Tuesday, June 14, 2011
3 Ways to Be a Better Writer
People (meaning aspiring writers) often wonder if writing can be taught, and how much, or if its something you either have or you don't. I've been wondering about this quite a bit lately, basically because I've felt like I've reached a sort of plateau in my writing career, and have been looking for ways to revitalize my writing and give it an extra boost.
Here's how I see it. I think a person has to have a certain amount of instinct to see what works and what doesn't, and how to create things that lean more towards the working side, and a lot of that has to come naturally. But I think more can be taught then people realize or expect. If you're looking for ways to improve your writing, as we all should be, here are three things that I think can make all the difference.
1. Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, and read. Oh yeah, and read. Even if you have little or no natural instinct about good writing, reading great literature from an early age can pretty much teach you all you need to know as far as that goes. I can't think of a better way to learn than by watching a master at his craft. This is advice you'll get from EVERY writer giving advice, and for good reason. I think most of us are voracious readers, but I want to expand the definition of that phrase. Read people and experiences and life and other kinds of art. They all have things to teach and stories to tell. Be voracious about everything.
2. Know the rules. Notice I said "know", not "follow" necessarily. Read all the good writing books out there (yes, more reading). On Writing, Elements of Style, Writing the Breakout Novel, all give super great and logical advice. Know the knit-picky rules about adverbs and dialog tags and grammar and cliches. Know the rules, know how to use them, and then do whatever you want. The rules are there for a reason, but they are tools, not chains. You can even break the rules in a bad way and still be not only published but incredibly successful. *ahem* stephanie meyer *ahem*.
3. Get to that thing at your deepest core. This one's a bit harder to explain, but please bare with me. See, the reading and writing rules are all well and good, but that only takes you so far, and its in going beyond that things get very personal. You can have a grammatically impeccable story based on Shakespeare, Dickens, AND Dostoevsky and still have it feel flat and meaningless. The reason Shakespeare and Dickens and Dostoevsky reach us so powerfully is because they let themselves be vulnerable and never let up in their dig into the deepest recesses of human nature. I'm being abstract, and I hope you don't mind if I use myself as an example to help get more specific. Like I said, this is where it gets personal and I can't think of another way explain.
Here's what I mean by "thing" at your deepest core. Everybody has something, a subject or emotion that shakes you and impacts you in a greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts kind of way. So, my example: I've got a sister who is 18 months younger than me. She is gorgeous and smart and incredibly talented and organized and is one of those make their bed even on Sundays kind of people. She is kind and generous and has always been able to make friends easily, at least so it appears to me. Not so easy for me. In elementary school there were a couple of years when I had to wear hearing aids, and I remember a time when she had a friend over, and I was sort of tagging along until the friend pulled me aside and told me she just wasn't used to playing with kids with hearing aids. So I went and read a book. Obviously that experience and the emotions and thoughts and ideas about myself that come from that kind of thing have stuck with me like a barnacle, and shaped me in ways both good and not so good.
When I took my first creative writing class in junior high, my relationship with my sister, my feelings of inferiority (my problem, not hers), that was the main fodder I had to work with. It took a while, a few years even, for my teachers to get it out of me, because being that personal and vulnerable and honest can hurt. Even writing the hearing aids story in this blog post twinges a little bit. Fortunately I had teachers who knew how to get it out of me, who were patient and had more confidence in me then I had in myself, and who knew that utter honesty and vulnerability and self-exploration are what make for good writing. Even when I don't write about sibling comparison or self-confidence issues directly, the experience of feeling something and being impacted by it deeply gets you to a point where you can better understand and sympathize with all the other human emotions and human nature in general, and that makes your characters and stories and what you have to say something everyone else can relate to. Universal.
Everyone has something. You probably were thinking of your core issue as you read this. I'm still learning to not be afraid of it, and use it to reach other people. That's the key: if you can get to that core point then you can write from your core, and your writing will have a ring of truth and the superficial, cliche and abstract dilutions will be gone. It can be a little painful, but it is so helpful and worth it, and even personally can be so cathartic and refreshing. Do you have a barnacle?
I hope this makes sense and that it helped at least a little. Any other ideas for becoming a better writer?