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A Writer Writes...Always?
by Matt Waldron on 04/16/12 05:35:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


A generic piece of advice I have heard from writers more times than I can or care to count when discussing how to improve as a writer and storyteller is 'to constantly read (and to read everything) and to constantly write'.  This is an axiom nearly every panelist at the recent PAX East convention involved in either writing for games or writing about games trumpeted as a foregone and obvious conclusion.  Over time and with much consideration I have come to the conclusion that this simple piece of advice is as easy to understand as it is woefully incorrect.  Without a doubt there is much to be said for practicing any craft, and I am in no way saying one can or should avoid practice—one cannot, for example, study the sport of basketball for years and then expect to step onto a court and be instantly great.  However, practice is only worthwhile when what one practices is representative of good habits; practicing what is representative of bad habits does nothing more than strengthen a connection with doing things incorrectly. 

The 'read everything' mantra has a massive inherent flaw: it overlooks the fact that the quality of what is being read is completely disregarded.  I will grant that there is something to be gained from reading bad writing, recognizing what makes it bad and therefore mentally bookmarking what you will avoid doing in your own works, but this endeavor need not be pursued in perpetuum, viz., once you have recognized a technique as bad, seeing it again does not add any additional value—it only serves to waste your time.  To put this another way, what value there is in reading bad writing to comprehend what one should not do should be fully realized by the end of grade school, at which point there is no further benefit of reading bad writing other than for amusement.  This problem is exacerbated by the fact that nearly all writing is bad. 

The vast majority of writing available to be read falls into one of three categories:

1.  A work that has valuable content that is communicated poorly--the rarest of the three.

2.  A work that is communicated effectively but has poor content--the most dangerous of the three.

3.  A work that has poor content AND is communicated poorly--the most prevalent of the three that has its own subcategories of ignorance, overconfidence, and greediness (to name a few).

In a sense what we are looking at here is the quality of thought, the quality of craft, and motivation.  It is so rare to find a work that embodies quality ideas conveyed effectively through a mastery of the craft of writing that originates from pure motivation (by which I mean if the author was told by a time traveler that writing and publishing a work would make him no money and bring him a great deal of ridicule for the duration of his lifetime he would nevertheless write and publish the work—essentially the story behind nearly all of our greatest philosophical doctrines, minus the time traveler of course).  So by 'reading everything,' all one accomplishes is at best wasting his time and at worst mistaking bad techniques for good techniques and so errantly embedding bad techniques into his own style.  I would contend that it is a far better use of one's time to hone the skill of distinguishing effective writing from ineffective writing—a skill which is achieved by thinking far more than it is by reading—than to spend hours entertaining the floundering works of authors who either have nothing of value to say, lack the skill to say what they wish to, or are impurely motivated.

The concept of 'constantly writing' as a method of improving one's skill as a writer is similarly flawed.  A person who cannot recognize what makes writing effective versus ineffective is certainly not going to improve by increasing the volume of his ineffective output; indeed, this serves only to reinforce bad habits.  Yet even one who does have an excellent sense of what makes writing effective or ineffective cannot write anything of quality if he has nothing of substance to say.  Finding something of substance to say is not accomplished through writing, it is accomplished through thinking.  Even the most prolific, florid writing is of no real value if there is nothing meaningful that underlies the work; and even the most affluent writer must first think and allow an idea to crystallize to the point that he can say with complete confidence originating from the purest motivation that his idea is ready to be communicated; a talented writer, as far as craft is concerned, who communicates a flawed or poorly thought-out idea is a dangerous influence indeed, especially given how easily most people are readily convinced of things on the basis of perceived authority and ornate presentation.

In summation, at least as far as writing as an art is concerned, one should write only when he has an excellent idea to convey, and he is better off to hone the effectiveness of his conveyance through earnest reflection and thought rather than through reading, which pursuit should be taken up only when he has reached a dead-end as far as his thoughts will take him, and even then he should only read works from that tiny percentage of books that meet the three criteria previously discussed in terms of content, communication, and motivation.  This is a philosophy I developed many years ago, long before I stumbled upon a fantastic essay by Arthur Schopenhaur entitled On Thinking for Oneself, which, much to my enjoyment, eloquently depicted a philosophy nearly identical to the one I had developed on my own (a wonderful circumstance which, in the general sense, serves as excellent confirmation of the righteousness of an idea).  I'll conclude this philosophical discourse with one of the finer quotes from that work:

"Reading is merely a surrogate for thinking for yourself; it means letting someone else direct your thoughts. Many books, moreover, serve merely to show how many ways there are of being wrong, and how far astray you yourself would go if you followed their guidance. You should read only when your own thoughts dry up, which will of course happen frequently enough even to the best heads; but to banish your own thoughts so as to take up a book is a sin against the holy ghost; it is like deserting untrammeled nature to look at a herbarium or engravings of landscapes."

