As an avid reader of books and tips on writing, I’ve always hoped to find the secret formula to make me good at writing through other writers’ words. By sharing the best tips I’ve found so far, I hope to internalise them for good. If I can help others in the process, all the better! I can’t fit all the collected material into one post and I’ll keep reading and learning over time. So here is the first in my series on writing.
Part 1 – Getting Started
The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair- Mary Heaton Vorse
1. Just sit down and write
It’s so simple, really: to get good at writing, you have to write. A lot.
I started writing at 27. I thought about words almost everyday before that but never actually sat down at my desk and wrote. I always found a reason not to: not enough time, not enough energy, not enough ideas, and most of all, not enough confidence. I wrote short stories, critics, blogposts, even entire novels in my head but never mustered enough courage to face what it would look like on paper.
Then the call of writing became too strong. Ideas were jostling in my head- the only way to shut their voices was to write. I started in English, my second language, because words came more easily and put less pressure on my shoulders than French words. If my prose wasn’t good, I could always blame it on my English. If it was good, I would get double the credit for writing in a second language.
Today, almost 3 years after I started writing, the only thing I regret is to have waited so long to begin. In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell breaks down a pattern explaining how the best athletes, computer nerds, and musicians have mastered their art. They’ve practiced it for about ten thousand hours. Better get started on those damn ten thousand hours right away!
2. First drafts are shitty
In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, one of my favorite books on writing, there is a section called: “Shitty First Drafts”:
All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.
The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.
Reading Ann Lamott’s words on drafts liberated me. Appalling first drafts had kept me from writing for so long. I would write a few lines, read them, realise how bad they were and think I’d better give-up. But if you see first drafts as a mandatory phase you have to go through to acces the good stuff, suddenly it’s not that scary anymore to sit down and write. You know from the start that it’ll be terrible, just like the best writers’ first drafts, and that’s okay.
The other liberating direction Ann Lamott gave me was to just pour it all out. Turn off the well-trained, critical, judgemental voices in your head and write as much as possible. Focus on quantity, not quality. You’ll focus on quality again with the editing process. John Steinbeck said the same thing in his Six Tips On Writing:
Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down.
Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
3. Write for one person
As soon as you start thinking about your audience, or what your mum will think of your scribbles, you are going farther from your own voice and from the message you’re trying to communicate in your writing. Kurt Vonnegut said it best in his 8 tips on how to write a great story:
Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
Moreover, the will to share your feelings with a friend, rant against your boss, help an imaginary person, impress your dad or whoever, can provide the necessary fuel you need to keep writing. The result doesn’t matter- maybe that person you had in mind will never read your words. What matters is that you wrote something. I’ve always written with someone in mind; It’s not always the same person. So pick someone- be it a friend, a deceased loved one, a lover, or your cat.
4. Don’t wait for inspiration
I started writing only after inspiration struck. An obsessive idea, story, or feeling dragged me to my desk and wouldn’t let me rest until I had written it down. Unfortunately, inspiration doesn’t boil over in my head all the time. Sometimes, days, weeks, months even go by without any storm of ideas, clouds of emotions, or shining stories coming up. I used to wait for them to write. But I quickly realised that waiting for inspiration meant writing rarely. I wanted to write every day. In The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, Twyla Tharp gives myriad tips on how to turn creation into a habit:
There’s a paradox in the notion that creativity should be a habit. We think of creativity as a way of keeping everything fresh and new, while habit implies routine and repetition. That paradox intrigues me because it occupies the place where creativity and skill rub up against each other.
Twyla Tharp insists on establishing rituals and fostering agreeable work environments to make sure you practice as often as possible:
It’s vital to establish some rituals–automatic but decisive patterns of behavior–at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.
Make it easy on yourself. Find a working environment where the prospect of wrestling with your muse doesn’t scare you, doesn’t shut you down. It should make you want to be there, and once you find it, stick with it. To get the creative habit, you need a working environment that’s habit-forming. All preferred working states, no matter how eccentric, have one thing in common: When you enter into them, they compel you to get started.
Those four tips on writing are my most precious ones because they kick my butt into the seat of my chair until I start writing. They were all big ‘Aha’ moments and endless sources of motivation. Next week, I’ll share more good resources about the editing process, the importance of good verbs, and finding a writing partner.
What are your favourite books on writing? Do you have any other useful writing tips that I could add to my next collections?