on writing

Someone once asked me, “What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?”

I couldn’t think of anything else I would rather do.

I grew up in homes full of books. Wherever we lived, there were always bookcases stuffed to bursting with my mother’s self-help books, collection of hardbound classics, and mystery, fantasy, horror, and science fiction paperbacks, or low shelves on the floor with my father’s choices in literature – Somerset Maugham, Gore Vidal, Sholom Aleichem.

My parents never consciously encouraged me to read, but surrounded by books and little else to do, I gravitated towards the shelves that were always open to me. I thrived on a literary diet of Enid Blyton and Louisa May Alcott, Nancy Drew and The Bobbsey Twins, Bulfinch’s Mythology and old-fashioned poetry, the rhyming kind like Gunga Din and The Ballad of Sam McGee.

In time, words and the putting together of them in sentences to convey meaning came as naturally to me as breathing. In school, my favorites subjects were the ones that used a lot of words – English, Social Studies. Math was anathema. In college, I took up Journalism. It was either that or English Studies, and I figured I’d have a better chance of earning through writing if I were a journalist, although my mother always said that there was no money in writing.

Today I make my living from it.

Often people ask, “Can you teach me how to write?” It’s a difficult question to answer, because the process is different for everybody. Some say that the talent is inborn. Perhaps to some extent that might be true; I believe some inclinations come naturally to people, like musical talent or athletic ability. But writing is also a skill that can be learned and cultivated, and anyone can do it. For the philosopher Jean Jacques Rosseau, “However great a man’s natural talent may be, the art of writing cannot be learned all at once.”

Some thoughts on writing that I’ve formed over the years:

1. Writing is a form of communication, just like speaking. Having problems starting your piece? Pretend you are talking to someone about it. Write it down that way. Then go back over what you’ve written and edit.

2. Writing uses language. To write effectively, you must know the language and its rules. Words are the construction materials, grammar the nails and mortar that hold them together. Immerse yourself in the language to build up your vocabulary. Even if you are writing in your mother tongue, don’t take it for granted that you know all the words or even enough of them. Read books and magazines. Watch television shows and films. Listen to native speakers and soak up the rhythm of their speech patterns. Choose a usage and composition guide – I was introduced to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style in my freshman year of college, and have adhered to its tenets ever since.

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3. Less is more. I’ve always clung to Strunk’s Rule Number 17: “Omit needless words.” Bombarded as we are on all fronts by information vying for our attention, why make it harder for your reader to decode your message? Related to this is White’s advice: “Avoid fancy words.” If there exists a simpler word that conveys the same meaning and nuance, use it. But in the end, always go by your ear – use whatever sounds right. As Matthew Arnold said, “Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.” The exception would be if you were deliberately using the fancy word or words to achieve a certain effect.

4. Organize, organize, organize. I believe this is the most important part of the writing process. It doesn’t matter that you can use big words like venustation or ptochology if you can’t put your thoughts and facts down in a sequence that will help the reader understand the message you wish to convey. Pay attention to the flow of your ideas; for your piece to be effective, it has to make sense, one thought leading to another in a logical manner.

5. Practice, practice, practice. Writing is a skill, like bicycling or blacksmithing. Write something everyday. Said Doris Lessing: “You only learn to be a better writer by actually writing.” Or take Mary Heaton Vorse: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” It takes discipline, but it pays off, I promise.  Take advantage of today’s technological advances and the myriad means of self-expression. Write your feelings down in a journal, or publish your opinions on a blog. One of the easiest ways is microblogging using applications like Twitter. If you can text, you can write!

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6. Edit, edit, edit. Few, if any, first drafts are perfect. Go over what you’ve written and clean up typographical errors, spelling and grammar mistakes, factual inaccuracies, conceptual inconsistencies, and sequence flow. Science fiction writer C. J. Cherryh asserted, “It is perfectly okay to write garbage – as long as you edit brilliantly.”

7. Be yourself. In the beginning, writers tend to copy the style of the authors they admire. But the most natural and authentic voice is your own; have confidence in yourself. Said Bill Stout: “Whether or not you write well, write bravely.”

8. Write from your heart. Whether you seek to persuade or inform, the reader responds best to pieces that are sincere and honest.

Winston Churchill, one of the best statemen and writers that Britain has ever produced, once declared, “Writing is an adventure.” It is a journey anyone can take. May yours be filled with the thrill of discovery and the joy of creativity!

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1 Comment on on writing

  1. TAO
    13 April 2009 at 3:28 am (3148 days ago)

    I just posted a comment here but in protest to my poor writing it was lost in the ether! Well, here we go again…

    Despite your protestations otherwise I think some people are indeed born with the gift to be able to write well (such as yourself). The rest of us can only hack our way through the jungle of words with blunt machetes. Editing is important but can also be debilitating. I will write something in 20 minutes and spend an hour editing it with the results being about the same. :D

    Seriously, this is another excellent post with good information. Thanks for *writing* it. Har har har har.