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Old 04-30-2015, 06:44 AM View Post #1 (Link) 8 More Poor Excuses For Poorer Writing
Infinity_Man (Offline)
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About a year and a half ago, I posted a guide/essay on eight poor excuses for poorer writing which was basically a way for me to vent frustrations over critiquing--a time consuming task that offers little reward, which is only made even more inconsequential when the person you're critiquing makes it clear they were never really looking for criticism anyway, and only wanted praise. The essay received mixed reactions, but I stand by everything I said.

Recently I was thinking over critiquing, and what kind of things I've felt I'd like to explain to newer writers but don't have the time to over and over again, and I realized that these different topics and tidbits could be compiled into another fun list of poor excuses--because, let's be honest, it's far more fun to read a rant than an essay. I may not be as vexed as I was when I wrote the last essay, but these are still things I think need to be said.

For the many of you who didn't read the first essay: a) you should do that, because I cover more of the basic poor responses that I see more often and b) what this essay is all about is getting through to the newer (and older) writers who, when they have their work critiqued, respond with some excuse that, under scrutiny, doesn't hold up to logic and learning. Sometimes a writer just has to defend themself against a critic, and sometimes what they say is reasonable, but more often than not the person is speaking from their heart, not their brain, and the heart is biased towards anything you create. These are a few responses to those excuses, and if you find yourself giving these excuses then you should step back and realize that you're not distancing yourself enough from your work--you're not accepting that you, like every writer, are not perfect, and by not accepting that you don't give yourself the ability to grow.

The usual disclaimer applies to this guide, as with all of my guides: Everything you are about to read is my opinion. I'm telling you that right now rather than qualifying everything I'm about to say with "in my opinion" to save me time and energy. So even if I say something like "Never write about talking dogs," what I'm really saying is "in my opinion, one should never write about talking dogs." My opinion is also hardly professional, although I should point out that I've been critiquing other people's work for nearly ten years now, and consider myself pretty good at it, so I think I have some worthwhile things to say.

Futhermore, none of this is a hard-and-fast rule. I've outlined before how I think one should respond to criticism and the quick version is this: Don't ignore all advice, but don't take advice at face value either. You are free to disagree with criticism, but make sure you're doing it for the right reasons. It is perfectly okay if someone tells you they don't like a scene in your story, but you think that scene needs to stay, as long as you can justify (mostly to yourself) why that scene is necessary.


1. "There's No Other Way This Could Be Done"

I've received this one a few times, more often from slightly more mature writers who are past the simpler mistakes, have been writing long enough to be especially defensive of their writing, long enough that they see writing more as a craft than a hobby, but not long enough that they can see their work objectively. What I mean to say is, the writer is advanced enough to see that a story is a collection of moving parts that each accomplish a certain goal--characters drive conflict and plot, scenes accomplish certain aspects of the story, description moves action as well as establishing information, that kind of a thing, but they don't see how they have absolute control and responsibility over that machine.

Where the writer stops dead in the criticism is anything that would require them to make a change. They've managed to get the parts to move together, albeit sluggishly and with flaws, and the thought of trying to take it apart again and put it back together better than ever when it took so much effort to get it moving in the first place is just too overwhelming.

This is, in a way, the classic advice of being able to kill your darlings--which is often misconstrued to mean you should cut anything you like in your writing because you're probably too blind to see it objectively, but what it actually means is that you shouldn't be afraid to cut something from your story you like if it's harming your story. For example, if you have a really cool character who has a physical description you find unique and masterful, all his or her interactions with other characters are pithy, vibrant, and the best dialogue you've ever written, but the character is a side character and you're focusing too much on them at the expense of the actual main characters and advancement of the plot, then maybe you need to be willing to kill your darling...

So, yes, a writer who's unable to kill their darlings would have trouble taking criticism telling them to cut their favourite character, but that's not quite what I'm getting at here. Because there are other options. Maybe you can find a more important role for that character in the plot, or maybe you can take the parts of that character you really like and work them into the other characters, or you can completely transplant that character for another story, or you can come up with another subplot that--

And usually this is where the writer stops dead. Usually, one thought goes through their subconscious:

That's so much work.

