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Confident Writing 
19th-Jun-2006 09:20 pm
why not?
"The feeling of inferiority rules the mental life and can be clearly recognized in the sense of incompleteness and unfulfillment, and in the uninterrupted struggle both of individuals and humanity." ~Alfred Adler

You know how, when you're watching a speaker, you can tell if he or she is nervous? There are those tell-tale signs: trembling hands and voice, lack of eye contact, perspiration, twitches, lots of "ummms," and a myriad of other idiosyncratic gestures and signs that show he or she is not fully at ease in front of an audience.

Did you know that I can spot those same tell-tale signs in your writing?

If you're not completely confident in your skills as a writer, and in what you've written in particular, there are warning signs that can tip off an editor or reader. I find them in query letters all the time, and, to a lesser extent, in articles and stories themselves.

The first tip-off? Stilted language.

Stilted language is formal and proper. It employs big words when small ones would suffice just fine. It "sounds" canned and over-prepared.

Example: "Marjorie was required to submit to a physician's examination prior to the interview in which she would be considered for the position."

Doesn't it sound like the writer is working too hard to impress here? Like she's trying to SOUND like a journalist? "Real writers" don't have to use big words and serious language to effectively get their point across. In fact, the more direct and simple the language, the better.

"Marjorie had to go for a doctor's exam before the company would consider her for the job."

Is it "dumbing down" your language? No. It's cutting through the thicket and allowing the words to flow as naturally as they would in your speech—just with the benefit of editing. It's being purposely as understandable as possible, so that if someone was skimming your query/article quickly, he would still get the meaning, without tripping over S.A.T. words or unfamiliar phrasing.

Many professional writers (myself included) believe in writing first drafts quickly, so as not to give our brains enough time to censor, doubt, and question each word as it flows through us and onto the paper. When I write, whether it's an article, story, or just about anything else, I pretend I'm talking to a friend. I want my friend to hear about this interesting thing I learned. So, I tell him in the same manner I'd tell him if he were sitting next to me in my living room. I don't need to impress him (or confuse him!) by "spicing up" my writing with words like "proceed" and "consume" when the words "go" and "eat" would have worked just fine.

Stilted language is a sign that the writer is not confident that her OWN words—the words she would really use—are good enough. It's puffing up the writing to suit an editor. But think about this: the more formal and convoluted the language, the harder the editor will have to think just to get through the piece. Too much thinking equals rejection, unless you're writing for an academic or very intellectual market. Editors want clarity. They don't want to have to reread sentences to get the meaning of your words. Once the eyes glaze over, you're in trouble.

Another giveaway: namby-pamby qualifiers that shift the responsibility for the statements away from the author. Example: "It seemed to onlookers that Mayor Ross might possibly have been suffering from exhaustion."

Were you one of the onlookers? Was it pretty obvious that the guy was falling asleep at the podium? Then don't shift the observation into a passive voice. Be confident in your own powers of observation and reasoning. "Mayor Ross seemed exhausted."

The same goes for overuse of "experts" and studies when none are needed. We all know that you're supposed to get eight hours of sleep a night, right? Then why do people insist on writing, "According to doctors, eight hours of sleep per night is optimal"? You don't need the doctor to say that for you. If you know it to be true, you can skip the "according to doctors" and get straight to your point, without pulling out of your own voice.

Another example: "usually," "probably," "most likely," "often," etc. Watch for these words in your writing. There are times when they'll be necessary—and, then again, there are plenty of times when you can omit them.

I once had a psychology professor who prefaced every statement she made with the words "basically," "usually," or "typically." It undermined what she was saying, because it felt like she was unsure of herself. When you write these words, it translates to uncertainty—did Mary Beth go to church on Sundays, or did she "typically" go to church on Sundays? If she skipped once or twice a year, she went. You don't need a qualifier. If she skipped every other week, then you can add a qualifier.

Be confident in what you are writing. Every time you shift away responsibility for your words by attributing them to someone else, or by watering them down with adverbs, you give the reader leeway to question whether or not you really know what you're talking about.

Another tip-off: fear of making a point.

