Thursday, May 16, 2024

Quality - How do you know when you've got it right? By Harini Nagendra

The question of the week is a tricky but all-important crafts question - how do you know when you've got it right?

I'll confess, right from the start, that I haven't the foggiest idea. Especially not with my fiction writing yet, where I feel like I'm still at the steep end of the learning curve.

It's different with my science writing. I've been writing non-fiction for popular audiences, mostly on issues of ecology and sustainability, for close to 30 years. Over time, I have built up a reasonable comfort level with the craft of writing. I've been able to experiment with different approaches to communication, from long form pieces and photo essays to crisp 500 word newspaper op-eds, writing in multiple languages, and for audiences ranging from primary school children to scientists, policy makers, and many other types of readers. These three decades of popular science writing have enabled me to develop my own voice - but perhaps most importantly, I feel on much safer ground when it comes to non-fiction writing. I know am building on a firm foundation of facts and established knowledge, either from my own research or from the research of other scientists, reviewed and verified by peers in the field. It's easier for me to know when I've got it right, and it's time to stop editing. 

When I write fiction, I feel like I'm leaping off a tightrope and launching myself into thin air into a safety net. Or - another vivid image that frequently pops into my mind and is impossible to shake off - that I'm building a tall skyscraper from pieces of cobweb - in my mind, I have magicked them into solid bricks, but it's just an illusion. Once I realize how flimsy it is, it's going to fall apart. 

When these thoughts come to me, I just have to take a deep breath, and tell myself it's fine - I have done this before, and I can do it again. And then I keep writing, and don't look back. I know the words will waver, the sentences will be awry, and my imagination wobbly and crooked for a while, as I am plagued by self doubt. But then, after some time, when the words begin to flow and I forget about my tightrope, and the steep fall ahead of me - then I feel close to that shy and elusive creature, quality. It's a bit like Schrodinger's cat, isn't it? When you strive for quality in your writing, it moves away. When you shut out the evaluating side of your brain and just focus on the task at hand - then the likelihood of writing a piece of quality seems higher.

I recognize quality in others' writing when I see it. There are so many writers, including my fellow Minds, whose work I admire. 

For me - it's hard. I know when it's time to be done with the editing - that's why deadlines are useful. But how do I know when I've got it right? I'll tell you when I have it figured out...


James W. Ziskin said...

An excellent, honest take. Whatever you’re doing, it’s working. Love your work! Thank you, Harini.


Harini Nagendra said...

Thanks Jim! 🙂