Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The 2 Sides of a Good Writer

A popular post from March 2011

by Annette Lyon

In college, my creative writing professor sat me down for a one-on-one critique with a short story I'd written. He raved about my beautiful prose and sentence structure, how the writing was so clean.

And then he ripped into my unbelievable character motivations and rather lame plot arc.

This was my first taste of the two sides of a great writer:

The Storyteller
This side of the writer comes up with the great story ideas and finds ways to tell the stories in unique and interesting ways.

The Word Smith
This side of the writer has a way with language. The word smith can write smooth and seamless sentences and paragraphs, often beautiful ones.


Many writers have one as their primary writing strength (like I did), and while they can always improve in that area, they have to actively learn the other side. The good news is that, in general, you can strengthen the side you're weaker on.

Back in college, I was pretty solidly a word smith. I've since studied books and magazines, gone to conferences, been critiqued by solid writers, and more to learn how to tell a great story. It's taken years of studying the craft to figure out how to create a great plot and tell a ripping good yarn, but I think it's paid off.

On the flip side, I know writers who have an innate ability to spin those yarns. They have huge imaginations that take flight and hold other people captive . . . but they can't string two sentences together without sounding clunky and awkward.

The good news for natural storytellers is that often a great idea and a wild story can get a writer's toe in the publishing door, while no matter how smooth a manuscript is as far as writing goes, if it's boring or cliche, it's not going to get picked up.

In that sense, storytellers have an advantage over word smiths. But storytellers still need to learn the ropes of word smithing if they hope to truly be successful.

I've probably mentioned this story before, but it bears repeating: a managing editor at a publisher told me how they'd had to turn down manuscripts because, even though they loved the stories, the books as is were too messy to take on and spend the money to clean up editorially.

Storytellers + sloppy writing = rejection.

You can't expect an editor to fix all your problems. No matter how polished you make your book, you'll still need an editor, and an editor can take a book up only one level at a time, not from level two to ten in one fell swoop.

If you're just a storyteller, you may get passed over because someone else, also a great story teller, happens to be a better word smith.

Or, if you're like me, you can write books smooth as silk but be passed up for years by others who are better storytellers, submitting more imaginative and exciting tales.

Of course, the best scenario is for you to be both a great storyteller and a great word smith, too. Once you learn at least the fundamentals of both sides, you're really on the right track for getting published and being successful.

Which is your forte, storyteller or word smith?

How can you strengthen (or how have you strengthened) the other half of your writer self?

8 comments:

Rebecca said...

I don't know which I am, but I'd err on the side of word smith. You can bet I'm going to figure it out, though!

T.J. said...

Definitely a storyteller. I try to write beautiful sentences and get "trying too hard" in the end.

Jordan McCollum said...

I'm about to start editing again soon, so I'm feeling like NEITHER is my strength, LOL.

I can make awesome overall plots, but the middle of my books can still be slow and boring. :( And if character motivation falls in here . . . well, let's just say sometimes my characters' motivations fail to make it on the page (by "make it" I mean "cut it" or "get on there at all").

I hope that means I'm more of a natural word smith . . . (maybe so).

ChloƩ Le Mal said...

Storyteller. Definitely. Although, I have been getting better at word smithing.

Julie Wright said...

storyteller. I am better with characters and emotions specifically. Beautifully crafted sentences? Well . . . I leave that to authors like Barbara Kingsolver.

Kimberly said...

This is just brilliant Annette (do you ever get tired of me calling you brilliant? I should throw a little more variety into the mix, shouldn't I?). I've noted the divide between the two different aspects of writing but never applied names and descriptions like this.

Deep down, I'm scared that I'm not meant to be an author, because I have admit that neither is my forte, I have a smattering of each in my repertoire, but I need to work on both. I write decently well, but I'm no word smith. My mind is on fire with ideas but I lack the detail and eloquence of a true storyteller.

That said, I have stories to tell and I long to tell them, so I suppose I'll keep plugging along.

dedicated exchange hosting said...

I am without doubt a story teller!

Anna said...

After reading through my (very) rough 1st draft, I can see that my strength is more in story-telling. I can imagine the story and get it down. The writing just needs to be strengthen. I see trouble spots in my writing now, but my biggest problem is "show, not tell".

But now that I know my weakness in writing, I am going to practice, practice, practice, until I get it right.