So much work, when you've already got the meat of the story worked out, or everything's already written down and you just want to perfect what you already have without making large changes. Cutting Character A would mean reworking a whole bunch of scenes near the end of your novel. Tweaking Magic System B would require a complete overhaul of the fight scenes in the story. Changing the metre would mean coming up with completely different lines (that's a concern in poetry, right?). No, no, it's much easier to just accept the flaws of the story. Every story has flaws, right?

And that's when the poor writing comes up.

Something is hurting your writing. Don't be afraid to bend over backwards to change it.

Because yes, writing is hard. It's supposed to be. If it wasn't, everyone would be doing it--and, in my experience, nearly everyone does try and do it because they think it'll be easy; when you tell them you want to be a writer they casually say "oh, I've been thinking of writing a book too" as if it's something you can churn out in a weekend while sitting in a sun chair sipping on a mimosa. In my experience, all the people that have told me that have failed. Most of them don't even get started. Because they don't realize how difficult it is to write. They don't understand what a commitment it is. Or, as is more often the case with people aged 14-30something, they're in love with the idea of being a writer, not with writing.

Writing is difficult. It requires the ability to change, to adapt, to do whatever it takes to get the best story you can have.

So when I tell you "this scene doesn't work for me, because there's too much ______ and not enough ______" and you tell me "Oh, but I have to have this scene, because there's literally no other way to show the reader the main character has a crush on Female Character Six" then I can't help but roll my eyes. If you tell me that it's not possible to do it any way, then I realize your problems are deeper than just a bad scene.

It's called creative writing. Be creative.

Find another way.


2. "You're Not Supposed To Do That"

This suggestion comes courtesy of Dabs. Perhaps you're getting a lot of well-reasoned advice along the lines of "add more characters" or "I think you need an infodump to make this clearer." Basically, any advice that hits hard against your instincts of what you can and can't do in your writing. That makes sense. You should, after all, always listen to your instincts.

Except there is no "can and can't" in writing.

If you ever find yourself thinking "I can't do that. It's against the rules" then stop what you're doing and reevaluate your upbringing as a writer. There are no rules of writing. Oh, if you google it you'll find lists of things to do or never do in your writing, and some people would argue that "be good" is the only rule, but no one has ever set down laws of writing that you must abide by.

Sure, there are certain guidelines that it's strongly advisable to follow. You'll get a better reception for your writing if you write in legible, complete sentences that follow the conventions of language. Fleshed-out characters with depth are generally more interesting to read about than flat stereotypes that speak only in buzz lines and catch phrases. A plot is recommended. But there's nothing say you have to include any of those things. It's your story. You can do what you want with it.

So if someone suggests you try a certain angle that would go against "Five Writing Mistakes Every New Writer Makes" or "Ten Story Blunders To Avoid At Whatever Cost" or any other online list that tells you how not to write, don't be so quick to dismiss it.


3. "This Makes Sense Later"

I get this one from new writers all the time. I've criticized some information that doesn't make any sense to me, and the writer comes back to tell me that this confusing information will be cleared up later on in the book/story. To the writer's credit, that's a reasonable argument to make--after all, published authors withhold information all the time, and many things don't become clear until after you've read the whole book. Steven Erikson is best known for a ten-book series that many will attest doesn't make a lot of sense until you've read the last book. So who am I to tell you that your writing doesn't make any sense?

A reader. That's who.

There's a very fine line between information that is intriguing and information that is confusing. Intrigue is the kind of mystery that keeps us reading a book, and confusing information is what keeps us from reading a book.

The problem with confusimation is that it feels more like an error on the writer's part than it does something purposefully laid down to build mystery. Readers are generally pretty smart, I'd argue, so we recognize when something isn't supposed to be known to us right away--maybe the characters share the same beffudlement we do, or we're witnessing an exchange that's just subtle enough that we know the exchange is beyond our comprehension, but it's supposed to be.

