How to Become a Better Writer: Live to Write

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How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.
~ Henry David Thoreau

 

Inexperience is ambitious and time and again, we need to remind inexperienced writers to write about things they know. No matter what genre you write in, the essence of everything you write is based on life. Whether it is an observation of human behavior or a moving description of a place or an event, you cannot write about it from mere observation as well as you can from living the experience. That’s not to say you can’t live or experience things vicariously. A skillful writer might be able to convince readers that they know what they are writing about intimately. It’s similar to a thespian or film actor assuming a character they are not. We know the best actors often immerse themselves in real life situations, studying real people, trying out their characters’ lives when possible, doing what their characters did to replicate the experience, attitude, behavior, feelings, and reactions as realistically as possible. It’s the difference between the beginning of film when everything was filmed inside a studio and you could tell actors were faking the experience and movies today, when you have an actor like Leonardo diCaprio spending days in sub-zero Canadian weather and actually jumping into freezing Canadian waters (despite not being Polar Bear dipping time) to achieve his award-winning portrayal of a revenant in the 2015 film of that title. It’s why a writer who hasn’t experienced any gut-wrenching events will have a harder time convincing readers of the truth of pain, suffering, love, ecstasy, betrayal, and other powerful emotions they’ve never felt. It’s why writers need to experience life in all its diversity and uncertainty, because it’s the only way they can create characters readers will identify with. Settings can easily be recreated, even if you haven’t been to the place, and the ubiquitousness of videos online showing places, people, and events in every imaginable location around the world helps provide writers with fuel for the imagination and for their descriptions. It’s what runs inside people’s heads and hearts that is harder to describe. In fact, even if you have experienced something first-hand, you might not be able to find the words to describe the feelings that rush through you. That is where the writer’s skill and talent comes. Writers are able to find the words to describe the complex emotions that the average person finds indescribable. More skilled wordsmiths find dozens of ways to describe those emotions, besides having a hefty vocabulary, without sounding dogmatic or condescending. The ability to manipulate language to express myriad emotions and experiences, then draw readers into their little worlds and want to be with their characters, is what makes some writers rise above others. That mastery of language and writing comes with much practice—something most young or inexperienced writers will not have. Not that I’m advocating trying out every single thing just so you can write about, even if we know how some writers were brilliant because of mind-enhancing substances. All you need is to keep an open mind, be a keen and avid observer of details, and write, write, write. The sooner you begin, the longer your writing career.

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On Writing: Voice and Theme

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To gain your own voice, you have to forget about having it heard. —Allen Ginsberg, WD

 

Some amateur writers launch into writing with a purpose, the determination to be heard by sharing their knowledge with the world and hoping to impart their ‘wisdom’ through their works. This might be fine when writing non-fiction, although it could border on preaching. As a writer, you might sometimes feel you are full of ideas that you need to share and want to share, so you try to cram everything you have to say about just about every topic under the sun into your writing. This results in several problems, the first being that the writer’s personality projects onto everything written and the whole tone of the work, including the characters, take on the writer’s personality. This eventually becomes boring and leads to bad writing because there is no distinction between characters, nor between the characters and the narrator, nor the works and the author, especially if the author has more than one work. One of the most difficult things to do, as a writer, is to achieve distance between you and your work, so that your work becomes an entity that is not you, the writer. One way to solve this problem is to learn to focus. Each piece of writing you create should focus on a single theme if it is a short piece, or a very limited selection of related themes for longer pieces. The less themes you include in your work, the more focused it becomes; limiting yourself to one theme automatically gives your work unity of theme. Many times, in fact, it is better to write a work of fiction without thinking of a theme first, because the actions and choices of your characters will carry the theme and neither you, as a writer, nor your narrator, will need to worry about sending any message at all. In many great works, the protagonist often personifies the theme or message the author wants to convey, and it is the protagonist whose words, actions, and thoughts say whatever it is the author wants said. The ability to do that creates a voice, the author does not need to explain any further.

Be like a mosquito!

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Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will none the less get something that looks remarkably like it.

~Jack London, “Getting Into Print,” 1905

Inspiration is never the only way to start writing. If every writer depended solely on inspiration, then there would be much less literature out there. Writing starts with writing. Like any other trade, writing takes skill and practice which beget expertise. Granted, there are writers with a knack for churning out copious amounts of writing, they certainly were not born that way. They started with writing words, then sentences, then stories—simple, sophomoric ideas that became more sophisticated as they gained yet more skill, experience, and knowledge. What a writer must rather have is an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, never-ending patience, and the persistence of PEI mosquitoes. With enough perseverance, a skilled writer can become a master and a bad piece of writing can be re-crafted and revised over and over again until it is so unlike the original work it can be quite the gem. No diamond ever adorned a woman so gracefully that was not cut and polished into refinement and glory by the most patient of craftsmen. That is precisely because the writer is a craftsman, cutting, refining, polishing, until the roughest work is a masterpiece worthy of inclusion in the canons of great literature.