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Douglas Lynn
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I think these are very useful pieces of advice. I also feel it's worth applying to whatever your craft may be. As (primarily) a designer, I often find it distressing when I'm not playing or making games for too long. But a lot of it comes down to that same situation - creating does you no good if you're doing it only for the sake of doing it. There needs to be some source of inspiration that drives you to do something specific. If there's no great idea to convey, why convey it?

Matt Waldron
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One thing I found difficult in writing this article was contextualizing a very broad philosophical concept into a game-specific context, so it's awesome to see you made that connection with admittedly little help on my part.

Even though I wrote the article from the perspective of a storyteller, which I think is the most universal across gaming disciplines, I personally (primarily) find this most applicable to my work in composing music for games. Just as you perfectly depicted in the context of game design, all crafts are applicable here--I started out writing music just by writing what came to mind, but now I make it a point that every note, theme, dynamic and sonority choice has a worthwhile justification, and if I can't come up with one I try to stop and think about what I'm trying to convey before writing any further music.

Joshua Darlington
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Nice meditation. It's cool to explore a range of approaches as you develop your craft over the years.

Here's a dope essay on peak fitness.

"Fitness landscapes (sometimes called "adaptive landscapes") keep turning up when people try to figure out how evolution or innovation works in a complex world. An important critique by Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert of early optimism about artificial intelligence warned that seemingly intelligent agents would dumbly "hill climb" to local peaks of illusory optimality and get stuck there."

-And this Erasmus essay on free will called "In Praise of Folly" is fully classic.

Jeff Alexander
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That's not the right link for the Erasmus essay. I think you want this one:

Joshua Darlington
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Thanks, Jeff! Your link is way better.

Axel Cholewa
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Nice article. But this philosophy, of course, has to be applicable in real situations. If a writer has a great idea, and if she's really motivated, and if she thinks this is the right time to write it down, all of these things might change in the course of writing. There might be a point where motivation drops, or where she finds the original ideas not that appealing any more, or where she finds flaws in her own writing. She might be able to correct some of the writing or incorporate thoughts that improve her idea. But if rewriting the whole piece is not an option, all of these flaws shouldn't stop her from finishing that piece. Finishing an article, a short story, a novel or philosophical reflections of some kind, is also part of becoming a good writer. Not because of deadlines, but mainly for closure. In order to move on to new ideas, you have to let go of old ones. And for a writer, finishing a written piece serves that purpose best. That you get writing practice from this is merely a side effect.

Matt Waldron
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I completely agree with the idea that philosophy about real life needs to have real life application. I'm with you that at times a writer will write something that is not her best work, a revelation she only comes to midway through the writing process, in which case depending on how much time has been invested and the nature of the work it may be worth finishing off, essentially as practice. This would be similar to getting blown out in a football game and yet running a two-minute offensive drill at the end as if your team was going after a game-winning touchdown--though the loss is foregone, the unique scenario of late game practice (a parallel to writing a strong conclusion) still has some value that will do little good in the immediate circumstances but should be beneficial down the line.

However, I don't think that if one begins to write something and then realizes it is flawed at a fundamental level--not just in need of a few tweaks--in terms of the underlying idea(s) that she should see it through to completion. The only thing one would be practicing there is writing a deliberately deceptive conclusion, thereby instilling poor habits of misleading a reader and ignoring loose ends. While I think it is a waste of time to finish a work with a fatally flawed idea once the flaw is discovered, it is outright irresponsible to publish such a work. It certainly is important to be able to see works through to completion as part of developing into a better writer, but there is rarely a shortage of things to write about so severe that one would want to resort to finishing a fatally flawed work just to call it complete. If as a writer it is really going to cause you to lose sleep to not finish a piece with a fatal flaw to the point that it is a better use of your time to finish it off so you can move on from it to new ideas than to forgo finishing the work because you'll lose even MORE time fretting over the fact that it was left unfinished without closure, by all means do what you have to do and finish the work--just don't publish it; treat it purely as practice.

Just to clarify, the use of 'motivation' in my article is purely the 'moral foundation of why one is writing' as opposed to the 'desire to write'. Everyone experiences highs and lows in terms of the drive to write, but the 'why am I writing this?' should remain always on proper moral motivational grounds. To put it simply, if you ever say to yourself 'boy, this article is a hunk of garbage and the idea behind it, which I initially thought was solid, is full of holes--but I've worked on this for a week now and I know if I publish it I'll make some dough so I'll just tack a hurried conclusion onto the end and send it off to the presses' you should stop yourself, definitely not publish the work, and ideally just abandon it and move on to other ideas.

