On Writing and How to Write, in Brief

Writing is tough.  I’ve been doing it for years, and from experience, I can tell you that only the most superficial elements of it get any easier.  Like any skill or craft, the more you do it, the easier certain technical aspects become; the real art of it, though—the purpose behind each piece—remains just as difficult to develop after fifteen years as it did at first.  Anyone who makes claims to the contrary is either pulling your leg, trying to sell you something, or is a uniquely terrible writer.

I’ve known a number of writers personally.  None of them were famous writers, a couple of them have been published, and one of them may one day be syndicated.  All of them wrote more or less the same stuff: some form of fantasy—usually urban fantasy.  I don’t read urban fantasy, and if you’ve been reading QNUW for a while, you can probably guess my thoughts on the genre.  That said, these people wrote.  4-5k words a day, minimum.  Granted, both of them were about one degree removed from unemployment, so they had some time on their hands.  But still; even with my various projects, that’s about what I write a week, so don’t feel bad if you aren’t churning out twenty pages of crap a day.

They claimed that they were able to write so much for a couple of reasons: a) they made specific time every day to simply write whatever came to mind, so the exercise became habit, and b) they were storytellers which meant that the words just flowed onto the page.  There are good and bad things to take from both of these tips.

Firstly, if you’re going to write, you really do have to make time to do it.  Writing is a skill like any other.  You aren’t going to get good at violin if you don’t take a regular amount of time every day to practice your scales, rhythms, exercises, and a few run-throughs of whatever piece you’re working on.  Writing may not have scales or exercises, but it does have grammar and diction.  The first way to improve your grasp of grammar is, of course, to practice using it.  A lot.

It’s pretty common to see enthusiastic new writers today just speed right on into the act while lacking a decent foundation in grammar.  “Rules are meant to be broken!” they proclaim.  What they’re really saying is “I’m too lazy to learn how to do things right!”  It’s true that writers have license to make things interesting; a piece’s tone, after all, is decided primarily according to how the writer plays around with his language, what sort of grammar he uses, and what words he throws into it.  But there’s a difference between amateurishly-babbled word salad written by a sixteen-year-old on deviantart and a conversationally-worded snarky critique written by a pro.  One of them knows how to convey exactly what he’s trying to get across.  The other is just spewing his own ego into a word processor.

One other thing: MS Word’s grammar check is light-years behind as AI technology goes.  Don’t believe anything it says.  Get yourself the Little, Brown Handbook, take a basic course on grammar in school, or just use any number of online internet guides that are probably available for free.  You’ll see progress so quickly that your old work will be revealed within a year’s time to be the unreadable cringe that it is.

Secondly: storytellers do exist.  Some people can make it look easy when they’re just spewing words out onto the page.  Don’t be fooled, though: the people that are really good at that aren’t just smart, they’re also voracious readers, and they don’t consider it necessarily easy.  The people that claim to do it effortlessly are almost always hacks.

You can only write well what you already read a lot of.  Writing, be it nonfiction or fiction, requires three things: a) understanding of the language—that’s the technical skill discussed above, b) insight into the subject on which you write, and c) the ability to connect b) with a).  You gain insight into your subject by studying it, and there are all sorts of ways of doing that.  Living in your subject, as field journalists and some fiction writers do, counts as among the best methods, if also usually the most uncomfortable.  You can also study your subject through reading about it.  If you’re writing on AI technology in order to write a critical attack on Microsoft for even including a grammar check function, then you’d better be reading up on contemporary AI research and slogging through the pages of scientific studies, in addition to looking into the philosophical writings that have been done in the past fifty years on the subject.  If you’re writing about the human condition—as many fiction writers claim to—well, you’ve got a few thousand years of artistic canon, philosophy, and literature to catch up on, so get cracking.

Reading serves a second purpose, too.  It is not meant purely as a form of research for you to better understand your subjects—it helps you understand the grammar you need to use in order to explain your subject to your audience.  Reading, perhaps even more than the raw analytical study of grammar, presents to you the building blocks of communication.  If you don’t read, you won’t just have very little of value to say, you’ll have even fewer ways of saying it.

There’s something else that distinguishes the high school creative writing assignment B- student from the seasoned Pulitzer-prize winner: experience.  Experience is what helps you foster the insight you need to actually have interesting things to say.  A writer should work as more than a writer.  He should learn as much as he can about a variety of different subjects, taking every opportunity to get hands-on experience whenever possible.  And if no opportunities present themselves, he should create the opportunities.  As such, the writer must be willing to learn.  Writing, much like artistry of any other sort, suffers when the writer puts too much of himself before his writing.  Egoism in prose reveals an inward-looking and immature soul that lacks the insight to communicate anything meaningful, so in the effort to say anything at all, it begins with “I”s and “me”s and never progresses beyond “I feel” and “I think”.  By virtue of writing, your audience can already infer that this is what you feel or think.  But the audience will only be interested in you if the ideas you bring to the table are worth their contemplation.  You have to prove that your words are worth reading.

Opinions are not innately valuable things—everyone has an opinion, and if you think yours is somehow better because it’s yours, you’re delusional.  You have to make your opinion worth more than other people’s opinions.  The only way to do that is to make it a better opinion.  Be more knowledgeable, have better wit, and instill more insight into it.  Writing, after all, is little more than the gurgitation of your own opinions, usually mixed with character and story, or in the cases of nonfiction, facts and data.  But it all must be compiled and cohesively presented.  A journalist with a poorly-developed opinion unintentionally misleads his readers, and a fiction author with a poorly-developed opinion writes little more than his own various escapist fantasies.  Maybe the journalist has rhetorical chops to keep his job, and maybe the fiction author has a rich and expansive fantasy life that other people want to escape to, but neither will end up being remembered for anything other than publishing a few rags.  There’s no staying power in escapism, and there’s always a fresh supply to satisfy that market.  Stories that really get at the heart of the human condition, however, are becoming increasingly hard to find, since even the modern ones that claim to do so are little more than the egoistic pissings of nihilistic sociopaths.  We can thank the culture for that.

So if you want to write, make sure you want to write well.  Keep it interesting.  Keep yourself interesting.  Don’t get complacent.  Every free moment you spend not writing or learning about something is a moment you’ll never get back.

2 thoughts on “On Writing and How to Write, in Brief

Add yours

  1. Thanks plenty! This is about the best writing advice I have got.

    In your writing, I have received correction, directions and challenge to write better.

    I will like to have any writing advice you share in the web.

    If you notify me, I will be glad.

    God blessed you real good!


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