Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.
+ Gene Fowler
Many of the online short-form discussions about “how to be a writer” focus on gaming SEO or pitching to an editor or leveraging various marketing strategies to gain a wider audience. All of these approaches certainly have their place: Writers do like to be read, after all. But missing from most discussions is any sort of reflection about the sausage-making part of the writing process. We just assume that everyone can write and that any comparative judgment smacks of elitism.
And therein lies a problem. Flannery O’Connor quipped that many a bestseller could have been prevented by a good teacher. Writing in a literary sense isn’t about stringing sentences together until you hit a target word count. I don’t put too much truck in the metaphysical waxings about the “soul of a writer” but I do favor acknowledgement that writing is a skill that admits to differing degrees of mastery. Not every who writes is a “writer.” Not all writers have been published. And not all skill sets that subsume under a writer’s quill are proportionally represented among all scribes — I know some excellent grammarians whose narrative abilities would put a hyperactive child to sleep, and I know some first-rate storytellers whose prose stumbles like a zombie with a broken ankle over awkward turns of phrase. Don’t get me started on subpar copy editing or non-existent research. Or on hypercorrect copy and too much research (leading to “analysis paralysis” and hence a writer’s block the size of Gibraltar).
Some thoughts about constructing the sausage:
- You can’t write if you don’t read. Period. QED. Good writers are familiar with different authors and genres and templates. Whether you read novels on your Kindle or subscribe to dozens of magazines or check the daily newspaper or load up on RSS feeds — doesn’t matter. Just read.
- Develop the humility to be edited by others. Some people don’t react well to criticism; they’ll submit a manuscript or story idea and when negative feedback rolls in, they stop soliciting comments. It’s hard to be edited by others, especially when you’re working with an editor whose comparative gold standard is how he or she would have done it. Nevertheless, seek the counsel of others and be willing to make changes based on consistent feedback patterns.
- Don’t stress over productivity. Some authorities swear by milestones: Write X words per day or sit at the computer for Y minutes per day or write Z chapters per month. Ignore this counsel. Writing isn’t about productivity, it’s about effectiveness. An hour spent massaging a 200-word passage that you nail perfectly is more important than an hour creating 1,000 words of mediocre prose just to hit an artificial word count target. The real force for productivity comes from within — if you need time goals, set time goals. If you need word count goals, set word count goals. If you give yourself rewards after ending a chapter or substantial project, then enjoy your riches. Only you knows what motivates you, so master your own psyche instead of relying on the “can’t miss tactics” of others. Writers are especially adept at rationalizing away their inattentiveness to their craft or cheating to meet a rigid productivity target, so the only “no excuses” approach must come from your own heart.
- Use tools that sharpen your focus and reduce distractions. Prose generated by a multitasker sometimes contains “tells” — duplicated words, fragmented sentences, subtle redundancies, elliptical arguments, &c. Reduce the risk of distraction by removing the sources of distraction. You could try writing with Wi-Fi shut down or drafting with a pencil and paper. Or even use an old manual typewriter, the nature of which forces you to think before you type. On a computer, use software that takes up the whole screen — Scrivener is an excellent standby for writers that includes notes and character sketches within the user interface. Q10 takes an ultra-minimalist approach; the entire screen including the task bar blacks out and all you have is amber-on-black like an old-style word processor. If you must, work from somewhere like a coffee shop or a park to reduce the urge to do home or office chores as a way of not writing.
- Experiment with style, but not at the expense of your readers. English changes. Constantly. Stylistic conventions in vogue today probably would appear semi-literate to writers from the 19th century, and a century from now today’s biases will probably seem quaint. Modern English emphasizes simple sentences and common words; it’s not uncommon for editors to direct writers to come in at a middle-school level of complexity. Forget Shakespeare; anyone who’s read even some of the 18th-century British moral philosophers like Hume and Butler will more often get tripped up over the complexity of their sentences instead of the ideas contained in those sentences. Is the directive to use “short, simple sentences” valid? Sure. Is it obligatory? Only if you’re under contract. But remember — writing with your own style is fine, but if a reader can’t follow you, you’re not going to be read.
- Plug holes in your knowledge about the craft of writing. If you struggle with bloated prose or grammatical errors or research substance or plot holes, fix it. Join a writer’s group or read up on the things you need to address. Many a promising writer hasn’t made the big leagues because he wasn’t willing to concede that he had a problem that required adjustment. Contrary to the popular mythology — especially among the young — writing isn’t something you can “do” at expert level just naturally. Sure, some have natural talent, but that talent needs to be forged through the fires of rejection letters and tempered with advanced techniques only learned through study.
- Build a reference library. Some suggestions: The Associated Press Manual of Style, The AP’s Guide to Punctuation, Gardner’s Modern American Usage, the Microsoft Encarta dictionary, Webster’s New International (2nd edition), a decent thesaurus, a decent quotations reference and a detailed grammar primer. On that last suggestion, err on the side of proscriptive bent; look for a grammar text that doesn’t allow the use of plural personal pronouns with singular antecedents and that at least acknowledges the validity of the “masculine preferred” rule for using masculine pronouns for antecedents of indeterminate sex. Grammar texts that are too permissive merely describe common trends instead of illuminating why common errors are common. Oh, and invest in a decent primer on logical argumentation.
A final thought: Sometimes you’ll hear things like “everyone can write if he just applies himself” or “just write” as motivational slogans. These ideas, though well intentioned, are pernicious. Just like not everyone gets to be an astronaut when he grows up, not everyone gets to be a famous writer, either. And writing crap for the sake of writing isn’t exactly a winning strategy.
Writing well takes effort and years of experience. It requires a healthy dose of humility and a shift from the starry-eyed idealism that stealthily undercuts the efforts of young or aspiring writers.
Roll up your sleeves. Cut the crap excuses. Do, then assess. Be honest. To do otherwise is to stare at that blank page and hoping the blood dripping from your forehead will somehow magically turn into prize-winning prose.