I Suck at Writing

A few of you are nodding. But for those who don’t believe me, I assure you that my writing skills are well below par. Watching a rough draft emerge from my fingertips in realtime would induce nausea. It’s a haphazard, drunken affair.

But I’m a decent editor. That’s my trick, and the trick to turning out a great manuscript. Writing engaging prose requires three things, none of which are easy to pass along to another: You need a flexible vocabulary, an ear for the rhythm of words, and a plot people will care about.

How do you obtain these three things? I say absorption. By reading a metric ton of books, mostly the good kind. This is why writing classes aren’t always helpful. Sure, you will get some practice by doing and by workshopping with peers and seeing what works and what doesn’t, but it’s hard to have a clear discussion about why one piece does or does not shine. It’s either good or it’s bad, and it’s often evident at a glance. This is why a lot of craft discussions descend into bickering about rules and the hard and fast of grammar. Everything you’ve ever heard about passive voice and -ing and -ly endings and the like is bunk. All the great writers ignore these rules. But we don’t have the vocabulary to talk about what really makes for great writing. It either is or it isn’t.

Let’s look at the three facets of great writing again.

Vocabulary is one of the hardest of these three to learn in that it takes years to accumulate. There is no recipe here other than to read beyond your current level and to employ a dictionary. I never write with a thesaurus (some of you are like: “Dude, we can tell”), but it’s a good idea to do this while studying creative writing. It can break the flow and wreck the next two facets we’re about to discuss, but you have to expand your vocabulary. And the reason is not to show off. It has nothing to do with wowing or impressing the reader. It isn’t even to achieve greater clarity or brevity or any of the logical and obvious fruits of this endeavor. The primary reason you need a strong vocabulary is to achieve pleasant rhythm with your words.

Rhythm is everything. Prose is music. Sentences are trills that tickle our minds like fingers on piano keys. Did you like that last sentence? Read it again a few times. Note the rise and fall on the stress of each word. Granted, this is not my best effort. It’s not even a sentence I edited. I just wrote what felt musical to my ears while also conveying information as clearly and concisely as possible. Rhythm requires mixing up long sentences and short. It requires repetition, so that key concepts are stressed a second time, that they may lodge in the brain. It often means breaking rules and dropping commas where they don’t belong, signaling to the reader to take a breath, to pause, to relax, to prepare for more to come.

Like vocabulary, learning rhythm is all about absorption. I used to spend hours memorizing Shakespeare’s sonnets. No, not to get laid, though that was often an unintended byproduct. It was more about listening to a perfect tuning fork and humming those oscillations in my head. It was about singing with prose until key phrases — collections of words — became part of my exo-vocabulary. What I think of as my beyond-vocabulary. The key to learning rhythm is not to master rules but to develop an ear for prose that sings on key. All great editing happens here, even if you don’t understand the process while it’s taking place. Here is where your mind trips on a sentence; something is wrong, but you’re not sure what; a repeated word, perhaps. You play and play and rearrange until it shines, and then you leave it alone.

The best way to learn this art is through practice. Working with a great editor helps. Seeing how someone else tickles those mental keys, recognizing where a bad passage suddenly becomes a thing of beauty, studying what changed and why and making these changes in our future prose — these are the keys to becoming a great writer. I liken mastering rhythm to playing chess. You have to see twelve moves at once, and then concentrate solely on the most sublime of options. In chess, you “look” ahead. With writing, you “listen” ahead. You hear the words in your virtual ears, and you only set them down if they sound pure. Read poetry. Strike those tuning forks. Hum until you can hum on key. A broad vocabulary works wonders, as each word is a new note, a new power, a chess piece that can zig or zag or leap clear across the board, opening up options you never knew existed.

The third and final key to great writing is plot, which is both the information conveyed by your prose and how you convey that information. There are unusual aspects to good plotting that most writers would say do not belong in this discussion. As far as I know, I’m the only idiot who would suggest that rhythm is a key function of plot. But I believe that repetition of certain words and adhering to consistent paragraph lengths are just as crucial as laying down clues in a murder mystery. Sentence length is important. Sentence fragments are. Here are the sharp tacks that nail information into the readers’ brains, that give them something concrete to remember and file away, so that the long and flowing sentences that build clause upon clause, where the words rise and fall like the sea against a pier, are where the brain may relax and briefly shut off so that the prose washes through us and over us and in this moment of reverie we are able to process those pinpricks of information, ideas that came sudden and swift and seemed important, taken in as we listen to what rambles on, arriving more as raw emotion than content. Because the reader might need to recall such details that we drop like sharp tacks. Some things must not be forgotten.

Read that last sentence again. It is practically punctuated with periods, is it not? Must. Not. Be. Forgotten. There is no clear flow between these words, which makes them like beating drums, and it is that rhythm that makes the sentence stand out and its contents lodge in our skulls. Before we go on about plot, it’s important to see how vocabulary is a tool for mastering rhythm and how rhythm conveys information. Without these things, a story is the bare bones of an outline. A body is found. A woman suspects a man. It was her sister all along. You can set down most plots with brevity that verges on haiku. To turn that into a book, you need vocabulary and rhythm.

Plot is also about knowing when to stop. Breaking sentences into paragraphs is a filing system of sorts. Each paragraph is a single document, filed away into folders we call chapters. Putting too much into a single paragraph will cause most of it to be forgotten. It works for Proust, as he wants his words to fill you up to bursting so that they become a raw emotion and not a thing remembered or even understood; but don’t be Proust if you care to plot. Study him for rhythm. For plot, you want digestible lengths of things. Sentences that grab, often with their simplicity. You gain here not by working hard but by choosing chess moves wisely. And your chapters should end with a bang, with dynamism, with a forward lean, so that pages are turned in the middle of the night and angry emails about lack of sleep are sent to writers the next day. All of this, remember, is as important as clues in a murder mystery or fights and kisses in a romance.

