Writers Make, Part II

Welcome back! It’s all about second acts in this second year of Writing with Celia, and so my first real post of the new year is a part II. If you missed part I, well, go and read it! Otherwise, proceed below, with the second half of typical beginners’ booboos.
A great book for
learning how to
read critically.
1.     Not reading critically. Many of the faux pas committed by beginning writers are directly attributable to poor reading habits. Even if you spend the rest of your life in workshop, you will never learn a single thing about writing if you don’t read voraciouslyand well. Here, I’m not going to rant again about the need to read in order to learn to write. I believe I’ve made that point! But I do want to emphasize the need to not only read well, meaning good books written by good writers who can help you grow, but also to read critically. Why is this book so satisfying, but not that? Very often, the beginning writer reads for pleasure, puts the book down with a smile or a grimace, and grabs the next. Both books you enjoyed and those you didn’t can help you grow as a writer if you learn to analyze your reactions and how they came about. In order to do this easily and well, it helps to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of literary criticism. That’s why the best writing programs are those that have a strong literature studies program attached to them. You can reproduce this effect on your own, however. Buy a typical college reader and study on your own, for example. A book club can also help you analyze why good books are good and bad ones bad by forcing you to not only analyze your own reactions, but discuss them with others. Just make sure your book club has good readers in it who will also be capable of analysis. Finally, keeping a reading journal is also an excellent way of paying attention to the nuts and bolts. Every time you read, grab your journal and explain to yourself why you enjoyed / didn’t enjoy what you just read.

2.     No sense of experimentation. Only the bravest of beginning writers are willing to go out on a limb, but usually even those people can’t quite figure out what it means to do that, and so beginners’ writing is usually very safe (read: dull). You grow, however, by taking risks. You don’t always have to tell the story in past tense, third person omniscient, or first-person point of view that sounds like third-person omniscient for all the voice it has. You don’t have to tell it chronologically. Try it in present tense, try it from the point of view of the parrot, try it backwards. Try it a couple of different ways. Get freaky with it.

3.      Narcissistic point of view. The beginning writer often fails to realize that just because something is interesting to him or her, it doesn’t make it interesting to someone else. The drawn-out tale of the first breakup, for example, may make you weep as you write it, but it makes us gag or giggle, neither of which you meant for us to do. Why? You forgot about us. You were writing about yourself and for yourself, which is fine as long as you can make some kind of empathetic leap, as long as you can convey what is representative, human, and eternal about yourself. The moment you forget about us readers, however, you shut down your inner critic, and that makes for bad writing. There’s a school of writing instruction, a good one, that insists one writes what ones knows, and one of course knows oneself. But often this advice is taken to the extreme, and the writer becomes unable to discern the difference between writing for others and writing for therapy. This happens to be how so many beginners’ workshops are full of stories written from the point of view of children, which is so incredibly difficult to do well that it’s hardly a task for the beginner. But the writer is trying to work something out, like a parents’ divorce, or is so young that “writing about yourself” literally means writing from the point of view of a child. These stories are usually very predictable and boring, and, though they are attempts at “coming of age” narratives, they are not good ones, because there is no critical space between the narrated experience and its writing. “Writing for yourself” is okay only insofar as you think of yourself as an other, a critical doppelganger who shares your interests and experiences, but who is still someone else.

4.     Purposely derivative elements. This one’s baffling to me, but I see it all the time. Workshopping these pieces is a hoot: the workshop usually consists of a string of comments such as “this character reminds me of X” and “that part reminded me of Y” or “this story reminds me of . . . “in short, the piece is nothing but a quilt of other people’s writing. The workshop always crumbles when someone brings up the obvious: are you enjoying this story, or the ones it’s reminding you of? It’s a devastating problem for the writer, who usually conceived of the elements purposely drawing them from other texts she or he has enjoyed. “I wanted to make this character sort of like X in Y,” she or he will say. Only, “sort of” is more like “exactly.” There’s nothing wrong with retelling stories, but you must make them yours in some way.

And now, some typical hurdles more specific to the poet:

5.     Excessive simple rhymes. Often, the beginning poet doesn’t quite know what poetry is apart from rhymed words, and so reaches for too many bad ones, paying no attention or too little to everything else that makes a poem a poem. The problem comes from unfamiliarity with anything remotely contemporary or literary when it comes to poetry. Song lyrics, children’s rhymes, and light verse (such as that found in greeting cards) all rely heavily on simple rhymes, but contemporary literary poetry is a completely different animal. Though rhyme exists is both formal and free verse, it must be controlled and fresh. You can’t Dr. Seuss your way into a poem, but, if the last time you actually read a poem was when you were seven years old, you’ll probably try to.