I've re-read your post a few times and I'm worried I'm misinterpreting you, because I think you're coming at the issue very much from the practical standpoint, and so the way you are using terms is different from the way I'm reading them. When you speak of flaws, am I correct in understanding you roughly mean revisable items that one would clean up in a normal editing process? When I talk about abandoning a work that is fundamentally flawed, what I mean is, for example, abandoning a paper arguing 'slavery is okay' as a topic which, about halfway through you come to realize 'oh's not'. When that sort of thing happens you abandon the work. Any fictional work can't be flawed in that sense--it can only be poor work, in which case finishing it and/or publishing it is a far less important issue.

Axel Cholewa
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I didn't mean "fundamentally flawed", I just meant flaws that are too big for an editor to iron out but still not big enough to ruin the piece entirely (if there is such a thing). Heck, a lot of writers or for example composers find flaws in their work only after it was published.

But I'm with you, if a writer finds that the moral or intellectual foundation of her work is flawed she shouldn't publish it, no matter how close she is to finishing.

Roger Tober
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I think you get away from reinforcing bad habits by having your work reviewed in some way. For me, an amateur game writer, not a story writer, there's nothing better than reading the game comments by people that have played the game. Really, the more you do it, the better you will be. There's no question about it in my mind. The only thing more important is to choose a project that can be completed in a reasonable amount of time. If your first project is a novel like War and Peace, you may never get to be a good writer.

Matt Waldron
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A couple of excellent points, Roger. You can learn a lot from reviewing your own work, but there are some things you simply will not see until someone else points them out. Indeed, no matter how great a self-editor you become, your view of your own work will always be biased to some extent because when you write a piece it is written precisely in the way you think, and so may not be interpreted as consistently as you would expect just because it makes sense to you. So yes, getting feedback from others is a fantastic tool for strengthening one's writing--though the balancing act of figuring out when you should concede a conviction based on feedback versus sticking to your guns presents an interesting and trying challenge.

I also think that for the sake of practice, undertaking projects of reasonable scope makes far more sense than trying to tackle something grand but beyond your skill-set. A composer who really loves the intricacies of traditional symphonic structure is still best to start with small, simple compositions that are manageable before undertaking such an elaborate endeavor. Similarly, a writer should not launch directly into a War and Peace-esque novel, as it is a poor medium for learning, and even if there is learning you probably wind up in the middle looking back at months of work and thinking 'wow, this is all just completely unusable'. Further, you don't get any practice at writing conclusions until you're coming up on writing one that has to adequately finish off a work of massive scope.

Allen Brooks
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Level 1: The Night was Humid

It all comes down to meaningful practice. As a professional, you don't have the luxury of only writing/designing/whatever-ing when you feel inspiration strike; if you have a deadline, you better meet it. Talent is great, but craftsmanship only comes through practice and refining your technique.

In order to improve, you need to write a ton, sure - but in balance with meaningful critique, going outside your existing range of experiences to be exposed to new ideas, and reflection. The model is two steps forward, internalize and catch your breath, then two more steps forward.

Jonathan Jou
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I have to say that I agree that, if it were possible for human beings to write coherent, grammatically sound sentences without thought, the act of writing as much as possible may only improve mechanical aspects.

On the other hand, I think with a few possibly implicit amendments to the original two platitudes the problems you address can be non-issues:

1. Constantly read (things you, the populace, or your peers like, and figure out what you liked, and what you would do differently).
2. Constantly write, (revise, review, and share).

Honing the craft of writing is indeed more than trying to be the thousandth monkey in the room with typewriters who has finally written Hamlet. That can certainly happen, but there's a quicker and more reliable way to becoming better. It does involve far more reading and writing than the average individual, and in fact far more reading and writing than aspiring writers may imagine, making the platitude something closer erring on the side of caution than really misleading unsuspecting beginners.

I don't think the writers who recommend that people constantly read (everything) are suggesting we trudge through the worst possible fan fiction, every unused Hollywood script, or the reams of writing doomed to the "slush pile" in a publishing house. I also don't think that a reader who reads all these things will actually continue to do so without developing a discerning eye strong enough to lead them to more productive pursuits.

I don't think the writers who recommend that people constantly write are suggesting we pick words out of a dictionary to make sentences for a set number of hours every day, which is actually an annual National Event of sorts. While there are some very lucky individuals out there who will get what they want to say perfect the first time, I think if someone revised their unpublished work as frequently as they could while writing new ideas down, they would eventually achieve the critical mass necessary to produce interesting work.

The two, in combination, are a case for (eventual) success, and from what I'm guessing a very concise and effective message to aspiring writers.

I agree, though. Analysis is, has, and will always be the crucial step toward maximizing effectiveness in honing any craft.

