How To Write: One Man's Opinion
(Everything Else, 1938 views) - 11/28/05
(recorded 11/28/05 @ 7:30:28 AM)
I wrote this in response to an Ask MetaFilter reader's request for writing advice. I thought I'd republish it here, because I like what I had to say. Remember that the best part about writing is that you always seem to get a bit better, if you really want to.
Writing is a silly thing. People can give you all the rules they want, but if you follow every one of them to the letter, there's not a chance someone won't call you on its formulaic feel and lack of heart. I don't know if it's entirely necessary, if not completely dangerous that you "switch off" anything when you sit down to write.
I think one of the best methods you can follow is to simply write what comes to mind, and then pare it down. If you don't like your use of an obtuse, stupid-teenage-girl-diary sounding similie, then kill it. Read it aloud and see what words you could do without. Read it aloud again and see what you can do to transform the feelings you ellicit from a phrase by structuring it differently. If you want a certain passage to pull emotionally, pay attention to it and alter it in subtle ways. Toy with your usage of certain words, but don't overanalyze every aspect of your speech patterns.
Have fun with it. Don't be afraid to make your audience wonder what the hell you were thinking, but make them say it through a grin. Make them know there's something just a bit crazy about youâ€”if you write with this goal in mind, you'll be surprised how quickly you'll set yourself apart from 90% of the world's writers, both self-proclaimed and unintentional.
A great place to get some form of feedback is Everything2. E2 is a hardcore community of people who write about anything they can think about. They publish it to the site and interlink their written nodes to each other by means of the clips and phrases that they highlight within their writing. It's easier to just go view an example node to see what I mean. Explore over there, but understand that they are looking for something a bit specific. It wouldn't be ideal for you to just throw up your eighth grade poetry book and see what sticks. As such, they're probably not exactly what you're looking for.
Also, be aware that a general critiquing of writing is a very dangerous thing. Some people write and break all convention, and their writing is incredible and breathtaking because of it. Some people break the rules of grammar and it physically hurts to try to wade through their original intent. If the reader can "see what you were going for," then you're doing well. If the reader understands beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was your words that made them feel a certain way, that made them laugh harder than they had in weeks, or cry for just a moment, then you know you're doing what you need to. Read your pieces over and over until you yourself know that it's going to do that to others.
Your own writing should excite you. Hubris or not, you should read what you've written and smile, because of how damn clever you were. You should feel at least some of the emotion you're trying to impart, although the full force will be left to those unprepared. But you should be utterly proud of what you've written and even then, you should go ahead and give it another go.
The most powerful tool you can ever adopt in your writing is simply the concept of reading habitually. Read everything you can get your hands on. Dabble in as many styles and genres as you can and eat it all up. You don't need to read all of War & Peace to know how Tolstoy moves, so move on. Find a list of great authors and then burrow through some blogs. See how the "everyman" writes, and then see how the "experts" write. For blogs, you can quickly find a few random entries on Blogger, but take a second to look through this list and see how some people actually make a living with their words.
Read it all, but most importantly, truly absorb it. Take in why an author used one word or phrase instead of another. Then use their devices and make them your own. Never plagiarize, but use whatever you can to broaden your way of thinking. Examine how many different ways you can think to describe a sunset, then wonder how many other ways I can. Just stretch your way of thinking, and continue to write throughout the entire process.
Keep a journal. It doesn't matter where. Write somewhere people can see it, if you're feeling frisky, but feel free to keep something private. Free associate and stream of consciousness, but also create little challenges for yourself. Write a 100 word story on the reason you hate grass. Then write another one. Make them radically differentâ€”tell one as a narrative about the time that grass murdered your brother, but the other just as a simple expression of hatred towards yardwork. Shift paradigms often and have fun doing it.
My writing only ever improves in the presence of other great writers. I interned/wrote for Gizmodo under my editor Joel Johnson. The guy had this style of writing that just made me blink and exclaim "I didn't know you could craft something like that, in so few words." Click here for a perfect example of what I mean.
Remember that Originality is Overrated, but only to a degree. Take what you can from others, then create your own take on it.
Lastly, feel free to email me to discuss more about writing and the like. I'm not professionally "qualified" or anything like that, but I am passionate about it.
Truly, that is the key. Become passionate and stay passionate about it, and you'll find yourself wowing the masses.
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