I suck at writing, but I’m a decent editor. If you asked me to teach you how to write, I couldn’t. I would be horrible at that. But I can show you how to bend your words once they already exist on paper. I can point to what’s shrill and what flows. I can suggest where a plot is weak, where a character spends too much time brooding, where some dialog is needed to give the reader’s mind a break, where an info dump is jarring, where a love interest is needed, where characters sound too much alike, where “he said” and “she said” are plenty and how and where to place them, that few people employ names when speaking to one another, all the concepts that make for great writing that have to be seen to be understood.

My editor, of course, is cringing right now with my claims of being able to do what he does. He sees the drafts I send him and the work they still require. But he is also complimentary of how clean my drafts are in comparison to others. And he compliments my prose. These things are functions of my inner editor, who is a lot sharper than my inner writer. I’ve seen this the past two months as I’ve worked with John Joseph Adams to edit a dozen stories for an upcoming anthology. If I could give a class on the craft of writing, it would exist in the track changes of these Word documents, my suggestions and edits to these massively accomplished writers. Which gave me an idea. Stand the fuck back.

I believe in self-publishing, in the right for any and all to express themselves with words. Furthermore, I believe that every person has the right to be remunerated for their offerings. Not the expectation that anyone will, but the dignity to ask. I believe in the audaciousness of leaving that guitar case open while strumming on the streets. A free sample is there, a click on a product page no different than strolling for half a block while chords are played and the music washes over you. If it’s a discordant mess, others have the right to shout at you with 1-stars and tell you to shut up, to practice more, to grab their dollar back from the case or never place it there to begin with. They have the right to hurt your feelings, which is why expressing ourselves in public is so raw and dangerous. That danger comes with the territory.

We like to think that only those with talent will engage the market, but this will never be the case. Wishing will not make it so. Every season of American Idol is full of tone-deaf hopefuls with adoring tone-deaf parents, an echo chamber of support around an absence of talent, and yet a firm belief that this is music they’re making. Simon Cowell and his ilk are needed. But the only Simon Cowell who matters is the reader. All other Simon Cowell’s get it wrong often enough to make them tragic. It only takes one innocent and beautiful story murdered to make those erected gates a terrible thing. It only takes a rant here and a rant there to dissuade the nervous and talented not to bare their beautiful souls on the streets that we might weep at what they bring to the world. Demanding that people sing only in the privacy of their own homes, or only to the self-appointed music masters who might unlock their doors and grant them the freedoms that all artists should have, or to suggest that these plebes can belt a tune but they may not open their palms for payment — these ideas are abhorrent to me. Enough with the fucking gatekeepers.

But what to do about raising the bar? What to do that we might help people sing without scaring off the shy talent among us? What can I do beyond this blog post spilling everything I think I know about not sucking at writing? I am not Brandon Sanderson, who might possibly be the best instructor of craft out there, who can stand at a blackboard and show in chaulk how to tell a great story. I do my best through editing. Which brings me to the idea that I warned you about: What if we taught by working as editors? As mentors?

I am aiming for a clearer schedule in the future. Less traveling and more writing. But as I learn how much I enjoy editing, and how useful it can be for other writers to see a different set of chess moves and how the game of their stories might have played out, I realize that there’s an opportunity here to help. So I’m thinking of offering my services as an editor (to which my editor half-chokes and spits on his screen). No, not as a new profession in lieu of writing, but as a kind of applied workshop. It would work something like this:

Once a month, I will take submitted short stories that are no more than 5,000 words in length. Each will have a brief synopsis at the beginning, something that resembles haiku in brevity if not in perfect form. Each month, I will return one of these short stories to the author with heaps of notes in track changes. Not only what I would do, but why I would do it. I will treat your work as if it were my own. I will destroy it. And here is where I should warn you: I can be an angry editor, not least of all to myself. I learned to write from a long succession of angry editors. Dr. Dennis Goldsberry was the first, a cantankerous and lovely old man who warned his freshman college English class that to get an A on a paper, it must force him to set that paper down, move to the window, and shed a tear. I demand perfection from my own work (knowing I’ll never approximate it). I hold every writer to the same standard. That makes for angry edits. I am Simon Cowell, barking in the margins.

I also won’t do this for free. Not because I care about the money; I have no pressing need in this regard; but because I want to cut down on submissions and only receive them from those who care. From those who want to tackle writing as an impassioned hobby or even as a profession. But wait, it gets worse: Your manuscript and my edits will be available to any and all to read. Which I guarantee will cut down on submissions more than the fee. If you’ve ever workshopped or participated in a critique group in which you were the one publicly critiqued, you know what torture this is on a writer’s soul. You will be an example. I won’t be surprised if nobody volunteers.

Each work will go into a new section of the new forums I’ll be unveiling in a couple of months. The first manuscript will be edited in May and revealed in June. If we manage to get twelve of these submitted and edited in a year, I’ll probably combine them in an anthology that is meant to instruct as much as entertain. There is a lot to balk at here, not the least of which is that I’m not nearly skilled enough at writing to have the audacity to claim I can instruct. Hey, I don’t even have a college degree. I have no formal training other than a dozen meetings with a writing group. I’m nobody to offer this, and I welcome the crickets and even the howls of “hack.”

