Jan 19, 2008

Am I Really Improving As A Writer?

By Christine Thackeray

Years ago I went on a mission to London, England for my church. One P-day my companion and I decided to visit Kew Gardens which toted the largest collection of Roses in England. I will always remember the huge green house that looked like a crystal palace and the gorgeous garden paths that rambled on and on. At the far end of the park was a little old building called the Mary North Cottage. Curiousity pulled us inside. Mary North had been given the assignment to be the official painter for Australia when it was first colonized by the British. It was her job to paint pictures for the queen that would be sent back to England so that her highness could enjoy all the wonders of that strange place.

Walking around the entry hall, I looked at the splotchy, poorly executed works displayed there and hardly wanted to move on. Mary must have gotten the job through nepotism because it certainly wasn't through talent. In the second room there was definite improvement. A large picture of a Koala was almost not lop-sided. She was putting in more detail and her use of color and shadow were consistently getting better. When I entered the last room, it took my breath away. There was this gorgeous huge canvas with a bright parrot beside a waterfall. It was as large as me and painted with perfect detail. If I hadn't seen her progression myself, I never would have believed it was the same artist whose pathetic etches were in the front hall.

I remember thinking at the time that it was because of all her practice but the next day I went to church and watched the organist at the small English ward where we were assigned. She had been playing the organ for thirty some odd years and never made it through a single hymn without some loud and obvious error. After speaking to her, I was surprised that she was pleased with her performance, thinking no one really noticed her mistakes. But after listening to numerous conversations in the hall, I knew everybody did notice and it bothered many people.

Sometimes as writers it is easy to be like this little English organist, so focused on the feeling and spirit of our writing that we grow technically lazy. We may justify it by thinking that as soon as we become published, the editor will take care of all that. I believe that is a huge mistake for two reasons. First, with how competitive the market is, unless you create clean copy chances are you won't be published. Second, if we aren't improving, we are growing worse. I just read a blog and I can't remember who said it (if it was you, tell me) that talked about one writer who tried to use her favorite authors to guide her. She talked about trying to create a certain emotion and remembering reading a similar scene in another book which she reread, trying to dissect why she liked it so much. It reminded me of the art students in the Louvre who are expected to recreate great masterpieces so that they may someday create their own.

As a child, one of my mother's favorite mantras was "practice doesn't make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect." I believe it. So for the LDStorymakers Writing Conference I signed up for writing camp. I also have a cheat sheet of my most common technical mistakes (like footnote formatting) beside my computer. I'm impressed that ANWA this month is also encouraging editing. I like to edit with a thesaurus so that I expand my vocabulary because I struggle with orignal word choice (as you may have noticed.) I hope that as I try to improve as a writer I'll be more like Mary North whose continued effort brought her to a whole new level of expertise and that someday when I look back, I can see serious improvement.


  1. It is most difficult to see progression in ourselves.
    I think that is why it is so important to have a group like ANWA that helps us refine our words into the beautiful pictures that we desire them to be.

  2. Great words of wisdom, Christine! Thank you! I like the idea of putting the cheat sheet by the computer. I waste a great deal of time looking up "the rules."

    I love your mother's mantra, too! I am going to share it with my kids.

  3. To improve - that is why I am taking a creative writing class this semester. It's good to be able to associate with others and share ideas and share critiques. One needs not only to do perfect practice, but have guidelines to follow, and a destination in mind.
    Thanks for the reminders.

  4. Christine,

    Does your mother play the piano? Because I think I've read a very similar line: "Perfect practice makes perfect playing" in one of the books that I teach my piano students out of. Now if I could just convince them that it's true!

  5. Since editing is what I do for a living, I can tell you personally that editors delight in someone who has taken the time to write well and cover the technical bases.


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