Tag Archives: Writing

What to do when someone says your writing sucks?

Writing sucks

No matter in which field you work, you’re always going to invite feedback, whether you ask for it or it is gratuitous. So what do you do if someone tells it on your face that you writing sucks? Writers, or rather artists, are an emotional lot. They can be easily hurt. They can be easily disheartened.

Not every criticism is the same. There is a criticism that says that yes, you do write well, but what you have written right now doesn’t truly represent your potential. Maybe you’re factually wrong. Maybe what you have tried to explain doesn’t make sense. Maybe you’re writing something outlandish. That’s another matter. But what if someone says you cannot write altogether, that you’re wasting your time (and of those who were reading your stuff) by needlessly doing something you are incapable of doing? Such feedback can be ruthless. It can be severely crushing if such a feedback comes from a person you’re really close to, like your spouse, your best friend or one of your parents.

Have I been at such a receiving end? In personal life, fortunately, I haven’t. In professional life, in the past 10 years, maybe a couple of times. Even in this case, fortunately, such a feedback was thrown at me when I had been writing content for my clients for a few years. What if I had received such a severe feedback on my very first assignment?

It will be pretty useless to think about this issue solely from my point of view because I have been writing – not something like getting regularly published in mainstream magazines and newspapers – for a pretty long time now. My writing was appreciated in my school days when I would immediately start using the new words I had learnt in the class. I got published in my college magazine. I was regularly sending letters to the editor with an almost 80% published rate. Whenever I have sent an article to a newspaper or a magazine, it has been published. Writing is something I have been doing all my life. I’m not great at it and my literary writing has never been published, but for the past 10 years clients from all over the world have paid me for writing for their websites, newsletters and other marketing collateral. So if they are paying me for it, if they are coming back to me sometimes even after three years, then I must be delivering something to them. So in my case, if someone suddenly comes and says that my writing sucks I will either take it as a difference of opinion or simply brush it off as an aberration and then get on with my life (this is not to say that I overestimate my abilities and never invest time in learning – I do).

Let us assume

  • You have never been published
  • You have never been paid for your writing
  • Someone tells you your writing sucks so bad that it’s even embarrassing

You will be hurt, of course. You may feel devastated. Your previous written works that once seemed like great stuff, may seem mediocre and immature. You may decide never to write again.

In such a situation the best thing to do is be true to yourself. You also need to know the intention of the person criticizing you. Does he or she really mean what he or she is saying? What sort of relationship do you have with that person? Do you value his or her opinion so much that it is going to shatter your beliefs in yourself?

Remember that a person who loves you and cares for you wouldn’t use such language, no matter how straight-talk-loving person he or she is. Even if he or she thinks that you should be spending your time and effort doing something you can actually accomplish, he or she will find a gentler way of communicating that to you. So if the feedback is inordinately harsh (being a writer you can easily know that), don’t take it at its face value.

If the feedback isn’t harsh but the message is more or less the same, even then don’t get disheartened. We all have different preferences. Once I started writing poems. I used to receive lots of praises and once I even made a lady with whom I was having a clandestine affair cry with the lines I had written for her. When my wife read some of my poems (we weren’t married yet) she said they were quite mediocre and were drenched in teenage romanticism. I knew she meant well and I too – intellectually as well as experience wise – had grown up since my poetry days and hence could see that those were really childish poems so I didn’t feel very bad. There was a sense of nostalgia attached to them, but that’s all. I knew that she believed in my writing abilities because many times she has said that I could be among the best writers if I want to be.

Sit someday quietly, and think about why you want to be a writer. “I love to write” is a stupid answer for a serious writer. Is it just a hobby? Does the fame and fortune of successful writers allure you? Do you think it’s “intellectual” to be a writer? Do you idealize people who are great writers? Do you want to write to impress people? Such superficial reasons will leave you exposed to hurt and discouragement.