But writing only gets better through an application of effort and through mentorship. I want self-publishing to be a viable alternative to selling our art to the highest bidder. Self-publishing is liberating and can be far more lucrative than publishing by any other means. The openness of this space and these tools that allow anyone to publish are multiplying the chorus of voices that readers may sample. Voices they encounter as they stroll from block to block through an ever-sprawling metropolis of literature. How can I help make those voices prettier? Maybe I’m an ass to suggest that I can. But a blog post with my ideas on what makes for good writing is a start. Working with aspiring writers is another way. Making those lessons public is a third.

Once the new forums are up, there will be instructions on what to submit, how, and where. You will own the rights to your work and will be free to publish however you see fit. As will I. I’ll have the ability to publish the rough draft and the final product. You really should think about this before you fire something off to me. We’ll have a very simple contract of sorts, and it’ll be full of warnings. This won’t be fun for any who participate. It’ll be work, ugly and cruel. But we will improve, you and I. And the reader will benefit.

Until then, happy writing. Go read some Shakespeare. Strike that fork. Hum a tune.

99 responses to “I Suck at Writing”

  1. Ahhh, lovely, I am happy to be reading your books and happy to read your thoughts occasionally too. Keep writing because it seems that is what makes you happy. That is what is important

  2. This is frickin awesome. Thanks Hugh!

  3. I think it’s a super idea. I have a short story that I’d love to have torn apart. So when it’s time to submit, I may be in the queue.

  4. Wait. You got laid by memorizing sonnets? What was I thinking with the booze, dope, and rock and roll?

  5. Jane Logan-Wright Avatar
    Jane Logan-Wright

    No fear writing – ‘I believe in the audaciousness of leaving that guitar case open while strumming on the streets. A free sample is there, a click on a product page no different than strolling for half a block while chords are played and the music washes over you.’
    Selling some soul!
    Very encouraging!

  6. You’re the first person I’ve who has likened writing to chess, but that’s always how I’ve felt. Especially how every move has to matter and push you forward toward an end goal.

    Great post!

  7. Wow. I am not a writer nor have I ever aspired to be one but I do enjoy watching the process and follow you and others just to try and get a glimpse of what goes on in your heads, so I do hope many people will take you up on your offer. If not, maybe you can work with another established author to create a sample that shows how critical an editor needs to be, highlights how meaningful the feedback can be to the work (and author), and demonstrates how that feedback can be put to use in improving the product.

  8. I, for one, will beat your metaphorical door down for this opportunity.

  9. For the record, I neither cringed nor spit coffee on my screen. I’ve seen Hugh’s pre-edited prose, and what stands out most is the flow of it. He has a great ear for the rhythm of the words. Very rarely does a sentence stumble. The words just glide by.

    I’m excited to see Hugh’s story edits, and I encourage you guys to be brave and send in your submissions; I know he’ll do a fantastic job of it. And when he shares his notes with the world, I have no doubt that what he teaches will not only help writers to become better at their craft, but will help me to become a better editor.

    Bravo on this post, Hugh. I want to give the sections about rhythm a standing ovation. And then hug them until it makes us both uncomfortable. That’s such an important thing for a writer to learn, and you’ve described it wonderfully.

    1. Dude. You’re not going to point out a single typo?


      1. Didn’t want to embarrass you in public, man.

        You do that well enough without my help.

          1. The reason I love David Gatewood as an editor over others (and thanks Hugh for recommending him back in July) is the very reason of rhythm. Editors can tell you where to put commas and what is the right past and passed to use. But only the really talented ones hear the rhythm in the sentences and point it out when yours falters. That is what makes David a great. Plus his attention to detail is amazing.

            But I don’t want anyone rushing over to book David at Lone Trout because he is already too much in demand. And, if he becomes even more popular I will end up doing the rumba on my own because once you use him you won’t want anyone else to touch your work. (and I didn’t use waltz in that last sentence because it messed with the rhythm… seriously.)

      2. I think you misspelled chalk… (“chaulk”)


        1. not the same jennifer as below LOL!

  10. Hugh,
    Once again you’ve blown me away with your consistent pay-it-forward attitude. Thank you. Never change. Whether I am ever chosen as one of the lucky ones or not, and one of my stories shred and pasted back together, I’m already a better writer because of you. Keep strumming the music of your heart!

  11. There’s a chapter in the famous novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance where the narrator (who is an English professor teaching freshman composition in the late 50’s) asks his students “What is Quality”? They come up with a bunch of easily-refuted or mealy-mouthed answers. He responds that Quality is impossible to define, yet most people know what it is with little effort, and proposes that this indefinable value can nonetheless be taught.

    He pulls up a carefully selected pair of old student essays, a good one and a poor one and works his students through comparing the two, and uses those differences to illustrate points on grammar and rhetoric and how those “rules” lend themselves to a quality product in the end. I thought it was a fascinating anecdote on trying to get across how to write well.

  12. Great, solid post with good advice. I’m glad I’m not the only one who pays attention to rhythm.

    As for your challenge, if the timeline is long enough (sadly, I’m one of those slow writers), I’ll sacrifice myself to public slice-and-dice of your editing. If I survive the aftermath, even better!

    Bring it, Mr. Howey!

  13. Wow! Where do I sign up? Please keep us posted.
    And thank you!

    Uh oh, typo alert: First sentence in “Vocabulary” section (extra “e” in “these”)

      1. LOL. When do I start?
        I love finding typos … just not in my own work!

  14. Steps forward, raises hand and says – “more soup, please’.

    Count me in!

