Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Seven Secrets to Improve your Writing (that you already know)

Like many writers, I’ve read a lot of books about how to become a better writer. Everyone has an opinion on the subject; after all, writing is a craft and an art. We give our lives to the pursuit of that fleeting spark of creation.  I’ve read so many articles and books on the subject, I’ve forgotten most of it because the messages are often contradictory. Authors love to talk about what works for themselves.  Free write or plan meticulously? Write everyday or let it come naturally? Plot first or characters first?

So who am I to tell you one way or the other on how to write better? I can’t.  Everyone is different. But I can filter the noise out. Worrying about the noise keeps you from the core practices that will actually improve your writing. No doubt, you already know these fundamental rules but you may not be putting them into practice. When revisited over and over, your writing will inevitably improve. The seven steps to improve your writing are common sense and they are generic enough to fit your own particular style.

Rule 1:    Read …a lot
                It always amazed me as a writing teacher that many of my adult students resisted reading under the mistaken notion that art comes magically from within. If you don’t love books, how can you possibly love to write? Read fiction, non-fiction, primary sources, poetry, picture books, scientific journals, nature guides. Read the classics. All of them. Cultivate your curiosity on as many subjects as possible. If you liked a book, figure out why you liked it. Not just because you liked the story, but what did the author do mechanically to draw you in?  If you hated a book, figure out why you hated it.  All of that said, you probably shouldn’t try to be the most well-read person in the world. You have to save some time for writing after all. So be careful what you read. Think of your reading habits the same way you think about food. You are what you eat.  Make the books you read count.

Rule 2:  Recommit yourself to grammar and vocabulary
                You are probably the best grammarian in your circle of family and friends. Maybe even the best speller. You probably have a better than average vocabulary. This isn’t good enough. Sorry. I feel your pain. What was the last book on grammar you’ve read? Grammar is the basic unit of communication. It is your paintbrush. Grammar and vocabulary are the tools of your trade. You better strive to master your tools. Don’t buy into the excuses (I don’t want to sound too technical and dry. I don’t want to force my readers to keep one hand on dictionary.com)  You cannot choose to write clear, smooth prose if you don’t know have the grammar skills to begin with. Conversely, you can’t be a rule breaker if you don’t know the rules. You will be imprisoned by your ignorance and you won’t even know it.

Rule 3: Hear yourself write
                One of the best skills I ever cultivated was hearing myself write. As you type on your computer or scrawl on your notebook, there is a voice inside your head whispering the words that you are writing.  Free your voice. Read what you write aloud. If you are embarrassed, go into another room and stuff a towel against the door. Read it aloud and listen to yourself. This dynamic is slightly different than simply writing and acknowledging the silent voice inside you. Your ears are the best editors you will ever have.  You will know if your writing is ringing true. One day, after months of reading aloud, you can let your voice go back inside. But let it speak loudly in there. And listen.


Rule 4: Don’t hold back
                How many books are you going to write in your life? That is right, you don’t know. Assume the book you are writing is the last book you will ever write. What is the point if you don’t let it all out? Don’t save something for the next book, even if you are writing a series.  Trust that inspiration will hit you again.


Rule 5: Be prepared to cut your favorite passages
                This falls under the rule of edit edit edit.  Of course you edit for grammar and syntax. Of course you edit for the flow of your writing. Sometimes though, you have to cut scenes. Sometimes, you have to cut your favorite scene, the scene where your artistic talents really shined. The scene that was supposed to be the entire reason you started writing your story in the first place. That is tough.  Your willingness to cut your favorite passages should be the measure of whether you are editing enough.


Rule 6: Live you life
                Experiencing real life is more important than reading another book. It is more important than any given session of writing. Real life feeds your art like nothing else can. It is sacred food that no one else in the world can eat.  Yes, you have to work hard. When things are really clicking, let them click as long as possible into the night. Writing makes obsessives of us all. But you have to work patiently. What is your hurry? You have time.  Go someplace you have never been. Eat at a new kind of food. Learn to surf. Over the long haul, this will keep your writing fresh and uniquely yours.  (Please note that “experiencing real life” does not mean watching television for six hours a day.)


Rule 7: Repeat 1-6
                I have been reminding myself of these rules for a long time. I suspect that no matter how experienced a writer you are, you could still gain value in revisiting these rules. Number 2 is the hardest for me. I have to force myself to review grammar rulebooks.  I still sometimes mess up on basic rules. If I let my guard down, I'll go off on some weird incoherent pathway. Number 5 might be your hardest. You might have to pay special interest to your ability to objectively edit your work.



What rules do you follow to improve your writing? Send me your ideas and I will add them to the list.




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