Like commandments issued from a disembodied voice high atop a mountain, rules of writing quickly lapse into meaningless mantras, spoken with a certain level of bored automaticity in hopes the speaker will receive the benefit of some blessing merely from repeating them. Good writing is the product of hard thinking and good work and good thinking and hard work. But for some reason, people who write about how to write seem compelled to turn rules of writing into lists of magic tricks that will make your writing shine by effortless application. I suspect you could trace the roots of this mandatory “positiveness” to the salesmanship. A writer magazine with headlines founded in reality probably would have less a tendency to fly off the newsstand than those sure-fire techniques of characterization. But somewhere between “Pollyanna” and “life’s a bitch, then you die” there’s a palatable reality that the terms “hard work” and “writing” do belong in the same sentence. If you fear you will lose readership if you tell the truth, what do you think happens when the audience discovers the truth?
Here’s the truth. To get from Point A to Point B in writing requires effort. Point A is where your story is now and Point B is where you want it to be. If you want to ace the history midterm you read the chapters. If you want to play the violin, you practice. Writing is like playing the violin. The quality of the sound is determined by the talent involve in moving the bow across the catgut.
In the interest of the ongoing search for truth, justice, and the American way, I have taken a list of five writing rules I recently came across and which I found sounded good but didn’t really speak the language of reality. I’ve peeled away the way the facades to get to the underlying truths hiding behind each rule.
RULE ONE: Do your research and decide your structure before you start writing.
Good basic advice, but the author gives the following reasons for the rule, to: (1) avoid the risk of changing your mind about content and structure; (2) avoid the discovery you don’t have enough content; and (3) avoid something popping up that is more complicated than expected and “you have to set your writing aside to head back to the library, which will interrupt your flow.
Writing is a creative process and the creative process, not unlike turning a herd of cattle into hamburger and steaks, can get messy. The offered rule would confine your creative output by locking down your creative process before pen meets paper just to avoid the chance that another idea—potentially even a better one perhaps—might creep in and mess up your schedule. This logic would be funny were it not so ludicrous.
Journalists may hit the newsroom after a public meeting and have the editor limit the story to 15 inches of copy. The editor is putting together the layout of the morning edition and that’s the room that’s been allotted for the story. Welcome to the newspaper business and the formulaic inverted pyramid.
Creative writing is a different animal. It’s wild and unruly and has to be tamed or at least controlled. Like breaking a wild bronco, the process initially requires a lot of rope and a big corral. It’s understandable that a writer’s output may ultimately need to be confined into a small space, but the creative forces behind it should rarely be.
Sometimes writing is the best way to get a handle on and find your focus and approach to what you’re ultimately going to write about. You may have to write for a while to find what you want to say and/or how you want to say it—to find your story. As such, writing is both the tool and the product—the ultimate double-edged sword.
You might well want to do some brainstorming before you start to write by jotting down key words and ideas that come to mind and then sitting back to see how these pieces of the literary puzzle might best fit together. But writing can sometimes be the brainstorming process, and brainstorming doesn’t always produce your best alternative. Trial and error does.
This is not to say you should set aside a roadmap and wander off into the wilderness to see where your writing might take you, although isn’t that what stream of conscious writing is all about? Usually, you have some goal or destination in mind and it’s a matter of finding the best route to it.
Writing captures an idea. Editing gets it to fit into a given space.
RULE TWO: Get into a regular routine.
The fundamental idea here is to establish a well-disciplined commitment. But let’s step back from treating writing as a scheduling effort. The first thing that gets in the way of this rule is . . . life! There are two terms of which a writer needs to be aware: vocation and avocation. Vocation is what you do to put food on the table; avocation is the sideline or auxiliary activities you enjoy. Hobbies fit here. For most of us, so does writing. Vocations have schedules, avocations don’t always and I’m not so sure you should commit yourself to apply the structure of a vocation to the more creative processes that lie behind your avocation. They are fundamentally different creatures. This is not to say you don’t need discipline or that setting aside a specifically scheduled time for writing is not a good idea, but it’s a luxury that many don’t have, so why make them feel that they’ve failed before they even get started? Your writing has to find a groove and once you’ve found it, it starts to flow more and more efficiently. This is achieved not by applying a rule as much as finding the process(es) that work best for you under the given circumstances. And remember, the circumstances are never perfect.
Having a regular time set aside to write is mostly a good idea. In anticipation of its approach your brain can shift gears and open your mental literary files and do the subconscious calisthenics that open those magical doors through which you step from reality into the world where your characters and plot reside.
There’s a process involved in shifting those gears and regularity of your writing schedule enhances the efficiency of that. But don’t feel guilty just because you have less control of your free-time schedule than the ideal writing rule says you should have. When you don’t have the luxury of a consistent schedule, you need to work on coming up with a system that lets you shift as seamlessly as possible into your creative side to maximize the time you have allocated to it. The motto “Just Do It” applies well to writing. The time you invest to whine takes from the time you need to shine.