I'm going to use Harry Potter as an example, because I always do, for good reason. Look at the first chapter of the very first Harry Potter novel. The first half is dedicated to Mr. Dursley going about his day, noticing all of these unusual occurences that the reader won't understand until they read later and discover the world is full of magic (or if they read the blurb of the book, but for the sake of argument let's say they didn't). The second half of the chapter is dedicated to Dumbledore, McGonagall and Hagrid talking about Harry Potter--three perplexing, unusual characters, who never stop to say "we're wizards, just so you know" and yet the reader isn't lost. There are a number of reasons this works--it's the beginning of the book so readers are expecting intrigue, wizards are a recognizable enough figure that we're not completely lost, etc. etc. The point is, Rowling obviously has control over what she's doing.

There are other factors that work into pulling off good intrigue, but it's important to remember is this:

It does not matter if Chapter 2 makes Chapter 1 make perfect sense, if no one reads past Chapter 1.

People will stop if they're confused, even if the answers they seek are just on the next page. Don't rely on intrigue to carry a reader's interest. You need all the facets of a good story to keep them going, and intrigue should just be a bonus.


4. "You're Nitpicking" or "That Doesn't Matter"

While two separate excuses, these are so similar I'm lumping them together. Now, I'm the kind of reader who will often focus in on tiny details that maybe don't play a major importance, but are still noticeable to me. Here's an example paragraph. See if you can spot the nitpick:

Lord Marsh entered the stables and found his old pure-black Roan. The stableboy stopped brushing him and stepped aside so Lord Marsh could leap onto the horse, and take off. He pushed the horse hard--after all, if he was to get from Manchester to London before nightfall, he would have to hurry. But he made the trip with sunlight to spare, and passed his horse off to a stable at the edge of the city. Finally he could be about his business, and set out to find his wife.
Besides being poorly written (because I only have so much time to put into purposely-crappy examples) can you spot the nitpick?

Trick question. There are a lot.

For one thing, "roan" refers to a particular colouring, so a roan horse cannot be pure-black. Secondly, no one could walk into a stable and just mount the horse that's being brushed and expect a comfortable ride--it takes time to saddle and prepare a horse, after all. Furthermore, a horse that's described as "old" would not be able to make the trip from Manchester to London in any decent amount of time being pushed hard, especially not with "sunlight to spare." Horses are living beings too, and they need rest--traditionally, travelling on horse is little better than just walking because of the speed you have to go at and how many breaks you have to take anyway. Traditionally, if a nobleman wanted to make a long distance journey without resting too much, they would take their horse a bit of a ways and trade it for a rested horse somewhere. Finally, if you've never been on a horse you might not know that it's exhausting. It's easy to believe that the horse does all the work, but the body spends much of the time working with the horse's movements. You might be able to relax on a slow trot, but if you've been riding from Manchester to London all day at a near gallop, you're not going to get off of that horse and set about your business, you're going to get off that horse and immediately collapse from fatigue.

So, yes, those are all nitpicks because the point of the paragraph is to establish the character getting from point A to point B, and to focus on the minute details is, perhaps, missing the point. It's easy to think that no one will notice or care if such small details are fudged.

But people do notice. There are essays and blogposts dedicated to arguing against common misconceptions writers seem to have about horses, for one thing. There are, after all, quite a large number of people who own/hobby/obsess over horses who know what they're talking about. And considering a lot of these fudged details are the kind of errors a few minutes of google research would have saved you from, it just shows a lack of care on the author's part.

Besides, if you're letting small mistakes like that slip by, it's probably a sign that you're letting some bigger ones fly right past you.

So if I spend more time writing a criticism of a paragraph than you spent actually writing the paragraph in the first place, don't come back with "oh, you're just nitpicking," because nitpicking just means I'm pointing out mistakes you think too insignificant to fix. That's laziness and lazy writing, and excusing laziness with even more laziness is a poor excuse indeed.


5. "I know."

This one especially irks me because I get it in real life as well, mostly in a working environment when I notice co-workers doing something wrong (such as nearly setting the workplace on fire). When I point their error out to them, and remind them how to do it properly, they roll their eyes and say "I know."

If you know, then why are you making the mistake in the first place?

