Monday, October 1, 2012

How To Be a Better Writer

Given the way of the world young people do best not to aspire to become writers. It is fine if you must, but otherwise, try something else.

So says Mark Helprin in an engaging, well-written column in the Wall Street Journal.

Aspiring writers often believe that writing is about expressing their brilliant ideas. Once they have that flash of inspiration, they tell themselves, the words will flow.

Most of them are still waiting for the inspiration. Putting ideas first will guarantee you a lot of blank pages.

Writing is a process. Ideas come to you while you are engaged in the process. If you know what you are going to say before your start writing and if the idea has not changed as you are writing, then you are doing it wrong.

Helprin does young and not-so-young writers a great service by focusing, not on the idea, but on the mechanics, the process of writing. Writing is work; it is hard work. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to you.

One of the reasons it’s so hard is that it’s a private activity. You do not write in a group. You do not tell the world you are a writer by whipping out your notepad in a café and making a conspicuous show of looking like a writer.

Your writing must be able to speak for itself; at some point it will have to stand on its own.

In Helprin’s words:

Never write in a café, especially in Europe. Ever since Hemingway, this has been the literary equivalent of what in mountain climbing is called the "tech weenie" (that is, someone who cannot get a foot off the ground but is weighed down with $10,000's worth of equipment). Literary skill, much less greatness, cannot be had with a pose, and exhibitionism extorts the price of failure. 

Writers care enormously about process. They care about their writing instruments, the kind of paper they use, the number of revisions they do.

Helprin suggests that it doesn’t matter what you write on, but I suspect, as does he, that writing by hand is superior to writing on a mechanical device.

It’s slower and more thoughtful. It lets your sentences breathe. It lets them be what they want to be, not what you want to make them be.

All writers know that if you write on a computer you are more likely to fill your sentences with excessive verbiage. When writers started writing on word processing programs it was not very difficult to tell which writers had used Microsoft Word and which ones had used pen and ink.

He writes:

Whether you use a pencil, a pen, an old typewriter or something electrical is largely irrelevant to the result, although there is magic in writing by hand. It's not just that it has been that way for 5,000 years or more, and has engraved upon our expectations of literature the effects associated with the pen—the pauses; considerations; sometimes the racing; the scratching out; the transportation of words and phrases with arrows, lines and circles; the closeness of the eyes to the page; the very touching of the page—but that the pen, not being a machine (it does not meet the scientific definition of a machine), is a surrender to a different power than those of mere speed and efficiency.

Good writers take pride in a page that is covered with excisions and revisions. But it is also a good idea to rewrite from scratch.

Cutting and pasting do not make your writing read like a verbal collage. They make it sound incoherent.

Next, there’s the paper. Helprin seems to believe that it doesn’t matter what kind of paper you use:

There are beautiful, smooth, heavy papers, but great works have been written on ration cards, legal pads and the kind of cheap paper they sell in developing countries—grayish white, almost furry, with flecks of brown and black that probably came from lizards and bats that jumped into the paper makers' vats.

Most writers prefer yellow legal pads. They are obviously scrap paper, so a draft written on lined yellow sheets feels impermanent. It invites revision.

Legal pads are also superior because they are yellow. Their special coloring prevents them from reflecting glare up into your eyes. If you want to follow Helprin’s advice and focus intently on your writing, glare is not your friend.

Also, if you are going to be revising extensively, it’s a good idea to write your drafts on every other line. The empty lines invite editing.

Helprin recommends multiple drafts, and that means a dozen or more. Journalists and bloggers often publish second or third drafts, but, for a more important production, it is better to go through at least a dozen drafts. 

Any good editor will tell you that the key to the writing process is your ability to rewrite and edit your drafts. A good writer can read a draft as though it had been written by someone else.

If you get your ego involved in the process, fall in love with the rhythm of your prose or wallow in the good feeling you had when you were first drafting, your writing will suffer.

After finishing a draft, a good writer will put it aside for a time and then come back to it. If he does not feel somewhat sick to his stomach when he re-reads it he is doing it wrong.

If you cannot stand reading your dreadful early drafts you are not cut out for writing.

If you are really, really convinced that you have gotten it right, and want to test it, try reading it out loud. Don’t burden your friends and family. Read it out loud to yourself and see how much you still love it.

1 comment:

Recruiting Animal said...

Your attachment to paper over word processor contradicts your attachment to modern agriculture over organic.

I suspect it's largely a sentimental difference.

And, yes, I've read the articles that say writing with a pen affects your brain differently but speaking from personal experience the computer is fine. And writing at Starbucks is good too.

After a while people notice you and wonder what you're doing but no one is impressed. So there is no romance in it at all.