word craft


Sharing my work

“When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fort­night, it con­cen­trates his mind won­der­ful­ly.”  —Samuel Johnson 



My own para­phrase of this favorite apho­rism is:  When a writer knows his/her work is about to be read by some­one else for the first time it con­cen­trates her/his mind wonderfully. 

It’s not unusu­al for kids, in school, when they receive a cri­tique from a teacher, to say, “But I know what it means.” 

Fine if you are writ­ing a jour­nal or diary. 

(And even then if you come upon a diary entry a few years lat­er you might well say, “What did I mean by that?”) 

No, it doesn’t mat­ter how long I work on a book, the moment I decide I’m going to share it with some­one, my wife, an edi­tor, or a friend, my mind­set changes. 

It’s not over­ly com­pli­cat­ed as to what hap­pens: the work is no longer some­thing in which I am engaged alone but now I have the real­iza­tion that some­one else—a reader—will react. Does what I have writ­ten work? Makes sense? Bring about tears, laugh­ter, inter­est? Will they care? It’s that sim­ple. It’s that vital. 

Hence my mantra—cited here many a time—writers don’t write writ­ing, they write reading.


I myself, am some­times stu­pe­fied by my own inept­ness when I go over a man­u­script know­ing that in two days my edi­tor will have it in front of their eyes. I dis­cov­er even sim­ple mis­takes (gram­mar, punc­tu­a­tion). Or, far worse at times: plot failure. 

My favorite way of resolv­ing this is by read­ing the work aloud to some­one, a per­son, or a class­room of kids—I’ve even read a text to a dog. In the process, I see and hear things I hadn’t noticed before. Read­ing aloud turns me into my own audience. 

I’m cur­rent­ly read­ing a new book to my wife—my tough­est crit­ic. Today she asked, “Do you feel bet­ter about the book now that you are read­ing it to me? “No,” I reply, “I feel bet­ter because you say you like it.”

(Now, if you real­ly have courage get some­one to read your work to you. I can’t bear to do that. I even find it hard to lis­ten to pro­fes­sion­al record­ings of my books.) 

My point here is: When you work on a book you are writ­ing it for your­self. But ulti­mate­ly, you are not the most essen­tial per­son engaged. 

Your read­er is. 

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