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Writing Quote: I’m Not a Good Writer…

June 13, 2010

Today’s writing quote comes from well-known historical fiction writer James Michener.  Let’s dispense with the formalities, and get to the quote:

I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.

~James Michener

Yeah.  What he said.  This quote interested me this week because I was thinking that, although I’ve gotten a little better at my first-draft, first-pass attempts at writing stories over the past several years, where I’ve really improved in my skill is in rewriting.  I’ve developed a more critical eye.  I can better diagnose what’s wrong with a story.  And I can prescribe a viable solution.  And I can write it.

This, I think, will be the skill that will most contribute to the potential I have for an eventual career as a writer.

Take, for example, the short story I will (hopefully) be sending off to a publisher in a few days for editorial consideration.  I wrote the original draft about three and a half years ago, give or take.  I thought it was a pretty good story, at the time, but I never sent it anywhere.  I picked it up again when Dear Wife encouraged me to take a story that I thought was in good shape and give it some revision to spruce it up a little and send it off.  We both expected this could be accomplished in the amount of free time I might have over a holiday month between semesters.

But upon actually rereading and considering the thing, I realized it needed a lot of work.  And I’ve put a lot of work into it.  It’s like a whole new story.  There was very little from the original draft that was immediately salvageable.  But that draft provided a good starting point, and new ideas fleshed the story out and made it much better, in my opinion.  The story I wrote 3-ish years ago?  It was unpublishable.  The story I have now?  May be the best piece of fiction I’ve ever completed.

This worries me a little about the new story I hope to start work on soon, “What Happened in August Valley”.  I’ll be writing this one from scratch, not working from an old draft.  (I have several old drafts of stories that I want to work on and rewrite, but I feel strongly about doing this one, first.)  So, whereas the story that’s going out this week went through 3 or more drafts (depending on how you count) this one is starting brand new from rough draft, and may only get a single revisionary draft, depending on my ability to get some good feedback.

Regardless… I think there’s a lesson here for my future.  I’m excited to be developing this skill, and hope to be able to continue to put it to good use.

Happy writing.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. June 13, 2010 2:18 pm

    I’d be interested in knowing how you go about your editing process. How have you improved your rewriting skills, that critical eye? I struggle with the process sometimes.

    • June 13, 2010 9:03 pm

      It’s tough, honestly. Step 1 is to accept the need for revision… to realize that no matter how in love with what you wrote that you are… it’s really not as good as you think it is. (I don’t know about you, but this was a particular problem for me in my early years.)

      The second requisite is to get good feedback. This is the really hard part. Getting good feedback is golden, and it’s as hard to find as gold in the ground. Basically you’ll need someone (multiple someones, preferably) who you trust and whose opinions you value. What I do when I find someone willing to read my stuff (I still don’t have what I’d call a regular group of people I can turn to, reliably) is I ask them to answer this one question in their feedback: What didn’t work for you, or what was the weakest part of the story for you?

      If they can give any other feedback, it helps to figure out where the story is weak and that can inspire you to find ways to improve the story. Especially if you have multiple sources of feedback, you can look for common themes in the feedback and, hopefully, you this to guide you.

      Finally, take a critical eye of your own to it, informed by these other opinions. Knowing what you know about character and plot, how can you improve the story? Do you need some better foreshadowing in the first act? Does the dialog need to be improved? Are some descriptions off? Does the story flow? And so on. It just takes good judgment and a good understanding of what makes up a good story.

      With those tools in hand, I can take one of the traditionally mediocre stories that I write and punch it up into goodish territory.

      • June 13, 2010 10:49 pm

        Ahh yeah, getting good feedback, as I’ve mentioned before, is particularly difficult. Good, willing and qualified, beta readers are golden. My process right now breaks down at that point. I know that there are lots of things that need fixing, but it’s hard to be objective without outside feedback. I’m not particularly fond of my own words. Mostly on a second pass, I’m pleasantly surprized it wasn’t as bad as I originally thought. LOL though it always does still needs a lot of work.

        Thanks for taking all the time to respond 🙂

      • June 14, 2010 8:50 am

        Yeah, no problem.

        As hard as getting good outside feedback is, even just one or two responses is enough, I think, to activate the critical eye of your own. I only got two outside readers on the story I’m hoping to send out this week, but the comments of the two revealed several issues that allowed me to see some of the problems in the story and inspired me to reapproach some parts of the story with a fresh approach. I think the story is better for it.

        Of course, I’m perfectly willing, as well, to serve as an occassional beta reader for your stuff… although to be quite honest so far I’m very impressed with your work so I might not be quite as helpful in pointing out problems as you’d like 😉

  2. June 13, 2010 7:40 pm


    Okay, so here’s the story of my masterpiece.

    Draft 1: A story I started about FIVE (or more?) years ago. And when I say started, I mean seriously, I got to maybe paragraph 2?
    Draft 2: A contest entry for a private, self-designed NaNoWriMo-like contest. Thought it was lame.
    Draft 3: A rewrite of draft 2, with new characters, new plot, new lotsa things. Thought it was super lame.
    Draft 4: What I have now.

    It’s been a long journey but I’m finally happy.

    And about rewriting: I can do it, but if I don’t do it right, my whole story is put in jeopardy. Some writers are emotionally attached to their writing and cant cut anything i guess, but I am on the other end of the scale. I changed my supporting main character between drafts 3 and 4. And completely changed my characters between draft 2 and 3. And I don’t even remember who my MC for draft 1 was.

    Am I talking too much? 😛

    Good post. Good thoughts.


    • June 13, 2010 8:55 pm

      Yeah, I’ve been going through similar revision throws in the “current” version of the novel I’ve been working on since forever… adding new characters, totally rejiggering the plot, et cetera, et cetera.

      There’s enough changes that I’ve decided to put the whole thing on time-out for a while to think about some other novel project ideas…

      • June 13, 2010 9:27 pm

        Good idea. Give it some time to simmer so you can come back with fresh eyes. -j.p.

      • June 13, 2010 9:37 pm

        Yes, that’s very true. Get away from it so you can approach the work with dispassionate eyes, which can improve your ability to be critical of your own work. The exact amount of time necessary varies for different people. I need a little more time than most because I’m typically so enamoured of my first drafts. (Even though I objectively know that they’re typically crap.)

  3. Lua permalink
    June 14, 2010 2:42 am

    I have this quote pinned on my wall where I can see it all the time! Writing my first draft, all I concentrated on was just to get the story down to paper and from time to time I would feel depressed because it didn’t sound as good as it did in my head. But Hemingway said, ““The first draft of anything is shit” so the important thing to keep in mind is that the story really improves as we rewrite it…

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