Like any other field of work writing is hard work. It’s not like you sit under a tree, or on your desk, and then you write line after line. It does happen, but if you write 365 days, it just happens 10-20 days that you can write line after line for multiple hours. Otherwise, it is a constant struggle against not just distractions but also against other plebeian pressing needs. Come may what you write everyday. Even when not even a single word wants to come out of you, you write. You have been writing like this for many months, for many years.

When John Grisham was working on A Time to Kill he used to work for 15-16 hours a day. Despite that, he decided that he would write 500 words everyday. No matter what, he stuck to the schedule. This is how writers normally write.

I’m not saying that you should be following similar pattern but if you write everyday and if you have been doing this for quite some time, you know what you’re doing. When you feel that you were born to write. When 5 years old or 20 years old or even 40 years old strewn up papers turn up on which you had jotted down sentences of the various novels and stories that you started but never finished, you know that you are destined to write.

Under such circumstances if someone says that your writing sucks, frankly, it doesn’t matter. Even if the part that he or she has read sucks (we all go through bad patches, perfectly natural) it doesn’t mean you as a writer suck. Give a shrug, thank that person for the frank feedback and start writing again, more sure of yourself.

Are you writing for all the wrong reasons?

writing-regularly

This Medium article aptly says Cut the bullshit and make time to write.

John Grisham used to work 15 or 16 hour days as a lawyer, but he resolved to write one page a day of his first novel when he got home from work.

That novel became A Time To Kill, and it afforded him the time to work on his second novel, The Firm; the book that brought him mainstream success.

Making time to write starts with setting goals. How long does it take you to write 500 words, on average; an hour? Two hours?

Over all these years I have learned one thing, at least about myself: you don’t write because, well, you don’t write.

It’s been slightly more than 10 years that I’ve been providing professional content writing services. My clients pay me to write for their websites, their blogs, their email marketing campaigns and their landing pages. When they have paid an advance, I write, whether I feel like writing or not, whether I’m feeling “creative” or not, whether I’m getting into the groove or not. Once the client has paid, once he or she has decided to partner with me to achieve something that is critical for his or her business, he or she doesn’t care how I’m thinking and what is my frame of mind. If by Wednesday I have committed to deliver a particular document then I MUST deliver that document by Wednesday. I do that.

Why don’t I show the same degree of commitment when it comes to working on my own book or even a short story, or for that matter, even for this blog? For almost 2 years I have been thinking of writing an e-book on content writing, even that I haven’t worked on. What stops me? Don’t I get time? Don’t I have the resources and tools? Don’t I know how to write? Is my vocabulary limited? To all these questions there is just one answer, that is not the case.

When writing content for my clients the goal is very small. I know that if I deliver the document by Wednesday, the client is going to pay me on Wednesday, on Thursday or at the most, by next Monday. Minutes or hours after I have delivered the document he or she is going to send me a feedback and then accordingly I will be making changes. Everything is happening fast. There is nothing fuzzy. There is no ambiguity. There is not even a fear of failure (in the past 10 years I can remember just a couple of clients to whom I had to reimburse the advance because they found my work totally unacceptable with no scope for revisions).

I think an average person works under this pattern. You do something and the result is immediate. You feel safe working in a loop. This loop is physical, worldly and psychological. You go to your job, you do the assigned work, you get involved with all the nitty-gritty of managing your professional life, you come back home and you take care of all the nitty-gritty of your domestic life. There is a set pattern. Within this set pattern even if you experience a setback, you, and people around you, have empathy.

You may say that being an entrepreneur is also full of uncertainty and pitfalls. Yes, but even if you are an entrepreneur, and even if there is uncertainty (for instance I’m never sure how many clients I’m going to get in a particular month), since you’re working on a set pattern – trying to create wealth for your family and yourself – there is less mental pressure. While being an entrepreneur if you fail everybody will “understand”. When you run a business it doesn’t solely depend on you. It depends on lots of external factors like market conditions, the competence of people working with you, the infrastructure and even natural conditions. If you fail, you can blame any one of these, rightly or wrongly.

But when you pursue an art it is mostly considered an individualistic activity. If I write (not content, but literature) it’s because I like it, I enjoy it. If I get published, if I get successful, it will be a bonus. If I fail, it’s like, I spent all that precious time creating my sandcastles knowing quite well that people depended on me.

