Going For the Participant’s Certificate

London_2012_Olympic_Games_MedalsSome while back, educators got the idea that all students needed to be recognized, not just the exceptional ones. Youth sports especially seemed enamored with this idea, so race entrants and members of Little League teams all received participant certificates, no matter how they performed.

Undoubtedly there is validity in recognizing the fact that someone stuck with whatever they set out to do and finished. But few contestants actually aim to win a participant’s certificate. Most have some other goal in mind. Perhaps they play because they’re having fun. Or maybe they want to improve so they can succeed at the next level. Maybe they’re doing it for the exercise.

In contrast, in the writing community I think too many people are working for their participant’s certificate–a published book. I suggest there should be a greater reason for writing a book than simply holding a paperback with your name as the author or seeing it on the cover of an ebook. As thrilling as that may be, in this day and age with self-publishing being easy and inexpensive, the finished product is little more than a participant’s certificate. Writers can do better.

First, determine why you want to write and publish a book. If the answer is, “To cross it off my bucket list,” then you’re going for the participant’s certificate. If, however, you want to build self-discipline, improve your writing skills, develop perseverance, these are noble and good goals–they will be their own reward.

If, on the other hand, you want to write because you have something you want to say, then your audience is your reward. This audience doesn’t have to be big, in the same way that not every race is part of the Olympics. But the point is, you’ve determined you want to speak into the lives of other people–to tell them something you believe, either through story or fact-based prose.

If this is you, then you are separating yourself from the pack, but how do you actually get the job done? I mean there are lots of people wanting to win an Olympic gold medal who end up getting participant certificates in lesser races than the Olympic trials. There are even people who would like to play high school ball but who don’t make the final cut.

So you who are setting your sights higher than a participant’s certificate, here’s the game plan.

First, study.

There are great resources available to those who want to learn how to write well. For example, Writer’s Digest magazine continues to provide invaluable information–from tips about how to start a novel to mastering pace and avoiding story mistakes. There are also numerous writing instruction books (see a list of those I recommend on the Resources page here at Rewrite, Reword, Rework) and any number of writing-tip blogs such as this one.

Another avenue a writer can take is to attend conferences where you can learn from professionals teaching workshops on various craft issues.

Of course there is also the more formal route–many community colleges offer creative writing classes and there are schools that have programs in which a student may earn an advanced degree in writing.

The key in this first step is for the writer going for more than a participant’s certificate to accept that you do in fact need to learn and then find the way to do so that works best for you.

Second, write.

Many instructors would put “read” in first or second place on a list such as this. I am not discounting the value of reading. However, a writer writes. At some point, a person with the aspiration to write so that others will read what you have to say, must write.

I suggest starting with projects that will give you a sense of accomplishment and some objective feedback. Writing exercises (a number of writing instruction books include these) give the practice and may provide the sense of accomplishment. Take advantage of writer prompts such as Writer’s Digest makes available. Watch for writing challenges like the one Speculative Faith recently held. Enter short story contests or beginning-of-your-novel contests. Joining a critique group is another way to keep you writing as well as to give you objective feedback

Third, revise.

No matter how much a writer learns or how much feedback you receive, none of it will make a difference unless, you take all the input and apply it. This means revise what you’ve written. Please note, this is far different from checking your spelling or making sure your commas are in the right place.

In his excellent article on rewriting, agent Steve Laube quoted from an interview with Earnest Hemingway in which he said, “I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.”

I don’t doubt that there are some brilliant writers who can get it right the first time they put their thoughts into words and type them onto the screen of their computer, but I tend to think they are the exception to the rule. In fact E. B. White has been quoted as saying, “It is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery. This is common in all writing and among the best of writers” (from “Rewriting/Quotes by other writers”–emphasis mine).

Too many writers starting out do not want to accept this step. The idea that they have spent weeks, even months, getting a story down, and then must turn around and tear it all apart and do it over, seems ridiculous and definitely too hard. I used to hold this view myself. Wouldn’t it be better just to write it right the first time?

The problem is, it’s really hard to tell if it’s right until the whole thing is down. Only then can you see if your characters are properly motivated in every scene, if their voices are unique, if you have the tension you need on every page.

The fact is, stories are complex and nonfiction requires order and transition and logic. These are things that are hard to keep track of in the midst of getting the content down. And of course we haven’t begun to talk about syntax or word choice.

Last step, read.

Yes, do read, particularly in your genre. Read the best writers and the most popular ones (not always the same) so that you can get a glimpse where you fit, so you can learn how those writers handled the things with which you’re grappling.

2012_Olympics_Gold_MedalWhy be content with going for a participant’s ribbon when you can reach for the writer’s greatest prize–readers who will read what you’ve written. Study, write, revise, and read, putting yourself on a path to win an audience, your own particular gold medal.

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