Similar to the problem with too many qualifiers, pulling out of your article too soon shows a lack of confidence in your message. Let's say you wrote an entire article about how a certain kind of duck is going extinct. You talked about all the reasons why it's happening, and you explained what people can do to help. Then you end it with a lame conclusion like "Further studies are needed" or "Experts will continue to examine the causes..." blah, blah. Again, if you know that what you've just said is true, you don't need to end off with anything that detracts from your conclusion. Sure, further studies may be conducted, but does that take anything away from the evidence you've just reported? Let your point come through loud and clear. Make the decision to take a risk and be accountable for your words.

You don't need to tie it all up neatly with a moral, a la Aesop's Fables ("And that's why we must all stop throwing plastic in the garbage"). Just let the strength of your entire article carry the message—let your readers come to the conclusions to which you've directed them, and don't let them second-guess those conclusions by giving a wishy-washy ending.

Be bold. Be confident. And let your very best writing shine through.

Jenna Glatzer is the editor-in-chief of Absolute Write (www.absolutewrite.com), where writers can get a free list of more than 180 agents who are open to new writers! She is also the author of OUTWITTING WRITER'S BLOCK AND OTHER PROBLEMS OF THE PEN and other books for writers, which you can read about at http://www.absolutewrite.com/jenna/books.htm if you want to make her day.
20th-Jun-2006 05:37 am (UTC)
Excellent breakdown on a common enough problem.
I'm beyond redemption at this point, but it should help some of the writers out there who are still willing to learn the craft.

What most don't realize is that these same mistakes are made in other areas, other than writing. I often teach my sales people to avoid the same communication cues and tattles. Especially statements that include "usually," "probably," "most likely," "technically", "honestly" and "in my opinion".

I have had several situations where I have been accused of manipulating people and facts. What I've learned in writing, as well as in sales, is that manipulation of your audience or consumer isn't a sin on its own. It's when you add malice and irrational greed to the mix, that it becomes a very bad thing.

Manipulation is a necessity in all areas of communication.

Art is no exception.
20th-Jun-2006 09:41 am (UTC)
You raise some interesting points. Admittedly, I have a problem with the "um's" and the "likes." Those should never be filler words in everyday speech. I am a fast talker though, so it is a really hard habit to break.

My main pet peeve with salespeople are those relentless peddlers in the mall. I'm a sucker. I can't stand being rude and walking away. I know they are full of shit but sometimes I end up buying that crap anyway. Most people tend to appreciate good, honest salespeople. They won't buy from you if you don't seem confident, but if you tell the truth and still manage to make the product look good, people will buy. And not regret it afterward.

I don't think I could work in sales. I could definately work in advertising, behind the scenes. I like coming up with slogans and jingles and storyboarding and all that. But I couldn't close the deal. I'd need a type-a sales partner for that.

I have the right ideas, just not the sales attitude. I think I'd make a good "wing man." Well, wo-man. The Art Garfunkels of the world. #2 in line, if anything.

Now I have one minor quibble...

Manipulation and art. I will use theater as an example, but I think this does cross into other art forms.

I dealt with some of the most ridiculous people in theater. Some were convinced that great acting meant being a great manipulator. Most were assholes. Many were fine actors, but there was always something missing . Something that rang false

I was never a truly great actor, but I did learn one thing. Great acting is about finding a part of yourself in the role you are trying to play. The more of yourself you find in a character, the more you grow into the character.

Great art is more about truth than manipulation. No matter how skilled you become at manipulating others, it is still a lie. That's why most manipulators are unhappy people. You are denying yourself by deceiving others.

In acting, you often become what you pretend to be. You can do this in life.

"I will be confident," "I am perfect for this job." etc.

But we all have our boundaries. Lines we will never allow ourselves to cross, because it seems too dangerous.

Which is why I can't sell ... unless I like what I'm selling.

And I guess that means I could never really be a salesperson. Or an actor for that matter. Or a journalist.

All of which I've dabbled in. So what can you do and still not compromise yourself? It's a tough call, and why I'm stuck in job limbo right now.

20th-Jun-2006 09:47 am (UTC)
Sorry about ranting.

I wish the devil would bite my ass just a little, so I could at least be a more marketable person.

But right now I'm looking into being a children's librarian.

You don't want to be lame like me. You can only be honest if you are comfortable.

Continue manipulating. You need to manipulate to survive.

And art is often a matter of life and death.
20th-Jun-2006 09:58 am (UTC)
Shit. I have an inferiority complex.

It just occured to me. Well, it didn't "just" occur to me, because why else would I post what I posted? No, it occured to me two days ago.