I’m not saying that I don’t write because I’m burdened with responsibility. This way I will not only be doing injustice to my family but also to myself. I’m writing all this to explain, this is through what an average person goes and this is the mentality that stops people from pursuing their art, their passion, in this particular case, writing.

Another problem is that people focus too much on the end result. They focus too much on success and the fame success brings. Like, if you become a successful writer, if you become a famous writer, you will be highly sought after, you will make lots of money, you will be invited to literary festivals and parties and whatnot. You begin to get into this dreamworld and then you get desperate to enter this world. This way you put a lot at stake. Your happiness depends on the sentence you are writing. Everything you have dreamt of depends on the paragraph you are writing. Just imagine, if you want to experience wealth and fame, do you want to experience them after 3-4 years or after 3-4 months?

There is something that has helped me cope with this psychological problem. Rather than focusing on completing a novel or short story, these days I’m focusing on maintaining a writing schedule, even if it involves just opening the document that contains my novel and having a look at it and trying to add a few words here and there. It’s about the activity, not the end result. If you worry about the end result, it will wear you down and then again you will end up totally disillusioned and disenchanted. Write just 500 words, as the above article suggests. Or just write for 20 minutes even if you write just 20 words during those 20 minutes. Most people don’t write not because they don’t have the ability, they don’t write because there writing muscles have atrophied due to disuse. My Guruji (my music teacher) has repeatedly told me that no matter how great a master you are, if you don’t practice for one day, you can feel the difference, if you don’t practice for two days the music critiques begin to feel the difference and if you don’t practice for three days your audience begins to feel the difference.

Persistent practice is not just relevant for arts. When famous football and cricket players skip their practice, it becomes news, that’s how important practice is.

When someone tells you to keep on writing it doesn’t mean you need to churn out great stuff every day, it basically means keep practicing. Keep practicing your art so that one day when you are visited upon by something really to write about, your muscles are already flexible and you’re already familiar with all those words and phrases you would like to use. Alienate them, and they will behave like aliens when you really need them.

So don’t write for becoming a famous writer, write because you want to write. Then someday, on your own you will start becoming a writer who has the potential of becoming a famous writer, if that’s what you want.

What is the future of news and journalism?

Have you noticed the pattern of news broadcasting especially on the Indian news TV channels? Normally there is no “news” no matter how loudly some channels scream “Breaking News!”. Most are predictable political controversies. Then these controversies are used to target political parties and individuals. It normally begins with the statement or a declaration and then there is a litany of debates where they invite known and unknown panelists to scream their brains out until you can’t make sense of what they’re saying and what they want to prove, to each other, and to the viewer.

For instance, as I’m writing this, a woman NCP leader who also leads the Maharashtra Women’s Commission said yesterday that women get raped because of the way they dress or the way the stay out late. About the Nirbhaya rape she said, why was there need to go watch a movie late in the evening? Predictably, all TV news channels today are going to hyperventilate on the insensitivity of the leader, the patriarchal mentality that ails our society and whether the person should resign or apologize. Parallels will be drawn to various other personalities from various other political parties and fields who have previously mouthed such rubbish and the crescendo will be reached in the evening during prime time TV debates. I’m not saying that such debates shouldn’t happen and such characters shouldn’t be held responsible and taken to task, but when they go on and on, it becomes a bit overbearing. It becomes an obsession.

That is why from 8 PM onwards normally there is no news. There are debates. No news, just debates, and even if it is humanly impossible to ignore some major news, it is shown in flashes, between the debates.

Anyway, I’m talking about this just to stress upon the point that news these days doesn’t mean gathering information at various spots and attempting to inform people in a timely manner unless there is a catastrophe. Panelists and anchors are more famous than journalists and reporters; in fact many anchors unabashedly call themselves “journalists”.

Newspapers in the West are mostly dead (if not in terms of circulation or viewership than certainly in terms of revenue) although this might not be the case in India where a majority of population still relies on newspapers – mostly local, vernacular newspapers – to access news. The roadside chaiwala is everyday witness to highly charged up debates on various bits of news published, including politics.