Cindy’s Rules for Writers #8

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Rule #8

Rest before editing a long or complex written work. When you finish writing, set it aside. After a day or two, read it again. This is a good time to check for spelling and punctuation errors. Once that task is done, set it aside and work on other projects for about a week or two, at least. This time, read it for sentence structure, word usage, consistency and other grammatical problems. Work on correcting those then leave your work. After another week or two, read it for style and flow, and improve on those. Once you are done, you might select a few trusted and capable friends to read your work for you. “Capable” is very important here because you want someone with a keen eye for details, a good grasp of language, and familiarity with good literature. Listen to comments and suggestions objectively. Don’t argue any points with them, rather, ask for clarification if you wish. If you argue with them, you might put them off and they will not be willing to read for you any more. Instead, check your work and see if you agree with their comments and suggestions. If you do, make the changes. If you don’t, you can either ignore those suggestions or get a second opinion. Or,you can simply use the suggestions to guide you in making changes the way you want.

Not all writers will need to go through this process over several weeks or even months, but if you are new to writing complex works, it might be best to follow this editing and revising process. As you become more skilled as a writer, your style will develop and your work will flow smoothly. Nevertheless, you will still want to consult a reader, proofreader, or editor if you know you have certain weaknesses, such as seeing your own mistakes.

Cindy’s Rules for Writers #7

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Rule #7

Don’t worry about mechanics at the start. If you worry about the mechanics or technical aspects of writing from the onset, you will most likely get bogged down and lose your trend of thought. What are the mechanics you shouldn’t worry about at the start? Spelling, punctuation, usage, sentence structure, and typographical errors. These are things that you can always go back to after you’ve put all your ideas down on the page. Many famous writers owe their editors for the polish and cleanness of their works. I even have it on good word that some popular writers can’t spell very well! What is important is to get the ideas written. Your ideas are what make your work original and interesting. Remember first and foremost that you are a writer and not a proofreader or an editor.

Cindy’s Rules for Writers #6

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Rule #6

Compare. Pick any one thing to write about and make as many comparisons as you can. This is good for helping you to develop original metaphors that you can later use to create extended metaphors. It doesn’t matter if you start with a few cliches, because once you get those out of the way, you will have to start thinking of new ways of comparing things. If you have a hard time starting, start with obvious things, then move on to the less obvious. It’s okay to stretch the comparison. You’ll be stretching your imagination as well!

Cindy’s Rules for Writers #5

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Rule #5

Imitate. One of the best ways to learn how to do something is to imitate someone who does it well. There are so many great writers out there to imitate and emulate. Get some poems you like then write your own version. Read a short story and write your own version. Replace the details in your model with details that you are familiar with. Remember, however, that imitation is not copying someone’s work, changing a couple of words or names here and there, and passing it off as your own. That’s plagiarism and you don’t want to get caught doing that. One of my favourite imitation exercises is getting the witches’ brew rhyme from Shakespeare’s Macbeth then letting students think of someone they would like to create a potion for, whether a love potion or a curse, then write it. Try it. It’s fun.

Cindy’s Rules for Writers #4

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Rule #4

Read. Everyday, whenever you have a bit of time, read. Not just anything, although that is good for a different reason, but the kind of writing that you want to do. If you want to be a journalist, read newspapers and magazines. If you want to be a novelist, read novels. If you want to be a poet, read poetry. Not just a little, but a lot. Get to know different styles of writing. Read works by great writers that you can model your writing after. Yes, I believe a lot of what you learn as a writer can happen by osmosis–in this case, just reading a lot of excellent writing–because you remember a bit of what you read (if your memory is better, you’ll remember a lot!), and what you remember will seep into your writing. But don’t just read excellent writing. Read the really bad writing too, and those in between. If you can distinguish the bad writing from the good writing, you’ll be able to apply that to your writing. You will know when your writing is good and when it is bad. You will learn how to avoid the bad writing and write better. I’m willing to bet that no good writer ever became good at writing without having reading a lot. What are you waiting for? Go get something to read!

Cindy’s Rules for Writers #3

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Rule #3

Write about something you don’t know. Admit it. You don’t know everything. Nobody knows everything! There will always be something out there that’s new to you. If it’s totally new to you, it’s also probably totally new to a lot of other people. You could be filling up a niche. Who knows? It’s a great challenge to see how much you can write about something you don’t know. How do you go about it? Simple. Research.

Cindy’s Rules for Writers #2

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Rule #2

2. Write about something you know. This is the easiest way to begin. Write about people around you, places you’ve been to, experiences you’ve had. Try to describe them in as many ways as you can. Observe very closely and note every detail. You’ll be surprised how much detail you can write.