6.     Writing about feelings. The beginning poet confuses poetry with emotion. This is some kind of conspiracy perpetrated by Hallmark, no doubt. Outpourings of abstract emotion are no more poetry than your high school diary was. Even Dr. Seuss knows that poetry is about green eggs and ham: about stuff. Your poem must have things in it that we can see, hear, taste, smell, etc. If these things conjure up feelings in us, you’ve done your job. But telling us about the feelings you’ve had instead of the things that elicited them from you is like chewing our food for us, which is gross. Maxine Kumin, whom I once had the pleasure of studying with, always said poems are like rooms. We must fill them with furniture, and the reader will live in them. You can’t sit on love and rest your coffee cup on despair.

7.     Writing exclusively about love. The beginning poet also often thinks of poetry as exclusively love poetry, which is only a small subset of the whole thing. Poetry can be about anything, and some of my favorite poems are about dead animals and chapatti fried in ghee. Love poems, like stories told from the point of view of children, are actually extremely difficult to write well, and not for beginners. In fact, the beginner shouldn’t think of the poem as being “about” any particular emotion at all. Make it about something concrete, like the fence or the tomatoes or the sweaty socks.

Not sure if it's a
cliché? Look it
8.     No awareness of cliché. Another problem that comes from not enough reading. The beginner actually thinks of the cliché as good. The lips are always like roses or cherries, the eyes always blue as the sky. If something hits them, it always does so like a ton of bricks. Cliché is the most insidious, disgusting weed in the garden of writing. Let just one in, and, like rabbits or tribbles, they’ll multiply and take over your writing until every sentence has one or more. The beginner’s problem is that she or he doesn’t recognize them as evil. They are familiar little easy phrases that are easy to grab. Learning to spot clichés and weed them out takes time and effort, like all good things do.

9.     No awareness of contemporary poetry. Kind of goes without saying at this point, but the problem of not reading is even worse when it comes to poetry. Decent enough prose will come at you sideways sometimesa great script, a great article you read in the doctor’s office. Contemporary poetry exists in an alternate universe, however, and you will never bump into it accidentally. If you don’t make the effort to learn who is writing today, and how, and why, all you’ll know of poetry is nursery rhymes and light verse, and the occasional classic or uplifting poem some poor teacher included in the syllabus one day when she was feeling hopeful. The range and dynamism of contemporary poetry is amazing. There are lyrical poets, confessional poets, experimental poets, formalists, spoken word artists. So much, all of it different. If you want to have fun at the party, you have to first find out where it is, and what it takes to get invited.
An excellent guide
to the elements of
contemporary poetry.

10.  No awareness of form. Apart from simple rhyme schemes, the beginning poet doesn’t know much about what kinds of decisions go into the way a poem looks. Beyond not being acquainted with traditional forms such as the sonnet or villanelle, the beginner often has no notion of the function of form in free verse. Why are some lines long, and others short? Why are some poems arranged into stanzas, and some not? What is the purpose of counting syllables? What the heck is scansion? These are all “mysteries” to the beginner, but bread and butter to the initiated. Form is what makes a poem a poem, not rhyme. Unfortunately, it’s not an easy thing to study, but that’s no excuse to ignore it. A poem isn’t a poem until the arrangement of words has a specific function.

Well, there you have it. I’m sure there’s more, but these are the issues that I encounter most frequently in my beginning courses. Seeing them all laid out like this is pretty daunting, but I find comfort in order, in cataloguing. Know thy enemy! It takes many, many years to move from these early problems to the next set, and many times even very experienced writers would do well to think in these basic ways once more. Start with one or two issues, practice, and move on to the next.


  1. Ok, how did you know I was going to write my Walden from the viewpoint of my parrot? Honestly, what you have just written would terrify the most brave of souls. I would love to be a fly on the wall when you are grading papers. I would love a compilation of your facial expressions.

  2. Well, I'm not a big believer in spoonfuls of sugar. As to the parrot, that's a bit of an inside joke. I always make my students read Robert Olen Butler's “Jealous Husband Returns in the Form of Parrot" from Tabloid Dreams. It's an amazing, amazing, amazing lesson in point of view.

  3. Well, you know about my love/hate with cliches! One fun prompt for beginners is to overuse them or start with one and take it to its logical extreme so as to learn how vague & empty the phrases are.

    One of my colleagues who taught high school creative writing had a "No love poetry" rule in his class. The bad writing just got too much to bear.

    Anyway, I cannot agree with you enough about reading, reading, reading, and reading critically. Excellent advice.

  4. I've thought about the love poetry ban, but never made it more than just a strong suggestion. This year I might actually push for it, to coincide with the release of the Adanna Love Poetry collection! I'm so excited about that I could . . . teach love poems!

  5. Top mistake of beginning writers, thinking writing is easy.


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