Jason Wilson
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I think the message to always be writing is partially a call to action. How many writers, or game designers for that matter, talk about their great idea for a book or a screen play or a game, but never do it. Get to writing, get to designing, just get to it.

Thought and planning is one thing, but sometimes until you see it in writing, or see the actual gameplay you never really know if your idea is good. I'm sure the same is true for creating music. Until you hear the notes come together you are never fully sure if they are right. With time an practice you hone your instincts and you have a better idea of what words, or game mechanics, will work together and which won't, but until you start doing, you never know for sure.

Matt Waldron
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I am an SAT tutor on the side, and one concept I constantly ponder is if it is better to provide a broad generalization of a new concept first and only reveal the tricky and obscure exceptions later. For example, if a student asks me how to use a semi-colon and is a blank slate as far as semi-colon use is concerned, I generally will provide the 'separate independent clauses' explanation and leave it as gospel until he or she has mastered that basic use. Then I'll reveal the 'list within a list' structure and the far less concrete option to replace a comma in a sentence with other commas to best convey the proper groupings--and therefore meaning--of the sentence. I tend to think a comprehensive reveal from the start would be overwhelming, and the student would not understand the function of the punctuation as readily.

I think this is a similar concept as your 'call to arms' which is also essentially a purposeful partial truth designed to get people to take action on the premise that the most good will be served by doing so, even if it means not disclosing the whole truth. In general I have no issue with this tactic, especially when the audience is large and diverse. However, I find it hard to be so optimistic as to believe everyone who preaches this concept has given the matter that much thought and is really just trying to do people a service--my experience tells me more often than not those who preach 'read all the time and write all the time' really believe it, and despite that belief 95% of those who preach it don't practice it.

Justin Speer
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"Reading is merely a surrogate for thinking for yourself..."

Schopenhauer is an interesting dude and all but I don't see how this can be taken at face value. I really don't think the act of writing or reading can be completely divorced from thinking for yourself... and to pretend that a writer couldn't learn something useful from a pulp novel or a script for the cartoon Muppet Babies (for example) would be pompous and ridiculous.

"[A writer] who communicates a flawed or poorly thought-out idea is a dangerous influence indeed..."

This I can agree with.

Matt Waldron
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Justin,Schopenhauer's point is a bit more tempered than I think you're making it out to be. He makes it a point even in the quote I selected to mention that even the best and brightest will often find themselves at a dead-end as far as thought is concerned and may elect to take up a book to restart the flow of ideas. His point is more so that one should never show preference to reading over thinking one's own thoughts.

In practice, if I'm reading a philosophical work and it triggers an idea, I immediately stop reading and give that thought its due attention so that it does not have the opportunity to escape from my mind. If I'm listening to music and something triggers a musical idea in my mind, I pause the music and find my way to a keyboard or guitar as quickly as I can on the same premise.

I wouldn't translate the sentiment as a pompous and elitist declaration; there is indeed plenty to be learned from a well-written pulp novel or episode of Muppet Babies, particularly if one is interested in writing in those styles. Despite the fact that it surely is impractical to figure out everything on your own through thinking, it is technically true that there is nothing one will ever read that he could not have figured out himself through his own thoughts. What that translates to in a practical sense is: at least dedicate adequate thought to the things you are most passionate about so you understand those things more intimately than, say, the subjects you learned in school and will never again reference in any serious capacity.

Joshua Darlington
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"(Medical Xpress) -- Storytelling is a skill not everyone can master, but even the most crashing bore gets help from their audience’s brain which ‘talks over’ their monotonous quotes, according to scientists. "

Matt Waldron
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Joshua, you've linked to three things and I really haven't found a strong connection in any of them to what I have written here; did you have some connection in mind or is this more so just a reaction to a philosophical piece with other philosophical pieces?

The first article is about evolution in the literal sense with a very vague attempt to draw a parallel to the mind of an individual that is introduced and then abandoned. The last line of that article is atrocious:

"You realize that for each species, its landscape consists almost entirely of other species, all of them busy evolving right back. That's co-evolution. We are all each other's fitness landscapes."

That's a completely hackneyed conclusion that has almost nothing to do with the 'fitness landscapes' concept; and abruptly switching to second person in what is supposed to be a serious article for one line is essentially the worst thing the writer could have done.

The Eramus work (which I doubt I'll have time to read through in its entirety) is a satire fairly specific to its time period with little universal extension, at least as far as what I found time to read is concerned. It strikes me as the kind of work that many would praise because of the verbiage and few would remotely understand.

The Medical Xpress article is about how the brain automatically livens up boring speech by adding its own cadences based on expectations. I'm not sure what value I'm supposed to take away from that unless I am a person keenly interested in the physical workings of the brain.

Forget these sources; I'd rather hear your thoughts on the subject at hand.