Look, no one likes being told they're doing something wrong, and no one likes some asshole coming in and telling them how to do their jobs. But I never understood why "Oh, I'm aware of how to do this properly, I've just chosen to behave like an idiot" seems like a good excuse.

The same applies to writing. If I point out something like your info-dump is slowing the story down, or your character is a clear copy of Bilbo Baggins, or no, no one has actually stolen your idea for a novel ScottyMcGee, and you come back with "I know that," then my reaction looks something like this:

Spoiler:






If you're aware there's an issue in your writing, why haven't you fixed it? Did you think no one would notice? Did you think we just really like wasting our time pointing out problems you already know about but just didn't want to fix?

The real trouble with this response, beyond being just downright moronic, is that it's snark. Let me be clear, I'm not talking about people who respond to a criticism by saying "I thought that might be an issue, but I wanted to see what other people thought first" or something along those lines. I'm talking about the people who, when errors are pointed out, only respond "I know." It's meant to be dismissive. It's meant to say "yeah, I'm already aware of that, thank you very much, and I don't need you harping on about it." There's a very clear difference.

If you know there's something wrong with your writing, don't post it here. Drag it back into the editing stage, fix it, and then show it to us.

There's no point wasting everyone's time catching errors we all see when you could get a much more useful critique by showing work that represents the best you're capable of.


6. "I'd Like To See You Do Better"

Another excuse that gets thrown out a lot in real life. The idea is simple: The person being criticized, or someone close to the person or idea being criticized, defends themself by pointing out that the critic probably can't do much better.

I mean, sometimes this is fair. If we're stranded on a desert island together, for example, and you spend all day foraging for food while I sat on the beach getting some sun, and you come back and I say "this is all you could find?" then you have permission to use me as food.

But more often than not, the situation really doesn't apply because skill in a field or art is not a requirement to have an opinion of that field or art, and all a critique is is an opinion. Some people can't handle hearing other people's negative opinions about them, so they try and diminish the worth of that opinion.

We don't need to have been world leaders to criticize our Presidents and Prime Ministers.
We don't need a medical license to be upset when the surgeon sews us up with his watch still inside us.
We don't need to be master chefs to send back a well-done steak we distinctly remember asking for rare.

So why the hell do we have to be accomplished artists in order to criticize art?

Either you're trying to set up some kind of elitist program where only master artists can qualify the quality of a work, or you're missing the point completely.

When it comes to me responding to your writing, if you ask me if I can do better then you're not seeing me for who I am. Sure, I'm not a published author. I'm not even a very good writer (though if you're responding to my criticism by telling me to do better, I have a feeling that, given some time to write and edit, I could in fact do better than you, Mr. or Ms. Self-Conscious).

But I am a reader. I've been reading for a long time. Almost my whole life, in fact. I've gotten pretty good at that, and so have most of the people who will be reading your work if it ever gets published. And if thousands of people pick up your book and unanimously agree it was the worst thing they've ever read, you don't get to tell them to do better. They're going to tell you to do better, and then ask for their money back.

7. "You're Wrong"

I can fortunately say that I am not straight told I'm wrong when I give a critique very often. But it has happened, so I thought I'd mention it here.

Now, I'm not saying you can't tell someone they're wrong if they make a factual error, something that can be proven false. I've said before that I don't think there's any point to responding to parts of a critique you disagree with, but an exception can be made for making sure that critic doesn't go on to spread their misinformation to other, young and impressionable writers who don't know any better.

What I'm talking about is disagreeing with someone's opinion. If I say "this scene felt slow to me" or "I don't like this character" and you tell me I'm wrong, I'm going to laugh in your face. I'm talking about how I perceive your story, and you have no right to tell me how I do that.

Often, this is a result of authorial intent not getting across. Maybe you wanted that scene to be really fast paced, or you wanted that character to be really likeable. Maybe you blurred the lines between what you wanted and what you achieved, and now it's preposterous for you to imagine anyone thinking Scene 21 is slow, or Character C is a jerk, because in your head they're the opposite. Clearly the critic is wrong.