  15. Not sure I’m brave enough to submit a story, but I am looking forward to watching your tear other people apart. On the other hand, I do have an old piece of erotica I would enjoy watching you publicly wrestle… ***Scratches chin and chuckles***

    I’d also love to see you do book openings as well as short stories. Not sure if that messes with your plans, but I’d love your take on someone’s first 5k of novel.

    1. Ohh… I second this request on the novel. Pretty please, consider…? :)

  16. I’m tempted. My works only been read by supportive friends and family so far and I’m convinced its mostly rubbish! And the challenge of creating a story only 5000 words long will be a good one.

  17. “The primary reason you need a strong vocabulary is to achieve pleasant rhythm with your words.”

    I must be progressing then because this made a whole lot of sense to me.

  18. I think you’ve nailed it with how vocabulary, rhythm, and plot relate. I’m a software developer and there is a very similar analog. Programming languages provide a basis vocabulary and dictate a rhythm; it’s up to the developer to fill in the plot and sometimes it’s tough to fit the plot into the given vocabulary and rhythm. The rhythm noticeably effects how easy it is to work in the language. For me, Python just flows, but Java is path strewn with jagged rocks to stumble over, while C’s vocabulary is just too small (for a reason).

  19. Hugh, count me in. I can’t wait for the embarrassment, for the pain, for the pleasure that will come from the death and birth of being a writer.

  20. There’s another important facet of great writing that I always appreciate (and that you, Hugh, do very well — perhaps it comes naturally so you don’t think to call it out), and that’s observation. Some people are just excellent noticers: they see things that the rest of us don’t. They notice the way birds fly, see how raindrops run down a window, can recall the sounds of a busy street; they have insights into human nature at the micro and macro level; and they draw fascinating connections between disparate concepts. These writers are able to write those passages that, even when taken completely out of the context of the novel, are thought-provoking and often inspirational stand-alone observations. I love to read a novel, or just a blog post, by a great noticer.

    Jay Nordlinger (one of my favorite observers) made a killer summation of this ability when reviewing “In Sunlight and in Shadow”, a book by Mark Helprin. The middle paragraph really stuck with me:

    “There’s a scene at the Oyster Bar, in Grand Central Station. In fact, there are a couple of scenes there, I think. I’ve been at the Oyster Bar with Mark. And let me state something obvious: He notices much, much more than I do. He is evidently aware of myriad things taking place around the counter. Me, I’m just stuffing my face.

    The world seems a lot more interesting, through the eyes of a real novelist, a real noticer.

    Several times, as I was reading In Sunlight and in Shadow, with its minute and loving descriptions of New York, I thought, ‘I must sleepwalk, as I move through the city. I never notice any of this sh**. But it’s all there.’ “

    1. Beautiful. I need to add that book to my list.

    2. Yes, Helprin is a master of showing the beauty within and upon the mundane. We see not just the world anew, but a new world. Winter’s Tale was glorious for that.

  21. Brilliant!

    It seems you take the opposite approach to what Dean Smith and Ray Bradbury do, that is, to edit your stuff till it sings. Dean likes to hammer the “never ever rewrite” bong over and over, but not every writer works like Bradbury. Read Something Wicked This Way Comes. It is pure genius, but you can really tell when Ray stumbled in pouring out his subconscious and that he barely took a sponge to the words upon completion. I can’t write like that. I HAVE to edit. No choice. Why? Because my writing does not sing until I do. Oh I may hit the bullseye in a few chapters with my first draft, but by and large it doesnt happen out of the gate. Lightning is unpredictable.

    Part of the reason I can rewrite (i.e. EDIT) is that I know my own voice. I know my own flow. I know what my story needs. I know what my character needs. Dean and Ray take totally different approaches to this. More power to a writer who can pull it off on the first stroke. I can’t.

  22. Hugh, I’d rather see you take over Harper Collins, but this project is cool too.

  23. James McCormick Avatar

    Great post. Seems in tune (or in response) to a lot I’m seeing on writer’s blogs since the start of this year.

    Makes me wonder what’s in the water.

  24. I have been read and critiqued many times. I have wowed open mic audiences and irked them. I have learned, and I have more to learn. I shall consider this, Hugh, if it fits what I have. I can take it.

    Most people aren’t Mozart. For me, absolutely, writing is rewriting, otherwise I’d never finish the first draft! (I might have a problem with knowing when to stop!)

    As for reading good writing, yes, I have done it, I could do more. As a comic book geek, I have been to conventions where the Marvel Comics people gave the sage advice of, “Read something besides comic books.” Was it you who said one should try reading outside one’s genre? I consider poetry nowadays for thje obvious cadence to that writing.

    Ain’t this a great time to be a writer?

    1. Ooo, I hate typos. thje. Could be a good fantasy or alien name.

  25. What a bold and exciting idea. I especially like the idea of an anthology that all could learn from by example. I’m in.

  26. Love this! I am definitely a stronger editor – just ask my authors, so i just might take you up on this. It has been a while since I had harsh feedback – the kind that makes me step back and take a hard look before rolling up my sleeves and making it better.

  27. Where do I sign up for the short story submission and subsequent ego beating?

    1. You’re still playing that garbage? ;)

      I had a dream about SnowStorm the other night. I was playing one of the Russians on board 1 in the final round. And getting destroyed.

