I have learned to see writing in layers; that is, layers of growth. Starting out, all writers must believe we have better than average abilities to express ourselves on paper – otherwise we might not begin to write at all. I see this as the first layer of writing. I should note here that one persons’ first layer might not be anything like another person’s first layer; this is not about comparative ability, it is about individual progress.
Layer one writing can be quite good, encouraging even, perhaps praised. But again, comparative quality is not germane; the important critic here is the author. And when we the author are not satisfied, we turn for advice to accomplished writers; we turn to books on writing by Steven King, and observations on writing by Tom McGuane, or comments in articles about Elmore Leonard – that sort of thing. And from them we learn to remove all adverbs, to use ‘said’ as an attribute in dialogue, to remove every sentence that doesn’t advance the plot or our characters, and so on.
And it works! We find our writing has become efficient, clearer, better paced, fluid. We are at layer two. At layer two, the enjoyment of writing increases, we feel confident in our tools. We write more and we read more and as we read we become aware of vocabulary. We notice that great writers seem to find the precise word that is needed for a particular moment. How do they do that? And what does that word mean, anyway? We want to become better writers, so now we note vocabulary as we read, how the words are used. We write down the words we don’t know and look them up later. And gradually our own vocabulary improves; the best word comes to mind more of the time, and we are not satisfied until we have found just the right word.
We have arrived at layer three. Armed with a strong vocabulary, our confidence has increased exponentially and our enjoyment of writing has grown even more. We write and we read on. But now we notice that the great writers, the ones we really enjoy, have an ability to engage with the commonplace, to create electricity in everyday routines, to somehow elevate drudgery. Is it in their phrasing, is it what they choose to say and what they decide to leave out, is it in the perspective; what is it? There is no discernible formula for it, no catechism we can learn, no set of rules. We have reached a stage where no one can teach us, only show us. And so a bit deflated, we journey on.
We are at layer four. Rather than growing easier, writing has become harder now; writing well, that is – writing to a standard we have have glimpsed but are not yet able to accomplish. We are less satisfied more of the time. But we write and read on. And somewhere along the way we begin to understand.
And so we arrive at layer five, the uppermost layer. We now understand that truly great writing is a process that will never end. We understand that the rules that brought us all the way to layer four might have to be ignored to provide enough freedom to find our own voice. We start to recognize that voice, our voice! We can hear it, we glimpse our potential, our direction is clear. And so we write and read on. And we begin all over.