Archive for May 15th, 2011

Advice from writers is always suspect. More often than not, the advice is only what the person giving it would do, and there are several alternatives that would work just as well. That means that would-be writers really need to read several pieces of advice on the same topic before deciding what the best approach for them might be.

All the same, a time arrives for many writers when they are moved to give advice. This is my time, and I can only hope that my experience teaching first year university students how to write helps to make my advice a little more universal than most such efforts.

At any rate, for better or worse, here are seven things that I wish someone had told me when I first started writing that I think are likely to be true for most writers:

  • Read widely: How else can you know what has been done and what people think is possible? (they may be wrong, of course). Genre writers in particular need to read outside their chosen genre if they want to do more than produce a mid-list book that will fit one of a publisher’s monthly slots then disappear forever.
  • Hard work is more reliable than inspiration or natural talent: Inspiration is wonderful when it hits, but, by definition it rarely does. Working regularly, regardless of inspiration, produces far more writing than inspiration. Writing, it turns out, is like anything else: The more you do it, the easier it becomes. That’s why so many people tell you to write daily. The same goes for natural talent, too: I have seen many writers and artists of all sorts who had natural talent fail to produce anything memorable and many initially less talented writers and artists who succeed through their determination to improve.
  • Structure is more important than style: Learning how to turn a clever phrase, or even a clever paragraph, is relatively easy. Most people can learn it in a matter of a few months. By contrast, understanding structure – what needs to be said, in what order – takes years before you gain even a basic competence. A large part of the problem is that it is hard to teach, and therefore is rarely taught. Another part of the problem is that the language to discuss it often doesn’t exist (film scripts sometimes come close, but there are things you do in writing that you can’t on film). Consequently, you need to study the structure of what you admire and loath by yourself. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize the need.
  • Writing and editing are two different functions: Writing is largely intuitive and unanalytical, while editing is logical and thoughtful. Both are needed to create a piece of writing, but trying to do both at the same time only makes both harder, because you are are always stopping and starting. Except when you realize that you are completely on the wrong track, try to relax your efforts at editing when you are writing, especially in the first draft. You’ll make the process much easier on yourself.
  • Don’t worry about style: Concentrate instead on writing as well as you can. Style is the by-product of effective writing, not an end in itself. Focus on expressing yourself as well as you can, and your style will soon emerge.
  • Only the anal-retentive obsess about grammar: A writer by definition should have a better than average knowledge of the language that they write in. However, that does not mean that they need to be experts in grammar. Grammar matters when you submit a manuscript, because you want to create the best first impression possible with an editor or agent. But, until then, worry about making what you write effective. Until then, obsessing about grammar is like worrying about the wrapping on a present, or the transitions in a slide show instead of the contents.
  • You can’t please everyone: No matter how good a writer you are, nothing you write will ever please everyone. Often, some people will love and hate your work for the same quality. The reason is that everyone brings expectations and experiences to writing that are beyond your control, and very few people can distinguish between what they like and what is well-written. If most people say the same thing about a piece of writing, then they are probably right, but if one or two say something, you’re just seeing the variety of reactions to your work

Almost certainly, there are more useful pieces of advice that I could give. However,these seven points are enough to start with. Understand them and make them part of your approach to writing, and you’ll be well on your way to being a professional writer. Chances are, too, that you will have saved yourself years of development.

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