The same happens on social networking websites like Twitter. A majority of links posted over there are from newspapers – both online versions of conventional newspapers as well as web-only newspapers. Then people discuss these links. They debate on the data and information contained within the link and then many post counter information and this goes on every day. Blogs and articles are written contesting the disputed article. However much powerful social media is, the main source of information remain conventional news agencies. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook cannot generate news themselves unless there comes a day when professional journalists start posting the news and investigative works on their own profiles rather than through newspapers and magazines. This may happen if a workable financial model can be developed.

Merely having an opinion doesn’t make you a journalist. It can make you a columnist, it can make you a writer and in some cases it can also make you an analyst (fair enough, and you can also make money). A journalist needs to go out to the places where an event is actually taking place and then give a first-hand experience – “first-hand” is the key word here. If you are not writing a first-hand experience you are merely gleaning information from here and there and then compiling it just the way one writes a blog post. In the early days of the Internet I came across many such “journalists” who would visit various news websites (very early in the morning) scouring the information needed for their own articles. I stopped tracking consciously, but I’m sure most of the journalists work like this these days. There may be very few journalists who visit places and events in order to write about them. Of course there are many niches where you cannot work without visiting actual places such as travel, entertainment and even technology summits.

As social media becomes more and more a part of our daily grain I think the quality of written journalism is going to improve tremendously. I’m not sure about TV news channels because they are more noise and less voice. A good thing about social media is every journalist is held accountable the moment he or she says something factually wrong or culturally/socially repulsive. This may force journalists to do their research and represent the actual truth rather than creating their own individual versions as they used to do when there was no direct way to hold them accountable and they couldn’t get immediate feedback. There are many journalists who don’t like this trend but this is because they are forced to work harder or they miss their ability to run political and ideological propaganda unencumbered and uncontested.

Why the Internet is so distracting to writers, and why it is not

Reams have been written about how writers find Internet very distracting and how they are not able to write, especially in the era of social networking. There is actually a name for the fear of being left behind and it is called FOMO – the fear of missing out. But I think it is easier to blame it on the Internet and people are not going to find the right solution unless they properly understand the problem.

Internet can be a distraction, surely, but is it really a distraction that you cannot avoid? Is it really so important for you to constantly check your Facebook and Twitter updates and if you don’t check them, something drastic is going to happen? More than distraction, Internet is one’s way to procrastination, and this sense of procrastination is amplified in the case of writers because writing is a cerebral activity and unless you have got tons of things to say it is one of the most difficult things to do. So what do you do? When you’re not able to write you start surfing the web.

Distractions have always been there. When there was no Internet, there was something else. There was TV. There was the VCR. There were books and magazines. CDs and cassettes. In every era distractions have been there.

In Hamlet’s BlackBerry the author William Powers cites an ancient incident that took place between Socrates and his friend Phaedrus. When Socrates accidentally bumps into Phaedrus, Phaedrus has just listened to the lectures of one of the most reputed orators of that time and Socrates wants to know what was said. Phaedrus has made some notes but the art of writing is just in its early stages and orthodox people like Socrates find it very distracting, so instead of reading he would like Phaedrus to recite the entire lecture to him. But they find the hubbub of the city very distracting. They head to the nearby stream beyond the city walls so that while Socrates is listening to the lecture, there are no distractions. Both of them lament the fact that while being in the city it is very difficult to concentrate and focus because there are simply too many distractions.

They didn’t even know how to write and they were already feeling distracted and consequently, overwhelmed, back in 400 BC.

So why is it so acute in the era of the Internet?

The easiness.

Since almost every writer these days uses a computer or one of the devices that can easily connect to the Internet all you have to do is click on an icon and there you go. In the beginning you just want to peek into the kingdom of distraction and before you know it, you are sucked into it by the vacuum of avoidance. You see, this is not distraction because nothing important ever happens on the Internet unless some catastrophe, major sports event or some political controversy is going on. We know that. Still we let the Internet distract us and stop us from writing. Why? Because you don’t want to write and you can easily blame it on the Internet. Remember the movie Blame It on Rio?