  28. Great post, as usual. I’ll have you know I stayed up late last night reading your most recent posts. :) So I blame you for being tired today. As to the idea of you doing a public edit of short stories on your blog — great idea! I’ll volunteer and be happy to pay your price, both monetarily and in public shaming. The less than 5,000 words requirement will be hard though. Mine are between 5 – 10, 000 words. They do say brevity is the soul of wit so maybe I’ll have to take a hacksaw to my short stories and get one ready. :)

  29. Your Dr. Dennis Goldsberry was my Mrs. Lorraine Smith, my junior year English Literature teacher, and how I miss her so. I distinctly remember, after reading Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” (a staple of any lit class), the assignment of tearing it down to it’s bare bones. I, being the straight-A kid, was astonished when she told me my entire interpretation was absolutely, completely, utterly … wrong. I thought it was an okay book, but when she said that (is a spoiler alert really necessary here?) Santiago tied to the boat was a representation of Christ on the cross, I could only say “What the … heck … are you talking about.” She was 100% correct, I saw not one iota, not a single smidgen of symbolism. Being 17 I argued my point extensively … of course knowing I was indeed missing something. She taught me to look for and appreciate not just what the author is saying, but also what’s not being said, to delve into that plot and rhythm (as you mentioned) and root out the hidden surprises. She told me that stories should move you, make you think, make you question, make you cry, make you laugh, make you forget you’re reading a story. Now in giving it a go as a writer myself (first short story just recently accepted for publication) I find myself reading and rereading and rereading everything, looking for that hiccup or bump that throws everything off, and constantly wanting to surprise the reader with a hidden nugget. I may not ever master the whole symbolism thing, nor admit to Mrs. Smith that she was right (never!) … but by golly I do appreciate what that woman did for me.

    I think your Simon Cowell-esque editorial idea is a pretty good one, even if it does scare the hell out of me.


    George in Colorado Springs

  30. I find rythm (how the fuck do you spell that word?) in two places:

    -music – I’m a bassist, so sweet Jesus I know about being in the pocket. Songs are novels. Meat is murder.

    -movies – Thelma Schoonmaker, Sally Menke, Kuleshov Effect? Wha? All editors for Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarrantino and the last one you’re gonna have to look up – but it’s the technique Hitchcock uses.

    Of course, books. Except for David Foster Wallace – who just plain freaks the shit out of me (it’s a good thing).

  31. “Beneath my feet lay the bones of billions, the bodies of many living things. Like morbid armor, the planet wore a crusted layer of death, a peaceful sleep between greaves of grief.” Like that maybe? *shrug*

  32. Brilliant. Didn’t Michael Crichton say ‘All writing is just rewriting’? Love the three facets. Couldn’t agree more. I’ve never been able to put my finger on it, but it all makes sense now.

  33. “A broad vocabulary works wonders, as each word is a new note, a new power, a chess piece that can zig or zag or leap clear across the board, opening up options you never knew existed.”

    I can hear the music.

  34. Ha! Challenge accepted.
    I will totally write something for this.

    And great post. I had to make a note to my editor the other day to tell her that when I say I “hear” prose being written a certain way, I mean my mind “hears” it–I feel it. Everything has a rhythm and a pattern. All the small parts connect to form the whole. Songwriting and Storytelling are pretty similar, too, imo.

  35. Great post, great offer! I’d love to be a guinea pig (thinking about what I have that’s the right length) but of course the urge is to make it as brilliant and perfect as possible before offering our precious words for public evisceration. And isn’t that the idea after all?

    Thanks for sharing so much of yourself, Hugh. You are an inspiring example.

  36. I remain an admirer of your courage, transparency and generosity (and of course, your killer writing/editing or whatever it is.) You continue to pay it forward in an amazing way.

    And, you ARE a very good noticer and describer.

    That is all.

  37. Johnnye Gerhardt Avatar

    “Chaulk should be “chalk” shouldn’t it? Or is that one of those British quirky spellings? Check your placement of the qualifier, “only.” I don’t think you mean it to limit the verb but the object, right? It’s a dark day when editors read other editors’ ramblings. It’s like two detectives investigating the same crime scene only to discover that one of them contaminated the evidence.

    1. This is why I won’t be offering final copyedits! :)

  38. The conditions discourage me in probably the opposite order that you think, honestly!

    I wouldn’t mind my work being edited in public. I think it’d be interesting to see where people chimed in with alternate suggestions or what-have-you. I’ve had my artwork redlined a few times, and it stings a bit, but is useful and has taught me a lot. I’ve also taken art classes in college where work was critiqued by the instructor and the class. I can’t imagine that I couldn’t learn a lot from the experience being reflected in the writing side of things.

    The monetary compensation is entirely reasonable – your time is being taken up and that takes away from your writing time. The only part I’m not so keen on is paying for something that might not be useful to me. (In the sense that you might not choose mine.) My fiscal sense says I’d be better off hiring an editor directly. I’d still consider gambling on it if part of the proceeds went to a charity, though.

    The part that discourages me the most is the 5k word limit. xD My natural story length is somewhere between 15k and 50k. Obviously, that would be impossible for you to work with and continue working on your own career, so of course I wouldn’t try to talk you around it. I’ve not been writing seriously long enough to be able to judge properly how long a story might be when I’m finished, so I can’t go for a goal of under 10k without hamstringing my voice yet.

    Anyway – just wanted to chime in with my take on it. I think it’ll be very interesting and I think I’ll learn a lot just from seeing your notes on others’ work. So I’m looking forward to this!

    1. When I worked with my first editor on my very first manuscript, I saw edits in the first chapter that I realized I could fix throughout the text. So I hurried on ahead of the editor and made these changes and sent the ms back, making her job a lot easier. I was able to learn even from a partial edit. So maybe I’ll take on “first 5K word” submissions as well.

      And I’m not going to charge much at all for this. And it won’t be to submit, it’ll only be if I choose your piece. Only if I end up working on it. The fee for the edit will just be to keep people from tossing a rough draft my way. This should be thought of as a story submitted to a real anthology for actual publication. Anyway, still tossing a lot of ideas around. Got a ways to go yet.

