Advice for Writers II

Back in the UK with Internet access again, so let’s get on with part two of this series.

Rule Two: Improve

Most writers don’t just want to be writers, they want to be good writers. While writing something is satisfying, writing something that you feel is good is much more so.

Unfortunately, while the first rule I could give you guys was an ‘anyone can do this’ rule, this second rule isn’t. The truth is that no-one has a magic formula for producing good writing. Lots of people will give you descriptions of what makes writing good – characters, plot, textual quality, etc – but it’s generally of the form ’this is what’s good’, not ‘this is how you do it’. Partly this is because, in most cases, people don’t know how to do it, but I also suspect it’s because the people giving the advice don’t want to come out and say that it requires things that the listener might not have.

Before I get into the steps you’ll need to improve, I’ll briefly touch on some abilities and traits that will help. Note that these are all things that will help: they’re not a substitute for actually doing the work. But they do make a difference.

Introversion: Writing is a solitary activity. You have to be comfortable with your own company; if you aren’t happy on your own, you’ll have trouble with the long stretches of solitude that the job requires.

A good memory: Writing a book is a lot like assembling a giant three-dimensional puzzle where you have to make the pieces as you go along. The better you can visualise the whole thing and remember what you’ve done and are planning to do, the easier it is.

Self-discipline: There’s a stereotype that artists are flighty drifters. While it doesn’t come from nowhere, professional artists generally combine that with a fair amount of strength of will. When you sit down to write, the only one who can make you do the work is you.

Motivation: Writing is hard. If there isn’t something pretty strong driving you, you’ll find it hard to ever get beyond a book’s first chapter, much less finish it. This is probably the most important of the four.

So assuming you’ve got at least some of those things, what should you be doing?

Read: If you don’t read, there’s not much point writing. Reading is how you learn sentence structure, new vocabulary, and how to plot and lay out a chapter, and it’s one of the main places you find ideas for new stories and new characters. It means you don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel.

Of all the bits of advice, this is probably the most unnecessary one. Most writers don’t need to be told to read: they do a vast amount of it on their own time, and it’s a big part of the reason they want to write in the first place.

Write: To get better you have to practice, and the best way to practice is to start a piece of writing and finish it. The finishing part is important. Lots of writers start novels and then abandon them, but you learn far more from finishing a story than you do from starting one; there are all kinds of little details that you only find out about when you’re halfway through.

Edit: This is a tricky one. Rewriting and editing a piece of writing that you’ve already finished will (the great majority of the time) make it better. However, in my personal experience, editing something you’ve already done won’t make you a better writer: the only way to do that is to start something new. In most cases I think editing and rewriting are only worthwhile if you’re going to publish (or try to publish) the piece afterwards. Editing is a necessary skill, but one you’ll get plenty of practice with.

You might have noticed that all the advice I’ve given so far is solitary. What about getting help from other people, in the form of writers’ groups, or editorial critiques, or creative writing courses? Are those worth doing?

The short answer is maybe. In my experience, if you’re trying to become a professional writer, advice or instruction from other people can be helpful but isn’t necessary. If you want to get a specific book published, then good editorial advice is very important. However, when it comes to improving as a writer, you’re largely on your own. You can try to get help, but you’ll probably learn just as much (if not more) from going off and starting another book.

Next week, we’ll get into the nuts and bolts of getting something published.

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2 Responses to Advice for Writers II

  1. Faragorn says:

    By the way, Brandon Sanderson and some colleagues have a podcast series called Writing Excuses where they discuss various aspects of becoming a professional writer.