I teach writing, so it saddens me to report this, but a teacher can make you only a better writer, not a great one.
For that, an ineffable something is required—an instinct for language, a voracious appetite for crafting sentences that force previously content humans to break down and weep, and a love for the cadence and the weight and the heft of words. That ineffable something is provided by, oh, I don’t know—DNA from your grandmother, your parents having read Henry James to you in utero, your habit as a toddler of watching Jetsons reruns. Or something.
Everyone should write. It’s a marvelous exercise in forcing yourself to think logically. It clarifies reason and enhances empathy. Go right ahead and bang on the keyboard for a while; it’s good for you. Everyone should write. But not everyone should be read.
It’s like singing in the shower or dancing in the kitchen. Loads of fun in private, not so cute out in public. Everyone should do it. Not everyone should make other people watch.
Poor writers often possess a blind spot right where other people keep their self-discernment. Poor writing seems to be the result of poor logic, as well. If you don’t know what you intend to say, you cannot say it, and it is nearly physically painful to have to wander around on a page following someone who has no idea where he is going, where he’s been, and where he ought to stick that comma.
Writing is tough. Writing well, with love for the language and passion for words, with clarity and logic and precision, is a combination of skill, technique, ability, and an ear for what works. The last two probably cannot be taught. The first two can be taught to a degree, but at a certain point, a writer must teach herself to write.
Writers are forced to write by some weird, writerly thing that gets stuck in their heads and drives them to do it or go mad, but many writers also hate to write. Writers hate to write because it is putzy, detailed, pokey, time-consuming, nerve-wracking, demanding, demanding, demanding work. You can always improve it and it is never quite done. If you are feeling frustrated about your writing, that probably means that you care about your work. A good sign.
You want to be a better writer?
There are things you can do. All the writers and editors I know—and that’s most everyone I know—say the same four things when students ask, “How do I learn to write?”
1. Read excellent work. If you don’t read the best writing, you’ll never know the mark to hit. Tip: People magazine and TMZ.com ain’t it.
2. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Amateurs think: write it once and I’m done. Pros know: write it once and you have the first of 18 drafts.
3. Read your work aloud to yourself. You’ll catch errors and repetition and learn what readers have to cope with when they face your words.
4. Write constantly. Practice, practice, practice.
I would add two more points:
5. Learn your craft. Grammar and punctuation are not optional.
6. Accept editing gracefully. Editors—good editors—make your work better. Suck it up.
On these two points:
Master the technique
There are rules to writing that none of us get to change, other than James Joyce. If you want to write, you need to learn grammar and syntax and sentence structure. If you don’t, you can still write for yourself, but readers will not be able to understand you because you are not following the traffic rules.
Feeling passionate about writing is terrific, but you need skills, too. If you want to be a surgeon, passion alone won’t make you able to perform a successful appendectomy. You have to learn how to do it. You can’t skip that step. The good news: knowing how to write clearly is a marketable skill. But no one will buy your passion if you can’t spell.
It’s no fun for the ego to get an article returned covered with red tracking function. In the old days, that used to be red ink, occasionally enhanced by significant pressure of pen on paper, causing rips and ruptures where your teacher underlined “Look up semi-colon usage!!!!” 7 times. Writers love their words, and when those words are born of hours of labor, hearing someone say “send it back!” can feel crushing.
Here’s the thing. Your work will always, always, always be edited and changed. Whether you are writing books or magazine articles or newspaper essays, whether you are in public relations or marketing or corporate communication, whether you are Stephen King or John Irving or Susan Orlean. Listen to your editor or teacher, try it out, see if you learn something.
And here’s a tip. If you ever hear yourself begin a sentence with: “But you are stifling my creative voice…” Just head out into the backyard and turn the garden hose on yourself for a wee while. Your unique and spectacular voice is not being stifled. Your voice is so buried in split infinitives and tangled syntax that it cannot be heard. You don’t make sense. Yet.
It’s not easy to work the six-step program, but those who do become the professionals. There’s no other path to it.