Before you open your next writing file or type your next sentence, get out your best writing sample. Read it, not as the creator but as a customer assessing a product.
By the time you’re ready to let someone read your work you’d better be sure of what you’re selling.
Decades ago one of the big potato chip companies decided to product test in the market where I lived. What was the test? Orange and grape flavoured chips.
Yeah, my sentiments exactly.
The big question is why nobody in the board room could foresee what a huge pile of horse flop orange and grape flavoured chips would be. Did anyone there even taste them? Or maybe it just sounded stupendous on paper, the algorithms were workable, and the chemical spray composition didn’t kill the chimps.
No matter how literary or arty or even functional it is, your writing is a product. Unpalatable? Leave people scratching their heads? Poor workmanship? Shoddy material? Maybe, like the baby formulas that always seem to come from China, there’s a taint of the toxic.
The other day I received a resume and cover letter from someone whose email about a potential job proclaimed: Yes! I’m very interested!
Exclamation points? Two of them? In a row? That’s pretty serious. You don’t just go throwing those around, right?
But when I opened the files the truth was there in boldface. And italics. A glance told me everything I needed to know. Lazy, unmotivated, sloppy, unknowledgeable, apathetic. The email said Yes! but the written product screamed meh –
Toxic stuff – that noxious reality lurking unseen to the naked eye. The entire effort was coming straight from the individual’s pathology. Try sending out a submission or query that has this effect on an editor. The vast, sad majority do. Someone who has worked with words for a long time can smell falseness and insincerity and a lack of professionalism like a cat sniffing out a coming storm. A glance is all it will take for an editor to judge and dismiss a piece of writing.
Remember that as a writer you are not in a monologue. You’re not even a narrator waxing eloquent from your writerly perch. You are engaged in a dialogue. Every word is producing an unvoiced response the way any product would.
So what are you provoking in your audience? Is it positive? Is it negative?
You are in a position to study the algorithms and chemical flavourings around the board room before wasting time and money and energy on something that won’t work. The best of resources must go into your offering. High quality research, accuracy, purity of style, a clear, differentiated voice, authentic characterization, a structure with the muscle to move the story forward.
Figure out what your product is. Step back and de-personalise. Strip away ego and pride. Name it, classify it, put it in a spreadsheet, detail it to death before you write one more word. Know it. If the algorithms aren’t working, figure out why and change them. If they can’t be changed then stow it away until the issues can be resolved or cannibalized for another project. Or trash it. Be tough on yourself. Better you, now, than an editor later.
Your readers will thank you for not trying to sell literary horse flop disguised as a satisfying treat.