When this quote popped up in my Facebook feed this morning, I couldn’t help but sigh. Don’t get me wrong—I have great respect for the prize winning author Chinua Achebe, but what irks me about this quote is it fuels the misapprehension that writing is so easy-peasy, anyone can do it.
On one level that’s true, of course. We start writing stories in school and some of us continue for the rest of our lives. If the stories you write as an adult are simply for your own pleasure then fine, but if you want them to be read more widely, you probably aspire to being published, and that’s where it gets difficult. The fact is, writing well enough for a publisher to buy your work is hard—really hard—but because telling stories is something we’ve all done as children, we think there’s nothing to it.
Let me give you an example. A while ago I was contacted by an American painter and sculptor whom I had met at a gallery exhibition of his work. He is very talented but like many artists, his road to success has been long and arduous. Now in his late sixties, he has written an autobiography and wanted me to read it and offer feedback prior to self-publishing. The task was onerous, not least because the manuscript was over 100,000 words, but also because the structure was poor and the prose unengaging. At its heart was a good story—the artist’s own story, to quote Achebe—but it wasn’t well told. And why should it be? He’s an artist, not a writer. My advice was to employ the services of a professional editor (I even recommended a few)—advice he chose to ignore.
This is the crux of the problem. As a writer, I would never presume I could paint or sculpt without learning the tenets of that particular craft. And yet, as a painter and sculptor, he felt confident he could write a lengthy autobiography using his existing and rudimentary skills. He simply didn’t believe he needed any professional input at all, because everyone can write, can’t they.
It’s a shame, because buried under all the tedious recollections and irrelevant meanderings, was a fascinating account of his forty-year journey through the art world. With some serious editing this could have been a good read—at the very least, a cautionary tale for younger artists—and I was disappointed that the author was too sure of his own ability to accept that his writing could be improved upon in any way.
As a novelist, I know my writing can be improved upon. I have just finished the first draft of my third book and believe me when I say that good editing is what will elevate it from a rough but promising manuscript, to a well polished piece of work. Once a book arrives on the publisher’s desk, it will go through several rounds of editing. First are the structural edits (overview things such as structure, plot and characterisation) then the line edits (literally, line by line comments about what needs to be changed) before finally, the all important proofreading (to check for typos and repetition). Self-published authors can pay for these services and if they choose not to, the end product risks looking somewhat amateurish. I don’t say this to be disrespectful, but to emphasize the importance of good, collaborative editing.
So, whereas I can see the charm of Achebe’s quote, and realise I have taken it at face value rather than mining its deeper meaning, it does still irk me a little. As someone who writes stories for a living, it’s really not that simple to write your own story. Give it a try if you don’t believe me.