This is advice that I need to remember as a writer. I’ve learned a lot about the process of writing over the last couple of months, so here are my Five Steps to Better Writing, retweeted by Random House.
“It is not enough merely to love literature, if one wishes to spend one’s life as a writer. It is a dangerous undertaking on the most primitive level. For, it seems to me, the act of writing with serious intent involves enormous personal risk. It entails the ongoing courage for self-discovery. It means one will walk forever on the tightrope, with each new step presenting the possibility of learning a truth about oneself that is too terrible to bear.” – Harlan Ellison (1934-)
1. Read until your eyes hurt. Exploring books will only improve your own writing. Don’t be scared that you may get too influenced by another work or author. Indulge in as many genres and styles as you can, particularly ones you haven’t delved into before, whether they are poetry, scripts, song lyrics or personal essays. “Just as composers go to concerts and artists visit galleries, writers read. You will learn, in the most enjoyable way, more about style and language from reading good literature than you will ever acquire from workshops and how-to books,” says creative writing lecturer Judith Barrington.
You can absorb knowledge from other writers: how they shape their narrative, where there is a change in tone and why, and how they pace a scene. Crime novelist George V. Higgins stated, “You can get what you need to write (as opposed to what you need to make a big nuisance of yourself at cocktail parties) by shutting yourself in a room by yourself for twenty minutes a day and reading aloud from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and going on from that to other works of skill, until you begin to see how much the choice and arrangement of the words contribute to the impact of the story.” Anything from old-time classics to recently published books on the market will serve as a guideline for you; if your aim is to get published, you can see in front of you what the standard of the craft is like. Reading will not only provide you with a goal, but with inspiration. “Read a lot of bad stuff, too. It’s very encouraging. ‘Hey, I can do so much better than this.’ Read the greatest stuff but read the stuff that isn’t so great, too. Great stuff is very discouraging,” believes playwright Edward Albee.
2. Commit to writing regularly. There’s nothing better than a quick free-writing session for creative stimulation. Sit down with a timer for ten minutes, twenty minutes, or half an hour, think of a couple of random words – “elephant”, “log”, “street” and “space”, for example – and just pick up your pen and write. It doesn’t matter what the content is, if you repeat I don’t know what to say for four lines, as long as you write something. Novelist William H. Gass recommends, “Pick a sentence at random from a randomly selected book, and another from another volume also chosen by chance, then write a paragraph which will be a reasonable bridge between them. And it does get easier to do what you have done, sing what you’ve so often sung; it gets so easy, sometimes, that what was once a challenge passes over into thoughtless routine.” You may glean a new idea for a script, a fascinating character that you want to explore, or even just get loosened up to dive into your work-in-progress. Regular free-writing sessions allow your thoughts to flow more quickly and give your imagination a real boost.
3. Try different styles of writing. Flirt with poetry, cheat with playwriting and indulge in prose. Only by testing your boundaries can you push them. Essayist and novelist Kurt Vonnegut claims, “Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.” Trying a new form will be refreshing and different, and your writing will benefit from the lack of familiarity. The renowned C.S. Lewis declared, “What you want is practice, practice, practice. It doesn’t matter what we write (at least, this is my view) at our age, so long as we write continually as well as we can. I feel that every time I write a page either of prose or of verse, with real effort, even if it’s thrown into the fire the next minute, I am so much further on.”
4. Edit until you cry. Snip a word, a sentence or a page if you don’t need them. Whether it’s the most beautiful piece of literature you’ve ever created or not, if it’s not needed, it’s not needed. Set up another Word document to paste your ‘gems’ into if you so wish. The process of editing is very difficult, particularly when you’re close to your work. Take a bit of space – perhaps a fortnight or even a few months if you can – away from your creation and you will see it with a clearer eye when you return.
Watch each sentence you write for a grammar slip or punctuation mishap. If you’re writing a novel, it will be tough going back through your first 20,000 words to spot a mistake. “Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates the argument. The picture dictates whether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hard or a dying-fall sentence, long or short, active or passive. The picture tells you how to arrange words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture,” says journalist Joan Didion.
Aside from being edited to within an inch of its life, your work needs to be snappy with subtle fluidity. Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov argues, “What lasts in the reader’s mind is not the phrase but the effect the phrase created: laughter, tears, pain, joy. If the phrase is not affecting the reader, what’s it doing there? Make it do its job or cut it without mercy or remorse.”
5. Get feedback from the professionals. Sign up for some writing classes. The group environment will do wonders for your confidence in your work. This is the perfect opportunity for honest evaluation. While your pieces will be critiqued and structured advice will be given, you will also be completely encouraged to pursue your literary dreams. Having a successful mentor cheering you on, combined with the support of your fellow students, can make you produce your best writing. Never, ever give up on your craft, even if you are rejected countless times like J.K. Rowling, William Golding, James Joyce, Beatrix Potter and Agatha Christie were before they became literary superstars.
Finally, remember this advice from William Faulkner: “A writer needs three things: experience, observation and imagination, any two of which – at times, any one of which – can supply the lack of others.”