Every once in a while, I come across someone who has a blind spot for a particular major part of writing: description, emotions, action, internal monologue, or whatever. A lot of these folks think they can’t write because, without whatever it is they’re missing, their stuff doesn’t work…and they assume that if what’s missing doesn’t come naturally to at least some degree, they’ll never figure out how to do it.
This happens not to be the case. Every writer has some kind of blind spot; it’s just that for most of us, it’s something that’s not quite as obvious up front, something more minor than “action” or “dialog,” and we learn to dance around it or compensate for it fairly quickly. It’s more difficult when the blind spot is something central, like description or action, but it’s still possible.
The biggest difficulty, in my experience, is usually figuring out that one has a problem and exactly what the problem is, because of course the salient feature of blind spots is that one can’t see them. Often, the stuff one writes looks perfectly fine to the writer, and it’s only when the crit group or beta readers get at it that the writer begins to suspect there’s something wrong.
Unfortunately, at this point many writers decide that what’s wrong is the readers, not the writing. It always astonishes me when a writer’s first response to “I didn’t understand this bit” is “But it’s right there, see?” If somebody didn’t get it, then they didn’t get it; the question at that point is to figure out why and do something about it.
And yes, sometimes the problem is with the particular reader – but for a writer, that really needs to be the last possible conclusion, and never a final one. Because if you start from the assumption that the problem is always with the reader, you will never find and fix anything that you didn’t notice on your own, and there’s really no point in being in a crit group or having beta readers at all.
Even when you’re pretty sure that this particular reader has a bee in her bonnet about dialog or description or whatever, it’s worth reconsidering her comments from time to time, because as one’s writing improves, one generally gets better at spotting real problems, so it’s possible that in six months or a year or five years, one will look at the story and smack one’s head and think That’s what she meant! Why didn’t I see this before? And then one can proceed to actually fix the problem.
Because the very first thing to remember about fixing anything is that if you can’t see the problem yourself, it is practically impossible to fix it without mucking up everything else. This is what makes dealing with blind spots so extraordinarily difficult; by their very nature, one can’t see them, so how can one fix them?
Reader and crit group comments can alert one to the fact that one has a blind spot – that one always seems to start the story a chapter ahead of where it needs to start, or carry on three chapters past the actual end, or never say what the main characters look like, or never describe anyone’s thoughts/emotions, or whatever.
The next step is to learn to see the problem for oneself…and decide whether it’s a charming stylistic eccentricity, or a serious problem that needs to be fixed. A character who constantly “sings out” instead of calling or shouting may be fine for one book, though it can become a really noticeable and tiresome tick over a multi-volume series. On the other hand, if there are no action scenes at all (because the kidnapping, rescue, barroom brawl, chase through the ravine, and final shootout all take place offstage), that’s probably a very large problem unless you’re doing something meta and literary and know exactly what you’re doing.
Teaching yourself to see a problem happens in two main ways: by reading other people’s stuff and paying conscious and deliberate attention to seeing what they’re doing that you aren’t, and by going over your own stuff in revision and doing the same thing. This can be extremely difficult to do alone, though it’s not impossible. Sometimes, though, what’s needed is for you to go over the passage in someone else’s book, looking for the action (or description, or dialog tags, or whatever), and then have someone else go through the same passage and highlight it so you can’t miss it.
Once you learn to see when something’s there and when it really isn’t, and have decided that the book you’re writing will be improved by including it, you go to your own stuff and look. This is even harder, especially if whatever-it-is is something that’s missing (like action or description), rather than something that you’re doing too often. It’s relatively easy to go through a manuscript and highlight every spot where someone blinks or rolls their eyes; it’s a lot harder to mark places where there could be action or description or emotions, only there isn’t.
For most writers, especially if they’re still in the early stages of learning to write, this is second-draft and revision stuff. My personal experience has been that going through a manuscript and carefully deleting all the eye-rolls or overused “verys” and “reallys” and “managed tos” is painful enough that after doing it once, I remember and avoid doing that particular thing during subsequent first drafts…but that hasn’t stopped me from making new and different mistakes, which then need to be discovered and corrected. It’s a never-ending journey, but it’s the only way I know to keep improving.