- There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
That was a somewhat cynical view of the craft of writing. Sometimes I feel like they are not too far off the mark.
Despite that, we can but try to work out what this writing game is all about, and how to achieve with a moderate amount of success. In another life I was a classroom teacher for 35 years; near the end of that career I often said that I’d finally worked what this teaching thing is all about. I’m convinced that writing is the same; many years of practice is what it takes to discover what this writing thing is all about, and how it works.
Despite Somerset Maugham’s cynicism, there are some basic universal rules one can apply to all writing in order to improve it. An article appeared on ProBlogger a few days ago which addresses this very issue, with some commonsense rules to apply to every piece of writing to make it better – or even the best you can do. A worthy aim with all your writing after all.
You can read the article here: 5 Universal Writing Rules
You can read more on this topic by clicking on the links below.
Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.
As writers we need to be writing on a regular basis. I could almost guarantee that Tiger Woods practises his golfing skills on a daily basis. All professional sportsmen and women spend countless hours going over the basics, time and time again, day after day. Actors, dancers and musicians rehearse, rehearse and then rehearse some more. I’ve read that it takes ten thousand hours to become truly proficient at any skill.
Write every day.
This is the only way to hone those skills, to learn how language works, to iron out any problems you may have and to discover your voice.
Here is a quick and simple list of writing activities you could do on a regular basis to exercise those writing muscles. You can probably think of dozens of other ideas. Share them in the comments section.
A very short list of 30 writing exercises:
- Write a few paragraphs in your journal today.
- Write a list of the things you really like.
- Write a list of writing goals for this week.
- Start writing a blog.
- Write ten sentences about your childhood.
- Write a paragraph about your first pet.
- Make a list of the things that annoy you.
- Describe the smells that make you happy.
- Write three paragraphs about your best friend.
- Describe what you can see out through the nearest window.
- Write a letter to a family member who lives far from away from you.
- Write about your favourite fruit.
- Describe the most frightening experience you’ve ever had.
- Write about the happiest day of your life.
- Describe how to make your favourite meal.
- Make a list of the places you would like to visit.
- In twenty words (or less), tell the story of your favourite movie.
- Write a character sketch of your favourite fictional character.
- Make a list of the twenty best books you’ve ever read.
- Describe the smells that make you hungry.
- Write an email to a friend or family member.
- Describe the scariest movie or television show that you’ve ever seen.
- Write a letter of protest to your local paper.
- Write about a time you were terribly embarrassed.
- Write about your favourite toy (even if you are getting on in years).
- Write a list of the ways in which you would change the world.
- Write a list of things you like to do alone.
- What things really bother you?
- Describe the most dangerous thing you have ever done.
- Who is your hero – and why?
A Note to Teachers:
The list above is a great starting point for writing activities for your students. Give them a go and let me know how they go. You may copy the entire list for classroom use.
- Short story starters – an archive of dozens of ideas for short story writing.
‘You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you’re working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success – but only if you persist.’
This is one of my failings.
Guilty as charged.
I write, write, write and have no trouble churning out stories and poems and articles. Then they just sit quietly on my computer hard drive or as a printout in a folder. I don’t have a problem with blog posts, but when it comes to sending off my other writing to publishers or to competitions I am sadly lacking.
I think the problem stemmed from a period several years ago when I did send out quite a few pieces to various competitions and print publishers. In a very short period of time I had many dozens of rejections and not a single acceptance. I am talking about more than 30 rejections over a short space of time. It messed with my mind. I became discouraged and subsequently depressed.
I really haven’t fully recovered, which is silly I know. The only way to get published is to send out your best writing.
And when the inevitable rejections come, the story, article, poem or novel needs to go out to another potential publisher. Sometimes the piece needs rewriting, severe editing or other forms of improvement, especially if the previous editor you sent it to gives feedback along these lines. There is no other way.
Note to self: submit those manuscripts!
Note to wife (if she reads this): Yes dear, I will send them off. Promise.
“Words need to be crafted, not sprayed. They need
to be fitted together with infinite care.”
~ Norman Cousins
When I am writing a short story, novel or blog post I generally just blaze away with the writing, trying to get down the ideas or story before it escapes.
After finishing, I go back over the text and edit, edit, edit until I’ve ironed out all of the spelling mistakes, typos, grammatical blunders and missing or wrongly used punctuation. All in a day’s work.
Then starts the interesting stage: rewriting.
Some sentences or even whole paragraphs or passages just don’t work, they don’t sing, they lack sparkle. They are limping along barely able to support themselves, let alone adding to the story. (Notice that last sentence? Originally I had ‘dead in the water.’ Shoot those over worked cliches. )
I used to hate rewriting. Now I look forward to the process because I know that it will certainly add so much to my writing.
When writing poetry you are faced with a totally different world.
- Poetry is concise; there is no room for waffle.
- Poetry is precise; it has to use the exact right word in the right place.
- Poetry is concentrated language; every word must count.
- Poetry must be ‘carefully crafted’ and not words sprayed at random.
- Poetry must consist of words ‘fitted together with infinite care.’
To approach poetry in any other way is not only careless, it is laziness.
“Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics
is like asking a lamp-post how it feels about dogs.”
~ Christopher Hampton
The writer of the above quote has obviously had a few poor, perhaps even devastating experiences with critics. His statement is therefore quite understandable.
Over the years I have had a few critics of my writing. Nothing as distressing as to make a statement like that, but disappointing at the time. The important thing about critics is one’s reaction to their criticisms. Most writers I suspect are like me and have a difficult time remembering that the critic is talking about your writing, not you. To depersonalise the criticism and then to take a cold, hard look at the criticism is often the path to becoming a far better writer.
This idea has been drummed into me over the past year while I have been working on my Master of Arts in Creative Writing. Most pieces of writing, be that non-fiction, fiction or poetry, that we were asked to produce had to be presented at a workshop. The lecturers, tutors and fellow students were the critics. Having your writing critiqued like this was very confronting at first.
After a few sessions I became very comfortable with the process. I quickly discovered that I could no longer be precious about what I wrote. If ten other people are all saying that something stinks, I’d better rewrite it. We often get too close to our work. It becomes ‘our baby.’ How dare anyone say anything negative about it!
If, however, only one or two people say something is not working, I learned to listen, look at the issue raised and then make a decision on whether I needed to rewrite. Often I would make minor changes, sometimes I went with my gut feeling and left it unchanged. The final decision was always mine as the author.
Critics and critique groups can play a very important role in helping writers improve the quality of their writing. I’d encourage all writers to find one or several trusted people they can use to critique their work. Family and close friends are not recommended, unless they are writers themselves. Unless they truly understand what is at stake they are better left out of the equation until the work is published. Then encourage them to buy a copy.