I get typecasted as humorous characters with an inferiority complex. My writing is self depreciating. And nothing is ever "ready" for people to see, including me.

The critic in my brain never shuts up. Unless I keep it busy with a menial task. But by the time the critic sees what I did while it was gone, he tears it up or mocks it. Or says it's impossible to finish.

And everyone seems to know just how to push my buttons.

Oh yes, I have a thing against manipulators, because I am often the one being manipulated. And it sucks dammnit.

20th-Jun-2006 05:24 pm (UTC) - fuel to the fire

I'm going to attempt to respond to all three replies here, and then I'm going to ramble as usual
for the rest of this.

Sales does suck. Being a middleman always sucks. No matter how you play it, you always compromise. Each day upon awakening, you look at yourself in the mirror and flash your brights.
You begin to see that a smile is nothing more than a baring of teeth. Just one more act of aggression that we consider friendly and polite. There's a deception there older than us all. Evolution has created the con man, the traveller and the thief.

When you are a salesperson, you are also being deceived and manipulated. You are being deceived and lied to by your management in an attempt to focus you to sell more and more. You are being deceived and lied to by the manufacturer who wishes you to sell more and more of their product. And you are being lied to by the consumer who wishes to buy more with less and wants you to give them a product that will last forever and make them completely happy and doesn't cost too much.

People have asked me why I still do it. The cookie cutter answer is because I want to know that I can.
The secret answer and the truth is that I sense in this nexus of negative energy an emerging pattern of the human race. I've long sought to graduate from passive philosopher with a head full of ideas, to one who acts out those ideas and changes his life and others for the better.
It's a bad situation, a bad job, and if I can figure it out, then I won't have to worry anymore and can finally live my life.

The only thing that scares people like you and I, is that we can chase the logic seven ways from sunday, and discover how are rationale is skewed. We begin to feel like we're making excuses. We second guess and mull over details. Change our minds and try to generalize and ignore. I get deathly afraid that what I'm doing, and what I'm trying to learn to do is a waste of time.

It ends up occasionally that I get nothing done and I'm so far behind I don't want to try. That's death. To quote Ben Harper, "You have to fight, fight, fight for your mind"

The truth is that we do act out our irrational or superrational impulses. Our conscious minds do tend to try to make sense of it. We do rationalize. There's nothing wrong with analyzing our behavior, but we need to know that we are doing things for a reason and to accept it as we attempt to manipulate ourselves. Some people are alot better than others at doing this, but we can all strive for it.

A mental exercise I use sometimes is envisioning yourself as a mute tetraplegic. You can write, draw and paint using just your mouth and a special brush. You are surrounded by people who make money off the subsidies and donations you receive, and siphon off the special attention you get. They are always wheeling you to and fro. Doctor's office, state welfare office, disabilities office, the fucking bus and church. But you are a stone cold atheist, and you just want to go to a park and paint stuff.

Imagine how they treat you. Imagine how little control you do have. Now how are you going to do what you want?

And when you do it, are you going to let them dictate it?

But seriously, I'd envy you if you got the children's librarian job. That would be so challenging, but it would so wicked!

By the way, where is that piece you were going to send me that you thought was too "wordy"?
23rd-Jun-2006 12:31 am (UTC) - Re: fuel to the fire
It's true. I do mull. I mull like hell.

I realized that I tend to create drama in my life when things seem too easy. Maybe it's because I've watched too many movies.

For a while, I learned to stop thinking. Two weeks ago, I stopped thinking for a few days, and man, it was perfect. I think we place too much importance on the mind. The mind is often the devil. If you are an imaginative person, your mind can get out of control. You are not your mind. It sounds crazy, but true. Everyone thinks they are their minds, but there has to be a level above thought. Thought isn't everything. Not to say we should all be brainwashed zombies who just do what we are told, but I think you know what I mean.

I think there is a book about this called "The path of least resisistance." At least I assumed that's what it was about.

I am trying to break myself of the evil analysis habit, where my fears take over and I convince myself that the sky is falling or will fall at some point. The more I try, the harder it gets. Man, I'm sleepy... I also shouldn't be posting since I'm at work.

I'll elaborate later. This is a tangent anyway.
23rd-Jun-2006 12:32 am (UTC) - Re: fuel to the fire
Anon was me, by the way.
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