Monday, September 05, 2011

How To Become A Better Writer

I was asked to write this post by a dear and lovely housemate. She asked me this question over breakfast a few days ago and then asked me to write a post.

I feel completely inadequate to write down these thoughts even though one of the chiefest delights in my life is becoming a better writer and assisting others to do so.

Please also observe: all good advice was learned from somewhere else. Tips are things I've tried and found useful. Everything in bold is advise; anything else is a tip (unless I'm hating on "Twilight").

Read everything. Read magazines. Read newspapers. Read blogs. Read tweets. Read billboards. Read books (yes, whole ones). Read assigned textbooks. Read for fun. Read for school. Read stuff above your head and stuff you loved when you were in second grade. Read the book everyone is talking about. Read the book no one has ever heard of but your librarian (or some other swiftly forgotten marvelously knowledgable person) recommends. Read in genres you like and genres you don't like.

Writing without reading is like cooking without eating. And yes, it makes about that much sense.

Read Good Writing
Read Good Writing. Read it by recommendation. Read it carefully and thoroughly. While tastes vary, many authors will be recommended repeatedly. Look for people who read more than you do--especially in types of writing you enjoy or wish to emulate--and get their advise. If they advise "Twilight", dream bigger.

Read Like A Writer
Read for technique. Read for good sentences. Read for the sound. Read for the structure. Read for the logic. Read for the rhetoric. Read for the imagery. Read for the description. Read for cohesiveness. Read for the subtle details. Read to know the piece of writing from the inside out.

Tip: Use "Reading Like A Writer" by Francine Prose as a delightful guide. Used at various stages of college, both in and out of the classroom.

All. The. Time.

Don't wait until you receive Divine Inspiration. If you wait for inspiration to run that 5k or dance a smooth foxtrot: you won't. Ever. Your body will fail you and so will your pen.

Write this large in your heard and mind: "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly." -G. K. Chesterton.

Find Readers
I had a mentor my first year tell me that there are three kinds of writers and each person on earth needs one of each at any given moment. They can also be people who assume various roles (though the 1st typically stays consistent).
  1. The Fan. This person will love anything you write because you wrote it.
  2. Peer critic. Someone on a similar level who will challenge you as a peer reader
  3. Mentor critic. Someone more advanced who will challenge you as a seasoned writer/reader.
You will not and cannot get better unless you submit your work to other people to read. I would never have been the writer I was in college if my mother had not spent all of high school marking my papers with, "I don't understand what you're saying here." Someone needed to say it and she did.

A Necessary Clarification:
Allow me to conclue with a necessary caveat: not all writing is the same. Each genre has its own intended purposes and will use different techniques to achieve that goal. Good prose writing is not the same in journalism-in novels- in memoir- in how to -in [insert genre]. Writing well for the NYT is not the same as writing for the New Yorker or for the local newspaper or for your personal blog. However, the methods for getting there can be seen as the same.

Some Favorite Resources:
"Reading Like A Writer" by Francine Prose
"Bird by Bird" by Anne Lamott
"Shouts and Whispers" anthology
"Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies" by McEntyre
"Writers on Writing" NYT series
"Paris Review" interviews

1 comment:

Annie said...

i love this! i teach reading, recently got hired to be a writing coach, and will be writing about writing on my blog all through october. thus, i've been thinking a lot about it lately. i love that you listed some resources - i'll have to look into them! i'm always looking to improve my own writing as well as help others improve theirs.