Technology as a whole can be blamed for this perpetual state of distraction rather than just the Internet. Technology makes it quite easy to get distracted. You don’t have to get up to indulge in various distracting activities. You can watch movies. You can play games. You can check status updates. You can chat with people. You can check your email and reply. You can shop. You can read and watch news. You can listen to music. And, you can write.

This, was something that was not available previously. In order to be distracted, you had to move away from your table because you could not possibly keep everything on your table. Whether you’re using a laptop, a computer or a Tablet PC, your every content consumption and communication need is being met with via a single device. This is the fundamental problem. The easiness of doing everything.

But I digressed. It is not the distraction that is a problem for writers, it is a reluctance to write. They have to deal with that. Are you distracted if you’re watching an interesting movie? Do you check your emails and Facebook updates in the middle of watching your favorite movie? You don’t. This is because you are totally engaged. You are very interested. You’re feeling stimulated.

Being distracted by the Internet is a secondary problem. The primary problem is whether you want to write or not. If you really want to write, nothing can distract you. If I’m not wrong, JK Rowling wrote her first Harry Potter book sitting in a cafeteria bubbling with noises and activities. If that is not distraction, what is?

Why reading makes you a better writer

Most successful writers advise you to read as much as possible. They are voracious writers themselves. Why does it help if you read a lot? I mean aren’t there thousands, even if not millions of readers all over the world who read maybe, 10 books in a month with no intention of ever becoming a writer? Why don’t they turn into great writers?

Reading dog

Reading improves your writing

It is very simple. Millions of people all over the world are constantly glued onto their TV screens when the football World Cup is taking place. Are they all planning to become footballers? That’s not the point. Players watch other players playing all the time. An average footballer knows about all the matches that have been played during his or her lifetime. A chess player knows every game of famous chess players. Musicians attend concerts and live music shows.

When you are actually involved in an art, experiencing the manifestation of that art in someone else isn’t just entertainment or thrill. You are constantly learning by osmosis. Even when you’re not learning, when you read other writers, the brain parts that control your writing skills are constantly stimulated.

As a writer, when you read the work of another writer, whether you realize it or not, you are constantly learning. You learn how to express various emotions. You learn to use words in the right context. You learn to explain features and environments. You learn to evoke emotions that can move people to tears. I’m not saying that these skills cannot be acquired in isolation because after all, the classical writers we admire so much didn’t have access to so much literature. Even if great quantities of literature was available, it was very difficult to actually access it. Nonetheless, they are still able to amaze their readers even after centuries. So you also have inbuilt qualities and skills and eventually these inbuilt qualities and skills make you a successful writer.

Talking about classical writers, they had something that we don’t, and this lack of the thing that they had and we don’t, can be compensated by reading. They had lots of time to think. Although every leader in every age has its own share of distractions and disturbances, the sort of distractions and disturbances that we have in the form of the Internet, social media, 24 x 7 channels and mobile technology is unprecedented. We are always in a state of disturbance. This doesn’t give us enough mental space to think about people stuff. No wonder everybody advises you to use smaller sentences and easier words. Look at the way Charles Dickens, Somerset Maugham and even PG Wodehouse wrote. Today’s generation finds it extremely hard to read them simply because it does not have the required attention span. Writers are facing the same problem.

Reading can solve this problem. When you read, you leave the world around you and enter the world of the book. You are totally immersed in the story or the topic. You’re constantly interacting with words, sentences and paragraphs. You’re focusing on a single chain of thoughts.

I’m a big fan of digital books, but if you’re using a tablet to read your books, you’re carrying around a big bag of disturbances in the form of connectivity. That is why it is better to use a dedicated e-book reader rather than an all-purpose tablet.

Although you don’t have to go to the extremes of Samuel Johnson who said, “A man will turn over half a library to make a book,” reading should be a regular part of your writing process. Knowledge gives you confidence. It helps you build your own style.