      1. Yes! This first 5K would work too, for the very reason you mention here. Writers can learn and apply. :)

      2. Even better! Even more interested now. Thanks for addressing my concerns! (Even though my concerns were hardly universal. :) )

  39. You aren’t going to like this. But since no one else seems to want to say it, I guess that I will. I suppose I should preface this by saying that I don’t doubt your ability to do this and do it efficiently and well, I take you at your word on that. This has nothing to do with that.

    And I don’t know you from Adam. I’ve never even read one of your books (I don’t think . . .), just what you’ve expressed at kboards and here. So it’s not really any of my business what you decide to do- but when has that ever stopped anyone from giving out unwanted advice?

    I don’t doubt your intentions are good. You seem to be a compassionate sort of person, from what little I’ve seen of you, who just wants to help. And maybe you’ve really thought this all through, or at least believe that you have, in which case, feel free to stop reading if you haven’t already. There are at least three reasons (maybe more) that it might be better to structure this differently or to change your mind about doing it. 1. How your submitters are going to feel afterward, 2. How your readers are going to see and judge you afterward, and 3. How you are going to judge yourself afterward.

    You think people will be too scared to submit, but as you can probably already see, you are going to be flooded with submissions. Some of them are going to be beautiful, near-perfect stories. Some are going to be less so. It doesn’t matter how many warnings or fees (which by the way, are good, but for an entirely different reason than the one you’ve given: it serves to separate when you are acting as “friend” and when you are acting as someone who is performing a professional service) or discouraging passages you post, everyone is always going to think they are the exception to the rule. That they are going to be the ones to awe you. EVERYONE. You’ve almost guaranteed it by the way you frame it. It’s a challenge. Most of them are going to play along well and take your advice to heart and change things and have a happier time of it. But some are not. Even if they say they will. Someone is going to be really hurt (even if you aren’t very harsh, it’s just the way things are).

    There’s a difference between going to someone who is an editor, who is an equal partner, even a stranger maybe, and going to someone who is more successful, to someone that a new writer looks up to. There is a power difference there that cannot be undone, no matter how much you might want it to. Things get personal in a way that they wouldn’t with an editor. Even if YOU are the most professional person in the world, it doesn’t mean the other person will be. Someone is going to be unhappy. And they are going to talk about it. In a big way.

    Remember this? https://hughhowey.com/very-small-rocks/ You (and others) went through that when you weren’t doing anything but living your own happy life, not bothering anyone about anything. Just by being you. And that’s how ugly things got. This is more than that. This is public criticism of someone else (yeah, I know, they asked for it. Paid a fee for it. But just wait and see how quickly that’s lost in the shuffle). It’s almost an invitation to pile on. When you hit that one or two people that just can’t handle it, they are going to become the “victims” and you are going to be paraded around the internet as the bully that made them cry, not the guy that made their work readable. There are lots of other examples of witch hunts out there, but I thought I’d pick one you already went through.

    Maybe reputation isn’t such a big deal. I can understand that. I can even respect the crud out of that. But here’s the second thing, and again, I’ll remind you of something you wrote yourself a few months ago: https://hughhowey.com/i-disagree/

    When you eventually have the bad luck to hit that one person that really can’t handle what you are saying about their work, they are going to torture themselves with it forever. It’s going to be there (here) on the site, or in print, or both, so they can keep coming back and reminding themselves of how humiliated they were, of how worthless they felt, of how PUBLICLY ASHAMED they felt and still feel. Every day. Every time they sit down to write, they are going to think first of how they failed and how everyone knows it or can find it out at any time. FOREVER. Even if they get better. And hopefully it’ll be a stranger so you won’t have lost a friendship over it, but there’s that possibility too. And isn’t that what you wanted to avoid? Discouraging others? Isn’t that what you said in this very post?

    “But the only Simon Cowell who matters is the reader. All other Simon Cowell’s get it wrong often enough to make them tragic. It only takes one innocent and beautiful story murdered to make those erected gates a terrible thing. It only takes a rant here and a rant there to dissuade the nervous and talented”

    Look, I’m not saying you shouldn’t critique others when they come to you for help. Probably the best education we can give each other is by offering another perspective and suggestions on how to do it better. What I’m saying is maybe think long and hard about doing it in public. Especially about doing it online. Where it will never, ever go away, or fade. Where not only the person who submitted can find it and continually become discouraged, but also where you can look back and feel doubt about what you said or about how you said it (even if you truly didn’t do anything wrong).

    There. It’s not musical or pretty or even a nice thing to say, but it seems like you’ve been feeling kind of beat up around the internet lately, and I don’t like to see anyone feeling so down. Especially if they really don’t deserve it. So I can be the bad guy today, if it’ll save you (or anyone else, including your submitters) a little heartbreak tomorrow.

    1. I don’t feel beat up. I feel damn lucky. :)

      My own works get abused by several editors. I love the process. I ask my editors and beta readers to be brutal. It’s how I learn. I don’t think writers can make a real profession out of this without learning to handle the editorial process.

      This won’t be a lot of work for me. I can mark up a 5,000 word short story in a few hours. My hope is that the submitter will pick up a thing or two. Maybe they won’t. I don’t know. I do know that I’ve had some very positive experiences editing for this upcoming anthology. More than one writer has told me their story is vastly improved from the process. Some of the stories barely required a thing.

      My motivation is this: I feel like we should give back where we can. This is a small thing I can do.

