For years I’ve been following publication coach and editor Daphne Gray-Grant. Her advice has helped me develop a method of writing that works for me. My method is crazy, messy and probably wouldn’t work for anyone else, but that doesn’t matter, what matters is the result.
I recently wrote to Daphne and asked her to share some of her insights with us. I hope you enjoy her post as much as I did.
I used to be a worrywart who insisted on knowing the bad news right away. When I submitted a story to an editor, in times past, I immediately wanted to learn what he or she disliked about it. If I went to the doctor, I wanted to find out what dread disease I had. If I had a contractor come to our house, I wanted to know how much the structural repair was going to cost.
But one of my daughters, now 21, was born with a genetic disorder. I quickly learned that, sometimes, it’s better to let bad news wait.
Being a parent has taught me that I always have at least two choices. I can worry myself to death. Or, I can embrace ambiguity and learn how to hold two conflicting ideas in my mind at once.
Choosing ambiguity has also made me a better writer. Why? Here are five reasons:
1. I have less to worry about. Because I expect to feel uncertain for at least some of my writing time, I don’t waste my time thinking I’m inadequate. And, like baking cakes, doing math or riding a unicycle, writing is easier if you think you can do it.
2. I don’t rush to premature conclusions. I understand that I always need some “not-knowing” time where I feel a bit uncomfortable. This is a normal part of the writing process. It doesn’t mean I’m incapable of writing or, worse, incapable of thought. It simply means to I need to schedule my thinking time. (To do this, I like going for a walk. http://www.publicationcoach.com/new/5-ways-to-take-pause-that-refreshes/ And doing a mindmap. http://www.publicationcoach.com/new/why-i-insist-on-blathering-about-mindmapping/ ) In turn, this allows me to develop better, deeper ideas.
3. I’m more willing to take risks. Readers sometimes express surprise at the stories I tell in my writing. “You’re so personal,” they say. Recently, a former colleague I hadn’t seen in several years said he knew more about me than I knew about him. I was momentarily nonplussed. Then I realized he was telling me he’d been reading my column. Embracing ambiguity is part of what’s made me willing to tell these sorts of stories because I’m able to balance the lack of privacy with the benefit of a deeper connection with my readers.
4. It helps me to be more adaptive. Writers who embrace ambiguity understand that while 2 + 2 will always equal 4, there is never “one right way” to approach a writing problem. That, in fact, is one of the many joys of writing. There’s always more than one way to write a sentence.
5. It allows me to write without editing. http://www.publicationcoach.com/new/7-ways-to-stop-editing-while-you-write/ By turning off the critical, judging, editor inside my head I’m allowing the creative part of my brain space in which to flourish. Later, of course, I welcome back the editor-critic and enjoy the benefits of revision. But I don’t shortchange the valuable period of ambiguity.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said it eloquently when he wrote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
But philosopher (and bass guitarist) Keith Richards said it even more memorably: “I look for ambiguity when I’m writing because life is ambiguous.”
Daphne Gray-Grant is a former daily newspaper editor, a writing and editing coach and the author of the popular book 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Via her website, she offers the newsletter Power Writing. It’s weekly, brief and free. Sign up at the Publication Coach website.