Advice to writers, from writers, by a writer

October 4th, 2012

In an age when we are constantly using the broken language of texting and email, it’s important that we don’t totally lose the craft of writing altogether. With books like “50 Shades of Grey” flying off the shelves like hotcakes, I worry about the future of good prose writing.

A few weeks ago, my fellow columnist, Dan Cooney, wrote a column about how young people are losing the ability to write well, but what he failed to do was tell those young people what might help boost their writing to the next level. He probably left it to me, because he assumed that I would be able to do it better.

I don’t claim to be a great writer. Heck, some of you may hate my writing; but I have written a lot, and I’ve read a lot, and in the process of doing so, I have learned a lot about writing.

Most of what I’ve learned about writing I’ve learned from other writers. Since their livelihood depended on their ability to write, I assume they have some knowledge about the craft.

The most important thing to make sure you do when you’re just starting to write is to set time aside to write. Write a little every day, even if you have to force yourself and even if you hate what you’ve written. John Updike, author of “Run, Rabbit,” among others, said, “Even though you have a busy life, try to reserve an hour say – or more – a day to write. Some very good things have been written on an hour a day … so take it seriously.”

I know that for a young person, an hour a day is a lot. You’re busy, I realize that; so make it a half-hour. Write for 15 minutes if that’s all that you can squeeze in. But try to write every day. For some people, writing is a God-given gift; but for many of us, it takes a lot of practice. Treat your writing like it is a sport or a musical instrument. Give it the time it deserves.

Don’t type things. Write them. Hemingway wrote 37-plus endings to “A Farewell to Arms.” He didn’t go back and delete something he didn’t like. He saved it. You should do the same. You’ll learn a lot about your own writing process this way, which, in turn, will make you a better writer. I know that it’s hard when you have so much technology right at your fingertips, but you think so much more about what you have to say when you can’t “backspace.”

This is especially important if you’re trying to write prose. If you have an essay to write for a class, it’s okay to type it out, but I do recommend writing down at least a few major points, or writing and re-working your thesis with paper and pencil. When you write, you’re more physically engaged in the work, making you more mentally engaged as well.

Write the truth. The most readable things are true. Hemingway said, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” If you can do that, you can write anything. Sometimes novice writers operate under the notion that the more far-fetched, the better. This is not necessarily true. You have to write about what you know. You can’t try to make a reader understand something that you don’t understand yourself.

Carry around a small journal, and write down anything that strikes you: the way a person talks, a random act of kindness; feelings, sights, smells, things that bother you, quirks that you notice about others. Other people are fascinating. Observe them. It’s not creepy, it’s strictly business. Be a sponge to your environment; soak in everything. Remember what Emerson said about the transparent eyeball – “I am nothing, I see all.” I want you to be that transparent eyeball.

I think that sometimes young writers get the misconception that by reading a lot, you can learn all you have to about writing. Reading helps (in my case, it helped a lot) but it isn’t a substitute for actual writing. You never want your writing to sound exactly like someone else’s writing. If there were 15 writers who all sounded like F. Scott Fitzgerald or Kurt Vonnegut, then the originals would lose their uniqueness. Strive to be original.

Overall, the most important thing to do to aid your writing is to just live and have experiences. Whether they are good or bad, they might make a story. The famed Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky said, “But how could you live and have no story to tell?” If you live your life truly and fully, the words will come, as long as you let them.