If you saw the title of this post and immediately started reading it, you’ve got a lot to learn. If there’s anything I’ve learned in all my years as a novice writer of fiction, it’s that it’s pretty much impossible to be taught how to write well. Fortunately, that’s not what I’m trying to do here. Instead, I present a list of helpful suggestions that will not teach you how to write well, but, hopefully, teach you how to teach yourself how to write well (how’s that for a new-agey, wishy-washy sentence?). Here goes:
- Read Every Day: This one is vital. You won’t be able to write well unless you are A) some sort of prodigy, or B) you read enough good writing to know what good writing looks like. After a while, you may (as I have) learn to “mimic” other writers’ styles, and after a while, you begin to take bits of style from different writers, until your own personal style of writing emerges. A warning, however: if you intend to write in one particular genre, do not read books exclusively of that genre. The worst thing a writer can do is to become wed to a single genre. This goes especially for science fiction writers.
- Write Every Day: This is especially helpful when writing a novel. This has gotten me through two novels and numerous short stories. You don’t have to write much. If you’re not feeling inspired, just write a few paragraphs. If you’re in a better mood, write more. This step is especially helpful, since not only does it keep you from getting out of practice (which happens faster than you think), but it also keeps your plot from stalling or getting bogged down. As hard as it may be, you should emphasize this step even more when your story seems to be going nowhere. The only way you’ll get yourself out of any corner you might have written yourself into is to keep working at it, millimeter by millimeter if necessary, until inspiration strikes.
- Don’t Give Up on a Good Idea: If you’ve got a good story idea, one that really speaks to you, focus on it. Even if you have other story ideas, try to focus on the one that you think has the most potential. Don’t neglect your other writings by any means, but remember: they can be continued later on. Here, I like to employ a method I call “seeding”: write a few paragraphs of your new story that capture the feel and the mood of it, and then shelve it until your main story is done. That way, you won’t lose the essence of that story, and you also won’t get distracted from your primary one.
- Stockpile Ideas: Whenever an interesting story idea strikes you, write it down. You don’t even have to start writing it, but at least make a note so that you don’t forget it. Personally, I like to do this in a spiral notebook that I use exclusively for the purpose of recording story ideas, but you can do it however you see fit. This is important for those dryspells when you’re feeling uninspired, or when you’re assailed by writer’s block.
- Let the Stories Write Themselves: As you accumulate writing experience, you may begin to notice that your stories seem to flow rather naturally, once they’ve got some momentum going. Plot events seem almost to appear out of thin air, and turns of phrase suggest themselves to you. Don’t fight this, it can be extremely helpful and productive. Don’t “take your hands off the wheel” by all means. After all, this is your story. But don’t force it; instead, try to give the plot a gentle nudge in your intended direction.
- Expand Your Mind: This one is probably one of the most important steps. It’ll keep your style fresh and help you be more creative, which will help you tremendously when you’re suffering from writer’s block or feeling uninspired, or when you’ve written yourself into a corner:
- Step Outside Yourself: Don’t write exclusively within a narrow genre (this goes hand-in-hand with Step 1). One of my most fascinating writing experiences was when I decided to take a chance and try to write a romance-based science fiction novella.
- Experiment With your Style: There’s a school of literary thought called Oulipo that originally developed in France, based on the idea of enhancing creativity through self-constraint. There was one novel (the title of which escapes me at the moment) which was written entirely without the use of the letter “E”. Some authors write in anagrams or palindromes. Get creative. I can especially recommend the letter-omission method, which very powerfully forces you to alter your language and crack open your thesaurus.
- Don’t Distract Yourself: Unless you are a supremely focused person, music or external noise will likely distract you from your writing. Even if you think you’re concentrating very intensely, you may find that your writing simply isn’t as good when there’s noise or distractions in the background. I find that radio and most music usually turn my writing to rubbish (I’m listening to NPR as I write this article, which probably explains a lot). An exception I’ve found is the music of Brian Eno, and pretty much any orchestral music. Even better, you can sometimes use music to manipulate the mood of your writing. For example, if you have to write a sad scene, but you’re just in too good a mood to do so, try writing with Moonlight Sonata in the background.
- Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously: Many serious-minded people have no doubt said things to the effect of “Writing is not a hobby!” The thing is, writing can be a hobby if you want it to be. Contrary to popular belief, you can write without being published, or without ever intending to be published. Actually, some of the best writing (such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, if I’m not mistaken), has been written for the sake of nobody but the author. The problem with taking yourself too seriously is twofold: 1) You may stop enjoying writing, which is one of the quickest ways to start writing badly; 2) You may develop what I like to call an “inflamed ego,” which is the second quickest way to ruin your writing.
- Know Your Words: They call writers “wordsmiths” for a reason. If you want to write well, and avoid becoming repetitive or stale, learn all the words you can. Adjectives are very helpful (as long as you don’t overdo it). A good thesaurus is invaluable (the one that comes with your word processor included). Also, remember what they taught you in elementary school (at least, I hope they’re still teaching this): look up any word you don’t recognize, especially if you like the sound of it. I find dictionary.com especially useful for this, since I write primarily on the computer (my handwriting is far too slow to be productive).
- Be Original: Whether you think so or not, every writer has at least one unique story in them. Don’t be afraid to tell it. Good writers tend to be the ones that either write something that has never been written before, or find a way to write something old in a remarkable new way. And don’t be daunted by all my superlatives and adjectives, because you can, with practice, write something that’s never been written before, something remarkable.
That is my advice.