The other day I was doing a ZOOM visit with a class of seventh graders. At the end of the class, the teacher asked me to suggest some basic ideas for students who wanted to learn—or do better—writing.
I’ll give it a try.
There are good teachers of writing, but I do not consider myself one of them. I can only suggest some ideas based on my own experience that might be of help to young writers. Still, when it comes to art—and writing is an art—I believe there are no rules: only results.
Just because, in theory, everyone is taught to write. Not everyone is a writer.
So, you can ignore what follows and create your own rules.
Beyond all else, I think writing is about reading. My own mantra is, “Writers don’t write reading. They write reading.” So, to become a writer you have to read. Could you write music, without listening to it? I doubt it. My own conclusion: the more you read the better the writer you can become.
Reading also teaches you to think in narrative ways. That is, it will teach you to see the world as a story.
Writing is, beyond all else, for the reader. Journals, diaries are, if you will, letters to yourself. Young writers often say, “But I understand it.” True enough, but one needs to make a reader understand what has been written.
Write what you have read and enjoyed. Your critical facilities are already tuned if you write what you have enjoyed. Want to write fantasy? Read fantasy. Never read mysteries? Don’t try to write one.
Young writers often believe that having written something once it’s done. But most good writing comes about because of re-writing. I recently read about a writer who said he spends day one writing ten pages, and day two cutting seven pages. Makes sense to me.
I have no idea how often I rewrite my books. Sixty, seventy, eighty times. I go forward and backward. Natalie Babbitt once told me she couldn’t start a book until she knew the last line. I’ve heard writers say they can’t write a book unless they come up with a good first line. I know I may suddenly think of something in a paragraph on page 65 and go back and re-write it. A novel is all of one piece. Every line is about all the lines. All are connected. If it doesn’t connect, cut it.
The essential energy in any piece of writing is emotion. Emotion is the glue that holds the reader to the text. The writer Paula Fox once said, “A lie hides the truth. A story tries to find it.”
The greatest sin in writing: boredom.
Avoid talking about what you are writing. Talking is talking. Storytelling is storytelling. Writing is writing. If it’s not written down it has not been written.
When you have composed something you think is good, don’t give it to someone to read. Ask them if you can read it aloud. That turns you into a reader. You can hear what is good and not so good. I recall (I think) Stephen King suggesting that you can’t really get to know a writer until you listen to his/her work. That’s true for your own writing.
Listen to criticism, but never argue back. If one person says “X” you can ignore it. But if ten people say that same “X” you had better pay attention.
I agree with what the British author G.B. Shaw once said: “Hard writing makes for easy reading.”
Finally, don’t try to be an author. Try to be a writer.