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Friday, August 19, 2011

Pushing Past the OK Plateau

This quote rocked my world…

“You can’t get to wonderful without passing through all right.”

(Andrew Zuckerman via Bill Withers)

Really? Because when someone tells me my writing is all right, I hear, “Your writing is so wretched that I’d rather stab my eyeballs with a fork.”

But if this statement is true, it puts a whole new spin on the concept of ‘all right’ writing. It not only validates mediocre writing but ranks it as a necessity. One must first write ‘all right’ before crafting some killer Pulitzer Prize-winning prose. It’s a rite. An initiation. A common ground that all authors share at one point or another.

Now before we all start singing Kumbayah and quoting “I’m Okay, You’re Okay,” there’s a key phrase in that quote that cannot be skimmed over…passing through. While ‘all right’ is a valid stage of writing, it must be passed through, not lived in until the wallpaper’s peeling and the carpet is worn. Great writers don’t stagnate in the all right. They move on.

And that begs the question: how exactly does one move on?

Author Joshua Foer has some great advice. I watched a clip of him from the Behance 99% Conference, an annual meeting of some of the greatest creative thinkers. He calls the ‘all right’ phase the OK Plateau, a level that must be pushed through in order to become truly great. He identifies some principles that apply not only to writing, but to any goal you want to master.

Operate outside your comfort zone.

If you want to be a great writer, don’t settle for a ratty-brown-sweater-with-holes-in-the-elbows kind of comfortable. Experts across the board have one thing in common. They don’t land in the autonomous phase of learning a skill but stay in the cognitive. That means they don’t strive for auto-pilot mode, but look for challenges and opportunities where they will either succeed or fail, not remain the same.

Study Yourself Failing. Daily.

Yeah, I know. Sounds akin to grabbing a flail and ripping open your back as you trudge through life every day. Really, it’s not all that bad. The point of this step is to actively look for where you make mistakes, be it dull characters, sagging plotlines, or simply adverb overuse. Then when you identify your bugaboos, practice fixing them. Great pianists become great by practicing daily the passages that are hardest. What’s hardest for you? Practice it.

Treat what you do like a science.

I’m not talking rocket science. Simply gather data and analyze it. Thrive on immediate feedback and use it to your advantage. That contest entry you crammed into a drawer and locked because it made you weep? Pull it out, put your emotions in the drawer, and analytically read the feedback with an eye to make some changes. The chapter your critique buddy used a 12-pack of red G2 pens to mark up? Study those comments and try some re-wording.

Study the masters.

Steinbeck. Bronte. Crichton. Those are some of my favorites, but what about you? Break apart the writing of your favorite authors. How do they construct a paragraph? A chapter? A plot? How do they handle dialogue or backstory? What is it you admire most about their writing? Then copy it. Not word-for-word plagiarism but technique.

So here’s a challenge. Give these pointers a whirl, even just for a week, and see what kind of progress you make. You might not hit #1 on Amazon or sign a new contract as a result, but you will have taken a step in the right direction. And movement is key if you want to push past the OK Plateau.


  1. This is a terrific post for writers, one of the best I've read in recent days. Many professions have an "apprentice" stage in which the student understands he is learning the trade, but hasn't yet arrived. This is the "okay" stage referred to in this piece. Rarely does a writer zip from beginner to expert without the apprentice stage, yet so many literary apprentices get defensive when faced with the suggestion that they have areas that need improvement. As this piece suggests, recognizing the need to improve and aggressively striving to do so are the best ways to sail through the "all right" stage of writing. Thanks for this thought-worthy contribution.

  2. Love it! Thanks for the prod out of all right. Glad you don't have to stab your eyeball with a fork.

  3. It's not an easy road, but it's worth it! Great post, Michelle! Glad you're my CP!!!!!

  4. Excellent advice! Love the visuals. Thanks for sharing it, Michelle.

  5. Good advice. It's easy to get discouraged when you have so much going on that writing becomes a "disposable hobby." If we treat it with the same importance we do any other profession, we'll grow and improve, not simply throw in the towel and go back to watching the Food Network.

  6. What great encouragement. Thanks for posting this entry.

  7. Wow, great comments, readers...thanks for stopping by!

  8. Griepy,

    This was great stuff! The hardest thing for me, as an editor, is the writer who is a strong "OK" and has potential, but who won't listen to advice or take the kinds of steps you suggest.

    I'm going to be sending them to you from now on!


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