But there is no right or wrong in criticism that isn't itself about facts. I could tell you that you're wrong about how far a horse can run in a single day, and I could be right or wrong about that, but something to do with my opinion is just that--subjective.

Of course, I might be the only person who has that opinion--I've talked before about how you shouldn't take every criticism you get to heart--but that's why we look for reader feedback, to hopefully get a wide, varied amount of responses to our work.

Bottom line: if you're thinking about your writing in "right" or "wrong" then you don't understand that this is a craft, and subjective, and therefore you need to reevaluate how you perceive your writing.


8. Absolute Apathy

Let me tell you a story about the first time I edited a friend's book.

Well, not really a book. I think, in total, it was something like 20000 words, which is more like a novella. But no big deal. I made a note of it at the start, and accepted that not everyone who's trying to be a writer pays attention to those kinds of things. Of course, once I reached the end of the story I discovered that what she'd sent me wasn't finished--it stopped just before the final act of the novel--because she hadn't decided on how to end it. I have very strong feelings about having someone look at your work when it's not ready to be seen yet, and sending it off unfinished is probably a sign she'd not looked over it herself for basic edits, and maybe should have been a sign that I'd made a mistake agreeing to read her book.

The other sign she'd not looked over her book for basic edits before sending it to me was simply how bad the grammar and spelling were, and how virtually unreadable this novella was. But, we were friends, so I plowed through and tried to be as helpful to her as I could be.

I gave her a line-by-line on her book as detailed as most of the critiques I give on this forum, which means nearly every line had a comment attached to it. I doubled the word count of her book. It took me a long time, to say the least. But I did it, and I sent it off to her, and she thanked me.

A few months later she contacted me again saying she'd finished the ending, and wanted me to look over that as well. I agreed, but when I asked her if she'd applied any of the comments I'd made and therefore wanted me to look over the whole thing from the beginning, she replied "I don't know. Maybe just start from the beginning anyway."

Ladies and gentlemen, if you ever ask someone if they've edited their story, and they can't remember, that means they didn't do it.

And, sure enough, when I opened the file she sent me, I found she hadn't changed a single word. All the terrible grammar was still there. All the bad spelling. All the bad pacing and shallow characters.

Maybe she just hadn't gotten around to editing yet. Maybe she wanted to focus on finishing the first draft before she applied any of my edits. But faced with a manuscript that hadn't changed at all, even given so much time, and considering how many hours I'd already put in to something I did not enjoy, I just could not finish the book.

Anyway, that friend eventually dropped off the face of the planet for a long time, so I didn't end up reading any more of her book. But I did learn some lessons from that experience. For one thing, when friends ask me to edit their books, I make it very clear that I won't do it if I'm the first time the book's been edited. I also make sure the writer knows I will stop reading if I think the book isn't ready for someone else to read it yet.

I wish I could say this was the only time I ever felt like my criticism was ignored, but it happens all the time, even on this site. I spend about an hour or two, depending on the length of a story, on a critique. That's a lot of time to put in to something that doesn't benefit me much at all. So it sucks when I spend all that time critiquing, and then the writer posts a second draft and it's clear they haven't understood any of the criticism they've received from anyone. Or, worse, they post a second chapter and all the same mistakes are rampant, and they clearly are only posting to be read, not to be criticized.

Here's how I think you should take a critique for a chapter: First, understand what's being said to you. Then, apply what you've learned to the chapter that you've posted. Now go and apply what you've learned to the rest of the book, because if it's an issue in one chapter, it's probably an issue in all of them. Only then, when you're absolutely certain what you've written represents the best you can do, should you post revisions.

But I'm not stupid enough to think anyone will do that. For one thing, actually finishing a whole manuscript is an achievement most aspiring writers never accomplish. Editing a whole manuscript is the next milestone that many don't accomplish. It's unreasonable to ask people to perform a process that takes weeks or months before sharing their work again. It stands to reason that most people are posting as they write. I can accept that, flawed as it is.

But for the sake of your own writing and our time, could you at least try not to make the same mistakes when you write later chapters as we pointed out to you in chapter one?

