Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Tips on How to Be a Writer (from Rebecca Solnit)

  1. Write.

There is no substitute. Start small, write a good sentence, then a good paragraph, and don’t be dreaming of writing the great American novel. That’s not what writing’s all about and it’s not how you get there from here. The road to great writing is made of words and not all of them are great, well-arranged words.

  1. Writing is not typing.

Writing is thinking, researching, contemplating, outlining, maybe with some typing, then revisions, deletions, additions, and setting the project aside and returning afresh; typing is just a minor transaction in between two vast thought processes.

  1. Read. And Don’t Read.

Read good writing and don’t restrict yourself to the present. Literature is not high school and it isn’t necessary to know what everyone else around you is doing. Worse, being greatly influenced by people who are currently being published can make you look just like them, which isn’t often a good thing. Originality is your gold standard. Write from the universal human experience. Write a true human story and write it well; it won’t matter what genre it may take place it.

  1. Find a Vocation.

Talent is overrated and is often mistaken for style. Passion, vocation, vision, and dedication are much more rare, and they will smooth out the rough spots when your talent will not give you a reason to get out of bed and stare at that problem manuscript for the hundredth day in a row. If you aren’t passionate about writing and the world and the things you’re writing about, why bother? It begins with passion even before it begins with words.

  1. Time.

It takes time. This means you have to find the time in your life. Don’t be too social. Live below your means. You probably have to do something else for living, but don’t let your job (or your bills) grow so much that they squeeze out time for your writing.

  1. Facts.

Always get them right. No one will trust you if you get them wrong and any author is doomed if the reading public can trust him. No matter what you’re writing about, whether it’s nonfiction, fiction, or poetry, you have an obligation to get it right, for the characters you’re writing about, for the readers, and for the record.

  1. Joy.

Writing is facing your deepest fears and all your failures, including how hard it is to write a lot of the time and how much you detest what you’ve just written and that you’re the person who just created all those flawed sentences. When it totally sucks (and it will), pause, look out the window, and tell yourself you’re doing exactly what you want to be doing. You are hanging out with the language. I am following in the footsteps of Shakespeare and Flaubert. Find pleasure and joy. Find joy in the work, just as a master carpenter does theirs. Enjoy the process.

  1. Success is very nice and comes with lovely byproducts (like money), but success is not love.

At best, it is the love of the work, not love of you. The process of making art is the process of becoming a person with agency, with independent thought, a producer of meaning, rather than a consumer of meanings. And, if you are writing to gain the acclaim of a fickle public, you run the risk of pandering to what you think will be popular. That will often end up seeming shallow and artificial. Instead, write truth. As Ernest Hemingway said: “Write one true sentence. Then write another.” If you write the truth of the human condition, the rest will take care of itself.

writing, Writing advice

Reading for Writers

One day, several years ago, when I was working as a cook in a restaurant, I and my fellow cook—who happened to be a musician—were discussing the song playing on the restaurant’s sound system. You know: what we liked, what we didn’t and why. Suddenly, one of the servers, who overheard us asked: “Why do you guys have to analyze everything?”

We looked at each other. We were analyzing? It was so automatic, we no longer even thought about it.

I do it to a certain extant when I listen to music: asking myself why I like or dislike the piece, what works, what doesn’t, who the songwriter may have emulated as she wrote. I do the same thing, but even more so when I’m reading.

And it’s automatic. It should be for every writer.

Every time we read, whether it’s a new novel, a classic work of literature, or the back of a box of Cheerios, we should be analyzing every word, every decision the writer made. We should be constantly asking ourselves questions: do we like it? Not like it? Either way, why? If we don’t like it, how might we do it differently?

There are many other questions we must ask ourselves as we read. Why did the author choose to begin the work where he or she did? Was it in the middle of the action, or did it build up to the first conflict? Was it a good decision? Why end it where they did? Did the plot flow seamlessly from event to event, or seem contrived in places? Were the characters all realistically portrayed, or two dimensional cut-outs? Did the author make wide use of simile and metaphor, or were the descriptions bare bones, utilitarian? How did that effect the work as a whole? Were the locations chosen for the stories appropriate? How did they add or detract from the story? Could the story have been just as effective somewhere else? Was the pace and rhythm appropriate for the events in the story? Was the vocabulary and diction appropriate for the genre and audience? How does the author handle dialogue? Exposition? How does she fill in necessary backstory?

There are thousands of questions we need to ask as we read. Interestingly, often they are largely the same questions we need to answer when we are writing our own work, such as where to begin telling the story. Other than actually writing, conscious reading is the absolutely best way to learn the craft of writing. We see how others have handled a particular problem and can borrow (or revise) their technique, depending on how well we think it works.

But, I can hear someone objecting already, what about reading for pleasure? What if I just want to read something for the fun of it? What if I just want to escape?

Go for it. More power to you. Even reading for pure, escapist pleasure has its benefits. We learn just from exposure, but the learning curve there is much more shallow. If you want to get better as fast as possible you need to read consciously.

And again, those of us who have been working on our writing skills for a while, like myself, can no longer help it. Like when the server asked my friend and I that question all those years ago: “Why do you have to analyze everything?” my answer is that it is automatic. I don’t even realize I’m doing it.

I analyze everything I read. I try to notice everything. I read consciously.

You can too.