As important as a keyboard is to a writer, so is a notebook. Never, ever let an idea slip away for the want of a piece a paper and a pen. Ideas are like butterflies. As beautiful as they are, they will flutter into oblivion, so write them down, and write them down in sufficient detail that when you return to them, they haven’t disintegrated into gibberish or gobbledygook. There should be little notebooks bedside, on your bathroom counter, in your car, on your desk, in your pocket. A notebook is quicker to get to than an electronic device. Getting an idea, thinking about, and making notes about it IS part of writing process and that process needs to be efficient.
RULE THREE: Snatch odd moments.
I like this rule because it’s saying have the flexibility to put your vocational downtime to use working on your avocation when you get the chance. The downside is that you don’t always know when a slice of time will pop up, so you need to be prepared. Have a couple of things about what you’re working on—how to characterize Mrs. Jones or how Jim is going to react when he discovers he was adopted—on your “Think About List” and develop the ability to quickly shift your mental gears and open the file. This isn’t automatic or even easy to develop, but with practice you’ll get better at it and a five or 15-minute break will become a productive slice of time.
This brings us back to the first item on the list, which brushes up against another very important tool for a writer—flexibility. Sure it’s nice to picture yourself sitting in a Hemingway-like setting, but get over it. You’re not there . . . yet. Do not get trapped in a need to be at your favorite (ideal) spot to write. Take on what I call the “paperback attitude.” Paperback books, besides being a lot cheaper to produce, give readers a portability they never had before. Light, storable, and easily replaceable should you spill something on it or leave it at the coffee shop. They give new freedom to reading. That’s the same mentality of portability you need to apply to your writing. Damon Runyon would grab a table and shove it against a blank wall and sit down and write scenes and dialogue in Cinemascope and Technicolor.
Develop the same ability for writing—the ability to be able to write virtually anywhere under an array of circumstances. Tablets have increased your ability to write virtually anywhere, and notebooks always did. You have to convince yourself it’s what is inside your brain that is more important than where you are when you let it out. Don’t let form triumph over substance.
Still I understand that having some minimal standards for the environment you prefer to ensconce yourself in is powerful. If it is a need that you find you can’t fully overcome, learn to use your downtime to make notes or to brainstorm or assess where you want you story to go next. You’ll feel better.
RULE FOUR: Talk it out.
The idea is to dictate your novel.
As a lawyer, dictating equipment was a key tool. First the desktop Dictaphone enabled the executive or writer to dictate notes without the need to have someone with a steno pad present. Those boat anchors gave way to mini-recorders. I recall finding it exhilarating to be able to get up, walk around my office, and look out the window as I dictated my correspondence or a brief.
No doubt there are writers who have become adept at capturing what they want to say “on tape,” but our brains tend to think sloppily, which was only slightly improved by the process of dictation. The real work begins when words appear on screen or paper as s product to work with and edit.
Here is what the original author of this rule had to say about talking it out: “Have you considered dictating your book and using transcription software (or a professional transcriber) to convert it to the written word? It’s worth experimenting with, especially if you find it really hard to write.”
If you find it “really hard to write,” there’s a good chance that you might already be wasting your time trying to be a writer since the physical act is intimately intertwined with the mental act. Writing is a creative process. Writing requires that you get very intimate with the words you chose to express yourself or employ to create a fictional world. You’re not making widgets; you’re making story. It’s not about finding an easier way to get words down on paper, but getting really good words down on paper by whatever means. Writing should not be considered an issue of production but an issue of creation. Even if you are typing a story from your own handwritten notes, it’s still creation, and the closer you stay to the words, the better your final product will be.
The keyboard is the primary tool of a modern-day writer. It is the interface between thought and print. Learn how to use it. But keep the pencils and notebooks handy! Keep control of your words. You might be able to automate their capture and how they are applied to paper, but you can’t automate the processes of their creation, and don’t confuse the two.
RULE FIVE: Don’t worry about your first draft.
Let’s get something straight right here and now. Erase the term “worry” from you writer vocabulary. It’s more than a negative word. Just look at a few of its synonyms: fear, fearfulness, timidity, error, trepidation, horror, fright. Floating around your cranium, it will short-circuit your creativity. It’s like pouring acid on your thinking. It’s at the far end of the continuum from “concern.” Yes, you do need to be concerned about your first draft, and every draft in between it and your final one. The first draft is the key—and initial—part of the writing process, and you want to improve your skills at every stage or level of the process. In fact, as you improve, the “distance” between your first draft and your final draft will likely get shorter. You go from having to catch and edit a repetitive sloppy phrase or structure to not writing it right the first time. Over time you discard bad habits and create new and better ones. Your first draft is a measure of how well you’re doing with that process of improvement as a writer.
Why does creativity have to start out as rubbish? It’s worse to think that you don’t need to extend as much effort because it’s only a first draft. No, it’s the draft of an idea that already has taken shape and to some extent been honed in your brain. It is the first physical step of your creative writing process. It is important to treat it as important. Writing is a not a fix-it process, it’s a getting better process. The closer your standards for a final draft get to your first draft the better the writer you will likely become.
Don’t pay so much attention to a “rule” that you don’t pay attention to the quality of your writing.