Because when you don't care about the criticism you've received, why should we care about giving it?
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Old 04-30-2015, 07:09 PM View Post #2 (Link)
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Originally Posted by Infinity_Man View Post
1. "There's No Other Way This Could Be Done"

....

Because yes, writing is hard. It's supposed to be. If it wasn't, everyone would be doing it--and, in my experience, nearly everyone does try and do it because they think it'll be easy; when you tell them you want to be a writer they casually say "oh, I've been thinking of writing a book too" as if it's something you can churn out in a weekend while sitting in a sun chair sipping on a mimosa.
That sounds familiar, actually ... I've done a lot of writing doing the Sad Person equivalent of sun chair + mimosa, which probably explains why it's taken me almost 3 years to get near the finish line on my first collection of poems.


Originally Posted by Infinity_Man View Post

6. "I'd Like To See You Do Better"

....


But more often than not, the situation really doesn't apply because skill in a field or art is not a requirement to have an opinion of that field or art, and all a critique is is an opinion. Some people can't handle hearing other people's negative opinions about them, so they try and diminish the worth of that opinion.

We don't need to have been world leaders to criticize our Presidents and Prime Ministers.
We don't need a medical license to be upset when the surgeon sews us up with his watch still inside us.
We don't need to be master chefs to send back a well-done steak we distinctly remember asking for rare.

So why the hell do we have to be accomplished artists in order to criticize art?

Either you're trying to set up some kind of elitist program where only master artists can qualify the quality of a work, or you're missing the point completely.
I think this is a really good point, and I like that you also point out that you've developed your ability to read and critique work by doing a lot of reading and critiquing. Skill in a field isn't required to have an opinion - but I think (and I guess you probably do too) that translating that opinion into something actually useful is for sure a skill, and one that gets developed over time. Often that skill deepens as experience with that field or form of art deepens. But it's not required. There are lots of great critics who can't write or paint or cook a lick, and lots of creative, challenging artists who try to critique something and word salad comes out instead.

I also think that approaching writing and critiquing as separate skills makes you (general you) better at both. They often get developed in parallel, but you need to put attention into both for them both to improve.
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Old 05-01-2015, 02:53 AM View Post #3 (Link)
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I'm thankful for the work you've put out on this and the last 8 Poor Excuses For Poorer Writing thread that I've already read. They don't just help with giving responses back to taken critiques; they help out with critiquing and writing, too, if a person sets his/her mind to it. Honestly, I gave two out of the eight excuses here, which were the "You're not supposed to do that" and "This makes sense later" excuses. I'm still a newbie writer, in my opinion, but I'd say these weren't too bad from me out of all sixteen excuses you've listed in both types of these threads. Good work, Infinity_Man!
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Old 05-01-2015, 04:20 AM View Post #4 (Link)
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I love these guides! They're very helpful.

In fact, if I had a gold star, I wouldn't give it to you, but I'd let you hold it for a few minutes.

That has to count for something.
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Old 05-03-2015, 07:56 PM View Post #5 (Link)
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Originally Posted by Isis View Post
That sounds familiar, actually ... I've done a lot of writing doing the Sad Person equivalent of sun chair + mimosa, which probably explains why it's taken me almost 3 years to get near the finish line on my first collection of poems.
I won't lie, I used to sometimes sit on my porch (back when I lived in a place with a porch) drinking beer or sangria while I edited. They were never my more productive work sessions, but it's a nice change of pace sometimes!
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Old 05-16-2015, 06:30 AM View Post #6 (Link)
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This was extremly helpful, and kind of entertaining to read (haha I love brutal honesty, it's great ) so thankyou for making this guide for us all.
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Old 05-30-2015, 06:30 AM View Post #7 (Link)
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8 More Poor Excuses For Poorer Writing
This is great and helpful tips to me.As a newbie writer, it made me advance level to write quality article and in my opinion,all students should read this thread to avoid some lame excuse to write quality content.Thanks .
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Old 07-25-2016, 07:59 AM View Post #8 (Link)
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Haha! I know. I've said these to myself so many times.
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