Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Writing Virtues

MENO: Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice; or if neither by teaching nor by practice, then whether it comes to man by nature, or in what other way?

SOCRATES: O Meno . . . [Plato runs off at the mouth for 149 more words, and then finally sorta answers the question with]. . . I am certain that if you were to ask any Athenian whether virtue was natural or acquired, he would laugh in your face, and say: 'Stranger, you have far too good an opinion of me, if you think that I can answer your question. For I literally do not know what
virtue is, and much less whether it is acquired by teaching or not.' And I
myself, Meno . . . [another 83 unnecessary words.]

MENO: No, indeed. But are you in earnest, Socrates, in saying that you do not know what virtue is? And am I to carry back this report of you to

SOCRATES: Not only that, my dear boy, but you may say further that I have never known of any one else who did, in my judgment.

--Meno by Plato, translated by Benjamin Jowett

I don't like Plato, so I did take great pleasure in deleting 232 words from that excerpt. It was just so we could get to the point before all of us qualify for AARP. Where Plato is concerned, one always has to wade through a vast sea of his schlock before even catching a glimmer of one tiny pearl o' wisdom.

Now let's forget about the source and examine the point that the old fussbudget probably considered wholly fictional anyway: the matter of virtue. And because everything is about writing anyway, let's take a look at writing virtues.

To me, a writing virtue is like the right of way when you're driving: most people believe it belongs to them, or they "have it." Right of way, however, can only be yielded to us by other drivers. Same thing goes for virtues. They are the qualities about us and our work that other people in the biz recognize.

Most of the time writers think they write nothing but crap, which I think (in moderation) is good for us. A decent amount of virtue denial keeps us interested in looking for ways to improve our craft. When a writer starts believing their own hype, however, the work always seems to suffer.

Almost every editor I've worked for the last six or seven years has said one virtue I have is that I always deliver a very clean manuscript (aka one with hardly any errors.) It doesn't sound like an especially valuable writing virtue, but from my POV any work you save an editor is a very good thing. I've had a couple manuscripts that were so error-free they went direct to copy-edit in first draft. Which always made me a little suspicious and rather nervous (I'm not perfect; somebody must have missed something.)

It's also not a natural virtue; I'm not a great speller, and I never cared enough about grammar to pay attention when I should have in school. I had to teach myself how to edit my work, and it took years before I learned how to do a decent job proofing a manuscript. I'm always happy to hear an editor's praise, but I still remember the days when my manuscripts were so not-clean they looked like I wrote them at a mud drag.

Nor can I expect to hold onto that virtue forever. Currently I'm being plagued by Forgetful, one of the seven gremlins* of menopause, and I keep making really stupid spelling misteaks misstakes mistakes. We won't talk about how many times I've started out in chapter one with a blue-eyed blond sailor secondary character named Jack and end up in chapter five with the same guy somehow morphing into a green-eyed redhead tailor named Jake. I'd like to think as I get older I'll stay sharp, but I have a parent with Alzheimer's, so it's always a roll of the dice.

All the other writing virtues attributed to me by others are nice, but I don't really believe in them, or think they belong to me. Whatever I've written in the past is history, gone, over and done with. It's not that I'm an ingrate who can't take a compliment (most days); it's plain old terror. Complacency scares the hell out of me. I can always improve and get better at something, but I can't do anything if I stagnate or spend all my time preening.

I'm only as good as my next manuscript. If I can request any writing virtue, that's the one I want.

Now it's your turn: what virtue (writing or otherwise) do people say you have? What's the one you'd most like to earn? Let us know in comments.

*In case you're wondering, the other six gremlins of menopause are Bitchy, Rashy, Sweaty, Sleepy, Weepy and Psycho.

Excerpt from Meno by Plato was found over on Project Gutenberg.


  1. Virtue in writing? I'm told I can render a decent description.
    What would I like? To be better at writing introspection & emotions. Does not come naturally to me.

  2. I'm dealing with those fabulous menopause gremlins myself. My condolences. {{huggs}}

    People keep telling me I'm a great writer. Or gifted. Or some other similar crippling thing. *I* think I'm a couple of degrees above 'meh'. Yeah, I like verbs and I can string them together with nouns and things, yeah I can create characters and keep a plot moving along, but that and a couple of bucks can get me a vanilla bean creme at Starbucks. (I don't drink coffee).

    I just want to improve my crafting skills, and perhaps make a little spending money in the process, without tearing my own psyche to shreds.

    So, if I could be allowed to pick my own virtue, I would choose to be a happy creator. Or just happy. Either would do nicely.

  3. I have been told I write great beginnings to novels. Too bad I am usually attempting a short story at the time. :)

    If I could request a writing virtue, it would be the ability to stay focused. I am completely unable to ignore all those other projects calling my name most days.

  4. My virtue is plotting. The structure of a book is always apparent to me, so I know when to add/delete scenes to keep the spine of the book straight. The people I Beta read for love it when I show them their plotpoints.

    The virtue I *wish* I had was speed! I write sooooooo slowly.

  5. Anonymous9:38 AM

    Last year when I started thinking about writing as more than just a fun past time, I asked myself the question: What draws me into a book?

    Characters. Strong characters who start off flawed, face challenges, grow, experience growing pains. The books with those kinds of characters draw me. I want to write those books.

    So I started working with my friend doing his doctorate in psychology. I say "working" very losely. He would look at the character profiles I made, make comments, suggest possible diagnosis for what might be a condition one of the characters could have, he poked holes in my poor characters! But that's because he spends a lot of time with real people, and he could help me see all sides of a personality.

    I've been getting a lot of compliments on the characters in what I write. I'm very excited that I'm doing well there, but I know I could always do better.

    That was a very long answer....

  6. most people believe it belongs to them, or they "have it." Right of way, however, can only be yielded to us by other drivers

    that...makes an awfully lot of sense.

    ok, I'll play, but only relating to writing virtues:

    people have told me I do strong visuals. which, I find amusing because visuals was the one aspect of writing I was most worried about and most consciously worked on since I believed it to be a lack I had to overcome.
    things I believed to be strengths, otoh, are apparently not.
    it might be part of that whole complacency thing you mention -- oh, I got it I don't need to work on it!
    and so you end up being meh in that aspect.

    go figure.

  7. I'm not sure I have any virtues. Other than writing clean and not quitting.

  8. My virtue: I've been told I'm good at capturing a moment in time.

    I'd like to learn how to write more realistic dialogue.

  9. Great, funny post. The salior/tailor happens all too often for me.

    How I would love to write clean drafts too. That's the virture I most want.

  10. Um... I'm on time? Hmmm. Okay, I write fairly clean books. While they come back with a few typos here and there, I don't generally have what I'd call rewrites.


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