I recently engaged a group of writing students in a discussion on why we read. It quickly became clear that we agreed on a range of reasons but not necessarily on the weighting between them. That's largely because the balance shifts between books, between readers, between moments in our lives.
We read to understand our world, to understand ourselves; to glimpse and understand worlds other than our own. To find a context, a meaning in what we find around us; to imagine ourselves in a context other than our own. We read for fun, for knowledge, for pleasure. We read to learn. We read to make ourselves alert to the world.
We write for the same reasons. We write to understand, to discover, to share. Perhaps to share what we have discovered, or what we have failed to discover. The late, great Margaret Mahy, winner of two Carnegies and the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, described the process of writing as being very like reading; a process of discovering the story as you write it.
As with all skills, we practise and we improve. Ideally we begin to understand, just a little, exactly what it is that we’re about. Countless authors have been asked for their ‘top tips’ and ‘how to's’, their efforts inevitably falling short of providing a ‘magic bullet’ but generally including useful nuggets of wisdom. Distilling advice into a handful of simplified generalisations is harder than it looks: hard to limit yourself to five, or ten, or twenty; hard to keep it concise; hard to capture all the subtlety and variation and originality that great writing requires and bind it up in ‘rules’. But for those who are wondering, here’s my starting point. Think of them as reminders, or discussion points. Think of them as stating the obvious. Don’t think of them as fixed. No doubt I’ll rewrite them or add to them. Maybe I’ll even remember to keep them.
Five Writing Tips
#1: Read. Read widely and critically. Read with awareness and a questing mind. (Why does that work? How did the writer do that? What fails to hit the mark here? How could I do that better?)
#2: Give your readers at least one character they can care about. Ensure they feel invested in the character’s challenges. (Ensure there are challenges!)
#3: Respect your readers’ intelligence. Let them use their brains, let them work things out. Engaging them in the story will keep them reading. Spoon-feeding them won’t.
#4: Try to view your work from a reader’s perspective – do they need to know that? Is this important? Find the heart of the story and hinge the work around it. In Elmore Leonard’s words, leave out the part the reader tends to skip.
#5: Seek originality, not for it’s own sake but to make the work yours. Don’t be different for the sake of it, be different because the story demands it.
Five Editing Tips
#1: Edit on screen and on paper – you’ll see different things. Leave time between edits to clear your head. When you’re done, get feedback from first readers and review anything they raise. Friends and family are a safe starting point but don’t rely on them alone. Choose readers with an understanding of language, of the market you’re writing for, who read widely in the genre you’re writing in and will understand the difference between okay and excellent – and who will also be willing and able to articulate their thoughts. You don’t want to be told ‘I enjoyed it.’ You want to be told ‘I enjoyed it but…’
#2: Don’t be precious. Editing is a beneficial process, even when it hurts. That said, you shouldn’t be slavishly bound by your first readers’ or assessor’s or editor’s feedback – but you should know why you are accepting/ rejecting their suggestions. Generally, if it resonates with you, if you kind of knew it anyway, then you know it’s the way to go – but only you can decide exactly how to change it. If you're not sure, see point 5.
#3: Don’t skimp on time spent editing – your aim is to produce the best possible result. Equal time spent in writing and editing is a workable rule of thumb.
#4: Read dialogue aloud (to the walls of your room, to your friends, to strangers on a bus – whatever you feel comfortable with). If it doesn’t sound right, it isn’t. If you stumble over reading it, it needs work. Pare it to the heart – written dialogue resembles rather than replicates speech; it’s a tidied up version.
#5: Be prepared to slash and burn. Every word should work for its place. No matter how beautiful a sentence/ paragraph/ scene, no matter how important or unique an idea, if it doesn’t add to this story (build character, move the plot forward) it shouldn’t be there. If you’re unsure about a change, try it and see.
In other words:
Elmore Leonard: 10 rules for writing
Kurt Vonnegut: Basics of creative writing
Hilary Mantel: 10 rules for writing
10 Writers on the magic of reading
Magic of reading and writing:
Isabelle Cartwright in the Irish Times on why we read
Apostrophe abuse: rescue and rehabilitation ops
offering advice and support:
Society of Authors
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