Misconception #1: I have to know what I’m doing.
When I first tried to write a poem, I didn’t think I’d be able to do it because I felt I knew nothing about the formal aspects of poetry. I thought, Who am I to write a poem?—I don’t understand iambic pentameter, how a sonnet is made. Through writing and revising with a mentor I learned, most importantly, that writers never really know exactly what they’re doing. We simply develop, over time and a whole lot of practice, a navigational toolkit that sharpens our instincts and slowly and surely makes for stronger first drafts.
Misconception #2: Decorated sentences are better than simple descriptions.
I used to think that adjectives and adverbs made a sentence stronger. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten: simple is usually stronger. Simple yet specific descriptions are more effective and go right to the reader’s mind without making them swim through your language to get an image or the meaning. As far as adverbs go, I’ve realized you seldom need them—let specific verbs do the work. As far as adjectives go, choose them wisely. For instance: a “beautiful painting” or “old tree” will create 10 different images in 10 readers’ minds; so if you have one particular painting or tree in mind, let the reader know.
Misconception #3: No one will care about a personal experience of mine. It’s too selfish to share.
We relate to stories that we imagine could happen to us, right? I used to think that writing about my own love story or experience of illness or loss would be too personal for someone else to relate to, to care about. This is not true. Rather, make your own story as specific as possible. Everyone has witnessed the end of a lover’s quarrel, but have you ever read about one of the lovers storming out of the house on a sputtering ride-on lawn mower slower than a walking pace? Well, I have, and that’s the kind of detail from our memory bank that makes a story (or essay, or poem, etc.) unique.
Misconception #4: Taking someone’s editing advice will remove my voice from my work.
I’ve noticed that a lot of young writers’ poems and stories are often longer than they should be. They have extra meat that can be sculpted down to reveal a more exact and striking form. The first time I got written feedback from my poetry mentor, I could barely see my poem because there were so many blue marks and suggestions. I thought, Man, I must suck. I was scared to edit, to revise. I didn’t know how. It turns out I didn’t suck, I had potential, and this mentor recognized this potential and was guiding me away from superfluous details and sentimentality. Editing and revision make for stronger work. Remember this: first and second drafts are often shitty. If you want to see how different a first draft can be from the final, published version, just google Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”—you’ll find the first and last drafts, and you’ll surely breathe a sigh of relief.
Misconception #5: First drafts should be GREAT.
This is simply not true. Go wild with your first drafts. You never know where you might end up. Remember, this is just the beginning.
(A portion of this post was originally published in “6 Writers Talk About What It Means To Be a Writer”.)