All writers have a process that allows them to create. However, the art of "Writing" is often mistaken for that "Process." Hopefully this blog explains the difference, and inspires people to develop their crafts, become writers, or just keep on writing.

Monday, February 12, 2024

Digging Through the Past

Don't be alarmed - this will not be another post about how to write about personal experiences, cathartic writing, or anything along those lines. If you do like those kinds of posts, then I am glad to know that (and feel free to tell me), but this is not one of them. This is about the journey we take as a writer, everything we encounter along the way, and the importance of knowing how far we've come.

When I first started my career in the financial world, three things occupied the bulk of my time. They were, in order of importance: Writing research reports, reading immense amounts of analysis, and crunching data. My skills, in order of expertise, were: Crunching data, reading immense amounts of analysis, building models/spreadsheets, Minesweeper, several other things, then writing research reports. I wouldn't say I was horrible at the writing part - I wrote a twenty-page thesis paper on the Poisson distribution that got rave reviews, so I knew something - but my writing skills still needed work. A lot of work. 

As I wrote my reports and such, each one would get the red-pen treatment by one or more of my superiors, and I would discuss the errors with them to understand the problems. I would revise them, eventually they'd get approved, and life would go on. However, I decided that if I really wanted to progress as a creator of research, I needed to turn it up a notch. So, for the next several months, I kept every draft that received the red-pen treatment in a stack by my computer. The pages piled up, easily hundreds of sheets of error-filled paper during my first year of reporting. Eventually, it was a ream of paper sitting by my computer, literally tens of thousands of errors looking back at me. That's when I picked up the pile, went to the first page, and reviewed them, sheet by sheet.

At first it was embarrassing to see so many errors stuffed onto one page. Simple errors - dangling participles, subject/verb conflict, mixed metaphors, a whole Rogues' Gallery of mistakes. I read each page, taking in the errors, letting my ego take a beating, and plowed forth. It was hard to believe one literate person could type up such crap, and worse yet, that person was me. Yet there it was and here I was, digging through it all. And it turns out, this was a great idea.

Two things emerged from that adventure. First, I noticed that as the pages went on, the red marks became fewer and less complex. Extensive rewrites became minor adjustments, and notes in the margins grew smaller, eventually vanishing altogether. This meant only one thing: My writing improved. I had documented evidence that I was developing that research-writing skill, and it was rising up that list of expertise. Maybe even to the level of my Minesweeper skills. Secondly, and I cannot stress this enough, I noticed that even in the early days of my horrible writing, every now and then I turned a good phrase here and there. As crappy as my writing was, there were still some diamonds in the rough (a term often used to describe me when I was first hired by the the Economics Department). It might've required some searching, but even my worst works had something worth salvaging.

So, the takeaway from this is simple. Every now and then, go through your earliest writing. Look at it critically and let yourself think about all the ways you can improve it. Then, look at it and realize that it still had value as writing. Even your first piece still showed a part of you trying to express your part of the real world. It might've been poorly written or structured, but it shows just how far you've come as a writer.

And yes, I still have drafts of some of my earliest research pieces. One part of me thinks they're crap, while another loves them dearly. Both sides are right.           

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