      1. All righty then! I’m in. Say “throw” and I’ll throw my soul your way. By all means, tear it apart! (imagines you chomping on the manuscript and growling like a pitbull)

  40. I am always amazed at how much time you actually spend with your readers, but the editing thing just blew me away. To take time to help others build a career is fantastic.

    I wonder if Sue Grafton is listening?

    And I agree with you….you can’t make a writer…it’s a skill you’re born with. You can make a writer better, but you can’t teach someone to write.

    1. True. Just like art. I was born with “art,” and I HOPE I’m born with “write” :p

  41. Interesting stuff….maybe we think alike! I posted about the importance of rhythm when writing, and on editing in self-publication, at pretty much the exact same time as this post.


    Slainte, brother.

  42. I find that the rhythm of words-the rise and fall of pacing, the slow, undulating ripple of a sing-song melody, the crescendo of a scream-all of these things keep me in a story. They carry me along, feeling breathless at times. A good writer sucks me in and lets me back out just when I need air.

    Those are the stories I read. The stories I love.

    My college roommate (yes, it was a long time ago) loves to tell people how I write. Always at the last minute. That doesn’t mean the paper, article, or review wasn’t bouncing around in my head. It was. Probably to music.

    What made her crazy about my writing was not what I wrote, or that I waited until the last minute, but that I always did it to music. While singing. The sound of the music shaped my sentences. It carries over to how I read a sentence. I can’t help it.

    Thank you for talking about the rhythm of the words. And writing words with rhythm:)

    I am at once giddy and terrified about your offer. It will be fascinating to watch this play out.

    Thank you or being so supportive and open with all of us.

  43. Very generous of you, Hugh. I’d be game. As I read Sand, and then worked on my fanfic, I realized how much I love your style and writing like it. I was excited about the possibility of hiring David to edit because I have had trouble with editors and beta readers that I disagree with. I don’t need the kind of description I’ve heard editors and beta readers ask for. I’m okay with fragments if the rhythm is right. It would be awesome to have you edit one of my stories. I’m a pointed critiquer also, so it would be fine.

    If David reads this, I haven’t contacted you yet because I’m waiting until the story is done.

    1. Don’t wait too long to contact me, Tim! I get booked pretty far in advance.

      We need more freelance editors to keep up with all these new indie writers. Anyone interested in making a go of that, let me know…

      1. David, you may regret that last statement:)

  44. Now I see why your work unfolds as it does, Wool, a slow ponderous entrapment, fluidly redundant (with reason), and addictive. Your skill at creating an intoxicating porridge with purpose is your gift to readers. Words are my opium. I’d love to be part of the experiment.

  45. Pikc me! Pikc me!

    This sounds like fun, although I know editing can feel like criticism. I learned editing in journalism, where every time a new ad came in, I’d lop a column inch off my latest masterpiece. And there was always something that could go.

    But editing is not criticism. It’s tailoring. Some people have access to Parisian seamstresses and some of us use safety scissors from the junk drawer.

  46. This sounds like a great idea. I love it when both editors and beta readers go over my work and give me their thoughts on it. Sometimes it can be difficult to know what to do with their comments, particularly when I have conflicting advice from different editors.

  47. Thanks (once again) for such a great post. It’s hard work to suck less than you had previously, and it’s great to have your insights into the writing process. Newbies like myself are constantly trying to desuckify ourselves, and my first effort at writing a novel has been a constant re-edit as I learn and apply what makes sense for me and what I’m trying to accomplish.

    My book is currently with the copy editor, and once I fix what he’s found, I’ll pass it along to a professional proofreader and self-pub on Amazon so it’s up for public flogging. I’ll soon start a blog with brief thoughts on what has worked for me, and most importantly, what I wish I had known in the beginning. Hopefully it will help someone who’s just getting started – I want to do this while it’s all still fresh in my mind, before I forget too many of the little things that have proven important.

  48. Ohh, this is so cool. I suck at writing too, but in the editing I find words arise that, when I re-read them a few months later, I think “Who wrote that?” I was looking for motivation tonight, and procrastinating online, and now I’ve found something amazing. I’m game. Now I’m going to go look through my many projects in progress, think, and wait for the new forums to go up! BTW this post of yours was an exceptionally poetic piece. Very nice.

  49. Love this post on the importance of editing vs. writing.

    I especially enjoyed your thoughts on the value of cadence. The meter, rhythm, and flow within each sentence can make the difference between good storytelling and that which is great.

    For me, each paragraph is its own song and should stand alone, yet at the same time, set the stage for the one following it.

    I love reading how other writers explain this.

    But though you described the concept beautifully, triggering vivid images to accompany your words, you left out a critical component.

    The best way to find the song in our writing is not in our heads.

    We must hear it with our ears, and feel the words as they slip from our tongues to either float gracefully through the air or trip and fall flat on their faces.

    We must read our work aloud.

    Sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, scene by scene.

    Read. It. Aloud.

    And in doing so, the writer will not only discover those words that are off-key, but those that played their note just a paragraph or two before, or who slipped from the page when no one was looking, or clash like cymbals against their neighbors.

    The composition of stories is not so very different from that of music. It’s all about how they make you feel.

    Thanks again for the great post. And as for comma usage, fragments, and run-on sentences? I’m with you. I’ll sacrifice proper grammar anytime for the sweet melody of a moonlight sonata.

