Over my years of writing, I’ve come to understand various things. One is that everyone has different working styles and different concepts that help them improve in what they do. So it should come as no surprise that, along the way, I’ve picked up a few pieces of advice I think everyone could benefit from. Below are some tips on becoming a better writer.
Here are five observations every writer should know.
Observe. Observe. Observe.
I decided not to start with the most common piece of advice, the one they give every beginning creative writer from the first assignment they get in grade-school (you can probably guess which one it is). And not because it isn’t good advice (it is) – but, rather, because this one has helped me more than anything else I’ve learned.
Observe. When you go into, say, a diner, or a grocery store, or even just while strolling through town, observe. Make a mental note of as many sensations as you can.
What do you see? Is there a bizarre, maybe disagreeable smell floating through the air? If there are any people, what do they look like? Are they tall, short? What colour is their hair? Do they have any interesting features – tattoos, beards, scars? Your mental notes could inspire a character or even a scene that becomes the basic plot of a new story.
Don’t read everything you believe.
Many writers get inspiration from simple things like the news. If this weren’t true, shows like Law and Order would be sorely lacking in plotlines. If you’re used to reading novels or poems, perhaps go a bit more basic and read up on the latest wild happening. It’s a bit scary to think about, but not only will you learn more about what’s happening in the world we live in, but it may also even give you some needed inspiration or a plot twist.
Show don’t tell.
Here it is. This is the piece of advice I alluded to earlier. The Mac Daddy of creative writing beginners’ lessons. Show don’t tell.
It’s such a simple rule, but it’s so ubiquitous for a reason: it is part and parcel of what writers do. When you’re composing a story, especially when you’re first starting out, there’s a tendency to literally lay out everything that’s going on. The reader cannot picture the scene in an immersive way.
Instead of simply explaining what’s happening, use more vivid description and active verbs to paint a scene that the reader can scene, as opposed to just telling them how it looks.
Read about the creative process.
This one’s especially crucial. As with any artistic field (music, painting, even makeup), creative writing has its own fair share of tutorials and essays about the creative process.
But unlike other fields, there seem to be more nonfiction pieces about how writers get inspired. Whereas a musician may write a memoir or an autobiography, and painters might describe how they create their masterworks, many of the essays we craft about what we do place us in the scene itself.
These are highly recommended for aspiring writers who want to learn more about what makes a writer tick and what led them to create their personal art. Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott is recommended reading.
Now that you’ve gone through the previous four, here’s the one where you get your hands dirty, like a child playing in the dirt.
One of the first magazines I looked into submitting to was called fail better. The publication’s mission statement is effectively “Fail. Then fail better.” The point is that every artist will fail, but the only way to get better is to fail repeatedly – until finally, you’re successful.
When I read that in my late teens, I was intrigued. Such a simple message, with a profound resonance that has stuck with me ever since. It sounds like such a cynical, tough-love thing to say. But that’s what we need as creative people. We need to have the freedom to fail, then fail better, than fail again, even better than the second time. Over and over again. It’s the only real way to learn what works and what doesn’t, after all.
Stephanie Knarr recently moved to Pittsburgh, PA from the Harrisburg, PA area. Her writing appears in Harrisburg’s local magazine, The Burg, and her work will soon appear in Unwinnable and Five:2: One. Her favourite drink is RC Cola, and her favourite band is probably Animal Collective.