I will always tell people that anybody can write. In every workshop I’ve attended, in every class I’ve taken in Creative Writing, they all say the same thing: “Read well. Write a lot.”
It’s really the best advice that anyone can give you. The more you read, the more you discover how people use language. Your vocabulary increases, your understanding of how words are used grows, and some of this sticks. The quality of what you read directly influences your writing. If you read a lot of formal documents and formal essays, you tend to have a formal tone when you write. These things stick. It’s osmosis.
Writing a lot is important. I always tell people who ask for tips on how to write better is to constantly be writing — it can be e-mails or blog or even private journal — but you have to keep writing. It’s like a muscle; the more you work on it, the stronger it gets. You realise, when you write a lot, what words and phrases you use often. You can measure how your sentences trails along the paragraph. Do you write short sentences all the time? Is it apparent in everything you write? Do you fill your text with questions like “right?” or “what do you think?” And what do these questions do to your writing?
These are things you can see and figure out and adjust when you start taking writing seriously. So, yeah, there has to be an awareness at work when you look at your old writing; and you have to look at your old work so you can see what is effective and what makes your writing you.
Anyone can learn to write, really. Finding your voice is the tough part. Once you get your grammar in order, the rest should come easy.
These are tips I always give to non-professionals who ask me how to write better. I always add the joke: and get a good copy editor! Everybody laugh now. But it’s true, I’m horrible in spelling and grammar and I can rarely see the mistakes I make, especially since I’ve gotten accustomed to writing in heat. I pace around the room for hours and figure out in my head what I want to write and what I want to say and when it’s ready to burst forth, I get in front of my computer and I just start laying it all down in one go.
I make a whole lot of mistakes that way but the energy is there. Oftentimes, I can hear my voice coming out of the words. I can only do this because I’ve been doing this for over twenty years now — professionally and for my own personal joy. This blog is an example of me exercising and I write Twitter poems and Instagram poems every time an idea hits me. It keeps the muscle working.
In a more advanced level, I’d tell the writer asking for my tips is that they have to have something to say. Writing for the sake of, more often than not, doesn’t really create the tension and the friction that spark off the page. If you have nothing to say, if you have no issue or theme that you want to tackle and that you feel strongly about, then the writing process becomes a labor, a chore.
That’s why you have to be interested in things, in people, in culture and the arts. You have to engage in life so that you have things to write about. It’s why a lot of young writers tackle love (and even older writers) because that is always a prevailing issue that people want to get a handle on.
I remember a quote, I can’t remember who said it anymore (and I’m too lazy to Google), that said art doesn’t always answer questions, sometimes art is the question. I love this because, often enough, we write not because we know something that we want to share, but we want to explore an idea as fully as possible and put the question out there. The resolutions don’t always have to be clean and neat. It doesn’t always have to end happy. It doesn’t even have to resolve. The whole exercise of it is in the figuring out and digging deeper into the issue or the theme and then finding out, at the end, that you no even less than you did before and that makes for amazing writing, sometimes.
And then I come across this article on Facebook. Someone posted it on my wall and it really struck a nerve with me:
It was so strong and it made so much sense to me. It’s not just about procrastination but it’s also about education, the writing process, the writer’s ego, and basically, it’s about our confidence in our own skills.
Truly, the writers who succeed and who can make a profession out of writing do so not just because they have an innate talent in what they do (it actually doesn’t come easy for many writers, writing all the time) but it’s two things, really: they either feel confident about what they have to say or how they say it or, secondly, they have some thing to say that is so important to them, that they feel so strongly about, that they can’t do anything else but write it down.
It’s confidence, really. That’s what is key. It’s not your command of the language that makes you a great writer; it’s the conviction of what you feel you have to say and you being able to put it out there for people to read. Once you realise that being a writer isn’t about the big words or the capacity to write overdrawn sentences or being able to impress people with your knowledge of everything, then it becomes much, much easier. It helps when you believe in what you are trying to say.
Oftentimes, the most beautiful things are the simplest. Communication is key. That’s what writing is all about.
When you have that figured out and when you can get your momentum, then we can go off and start talking about technique and style and mellifluous words and the lofty use of language.
But first, if you want to write, read. Read a lot. And then write like hell. Write as if your life depended on it. And then engage the world and find something to write about it. Live with it in your head and your heart until what you’ve been dealing with has no other choice but to exist as something you’ve written.
That’s all it takes, really. That’s how I got to this point.