  50. Love that you hate/suck at first drafts. I read somewhere that some people hate editing. I love the editing. It’s where craft, if I have any, comes into it. I am first drafting at the moment and will generally do almost anything except sit down and get a couple of thousand words down.
    Read Wool last week and loved it. And yes, it was pace and rhythm and caring about Juliette and hating Silo1 that drove me through.
    Cheers Hugh, from a wet and windy UK

  51. Great article Hugh. Like you I feel the words must maintain a delicate rhythm as they flow across the page, to become transparent to the reader which should be the ultimate goal of any writer, that their words vanish before the readers eyes.

  52. Another stellar post, Hugh. I forwarded this one to my oldest son, who was with me in the audience when we saw you at Powell’s. He’s at a precarious point (sixth grade) where he’s beginning to fall in love with writing but is feeling the counter-pull of an educational system with little concept of how to write and friends who think the world turns on video game obsession. Seeing this sort of passionate input on language and plot is exactly what he needs — and what he’s not likely to find elsewhere in his studies. Thank you for stating it so eloquently.

  53. Phyllis Humphrey Avatar
    Phyllis Humphrey

    Hugh: I’ve always believed whoever said “writing is rewriting” and that’s what I do too. Yet I’m sure I could be better. I can hardly wait to submit a story and get trounced if necessary. You are to be commended for your openness and “paying it forward.”

  54. *coughs apologetically and prepares to raise hand*

    If someone wanted to eventually submit his/her critiqued story to a magazine, wouldn’t posting the work online mess with the first publication rights?

    1. It would. If you want to publish in magazines, you should often exhaust that option before publishing online.

  55. I literally just stumbled (well, my mouse did) across your blog, and being new to the writing scene, I find it extremely interesting and encouraging that you are willing to ‘pay it forward.’
    I am a fine artist turned writer (at least I hope to be), so having my soul laid bare is nothing new to me and I don’t mind the slicing and dicing if it lifts me up and makes me better at my craft.
    As a new writer, never published, and extremely green (I’m emphasizing that last part), I would like to lay my soul on the alter for an in depth probe of my meager offering. (Too dramatic?)

  56. For some reason this blog post resonated with me far more than many others I have read. Before I was half-way through, I went to my Word files and did a final edit on a Kindle Worlds Silo story and punched the “SUBMIT” button. The next morning after the fine Canadian Whisky had worn off, I fired off an email begging for instructions on how to fix the glaring errors I had made in pulling the trigger too soon. The end result is here: my first Kindle Worlds short story: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00IBMOGI6 if you’re interested. Thanks Hugh for the opportunity and the motivation!

  57. Writing is work, so is editing, We’ve done both. :) ight about diverse reading, and your travel helps, too. Just finished teh WOOL spin-off Novella, The Lost Silo. Hope says it all, right? Made us think of Emily Monosson’s Evolution in a toxic world: how life responds to chemical threats. The cover of which reminds you of the importance of genetic analysis in toxicology. In Chicago West Nile Virus devastated the Blue Jay population. But today there are two pair that visit a bird feeder near us. Remember WOOL was situated in the Norhthern Hemisphere, as have been several of the Di

    1. Disasters of past history. So maybe Hope or inhabitants of other silos will eventually see a blue budgie, or other NZ or OZ inhabitants on the ground or in the sky. There is Hope, right?

  58. I’ve got $300 set aside to edit a novel. You want it? It’s yours. (But it’s 340 pages).

  59. At once terribly exciting and terrifying. Looking forward to all of it!

  60. […] I Suck at Writing | Hugh Howey […]

  61. […] is a god to me.  And this is even as he tells of his own inability to write good.  (I do really mean ‘well.’  It was done on purpose… seriously.)  He’d probably smite me […]

  62. This is an awesome post! I want to stand up in this virtual room of writers and say, “Hi my name is Laura, and I suck at writing.” Thanks for highlighting the real work after the muse has packed up and left.

  63. Dang. This is awesome. Thanks for letting the rest of us know that your first drafts are not as amazing as your finished product. Because your finished product is intimidating.

  64. “I never write with a thesaurus , but it’s a good idea to do this while studying creative writing. It can break the flow and wreck the next two facets we’re about to discuss, but you have to expand your vocabulary”


    How can using a thesaurus break the flow of writing? I use it and often find gems that make my prose sing. Shorter words that pack more punch with less letters and yet are still compatible with my voice. Unless you were referring to something else entirely?

    Anyone else catch this?

  65. […] expect will be later this week. In the meantime, I’ve been reading some of Howey’s posts about writing and self-publishing and realized I had enough interest in the subject and enough to say that it […]

  66. Howdy! Would you mind if I share your blog with my twitter
    group? There’s a lot of folks that I think would really
    appreciate your content. Please let me know. Cheers

  67. My spouse and I absolutely love your blog and find nearly all of your post’s to
    be just what I’m looking for. Do you offer guest writers to write content in your case?
    I wouldn’t mind composing a post or elaborating on a lot
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  68. […] Hugh Howey sums up the public’s right to chastise “I believe in self-publishing, in the right for any and all to express themselves with words. .. I believe in the audaciousness of leaving that guitar case open while strumming on the streets. A free sample is there, a click on a product page no different than strolling for half a block while chords are played and the music washes over you. If it’s a discordant mess, others have the right to shout at you with 1-stars and tell you to shut up, to practice more, to grab their dollar back from the case or never place it there to begin with. They have the right to hurt your feelings, which is why expressing ourselves in public is so raw and dangerous. That danger comes with the territory.” […]

  69. Wonderful blog! Do you have any recommendations for aspiring
    writers? I’m planning to start my own blog soon but I’m a little lost on everything.

    Would you suggest starting with a free platform like
    Wordpress or go for a paid option? There are so many choices out there that I’m totally confused ..

    Any suggestions? Bless you!

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