Writing well is a combination of art and craft. Art because it is highly creative and expressive, craft because there are underlying processes and principles that you need to work with to be effective. These are true for both fiction and non-fiction, and even the technical writing that I have spent so long doing.
Just as in all other forms of creative endeavor, there are underlying rules and guidelines. With writing these address spelling, grammar, logic, structure and development. To be an effective writer you need to know these. Over the coming months I will be posting reviews of a series of books that range from essential to extremely useful.
No one is perfect and everyone makes mistakes. This is as true in writing as it is in everything else. I know I do. I make spelling mistakes, mess up grammar and write convoluted sentences that made sense to me when I wrote them. This is why the concept of a draft is so important. A draft is not a finished piece; it is a work in progress. Now there are two approaches to writing your first draft of anything from a book to a magazine article. The first involves writing the whole thing without revision as you go. You get it down as is, mistakes and all. The second involves making revisions and corrections as you go. I believe which approach suits you will depend on your personality, but also on the way you write. I take the second approach of constant revision as I go. I write at the computer and so it is all there, in front of me as I write. I find it hard to resist re-reading what I have already written and have to fix mistakes as I see them. If you write by dictating into a tape or digital voice recorder, as many do and I am about to start trying, you may not have this option. Also many writers find the editing process too disruptive to the flow of consciousness as they write. Both approaches are valid: find what suits you.
Another area of difference of approach between people is the degree of planning they do before they start writing. Again, there is no right or wrong, just whatever works for you. Some people like to just sit and start writing, probably after a lot of thinking first. Others like to plan and structure things out first, and then start writing with a clear goal and structure already in place. Both can work well. I write both ways. Perhaps that means I am schizophrenic, but I think rather it reflects the different types of writing I do. For example, this piece is being written with no pre-planning, just my stream of consciousness as I write. On the other hand, my current book projects were heavily planned before I started writing and I am constantly reviewing and comparing what is going in with the preplanned structures and approach. For me I believe which approach I like depends on the length of the piece. Short pieces, up to perhaps 2,000 words, I tend to just write. Longer pieces I tend to think out first, structure and plan, and then write.
Good writing requires reflection and self-examination. Writing is a juggling act. On the one hand you need some ego to want to put your thoughts out there. On the other hand too much ego gets in the way of good writing. This is also true of teaching, and I tend to consider writing and teaching as just two different aspects of the same thing (except for fiction). You address this by always being a watcher of yourself, examining your motives, your thinking and how you are expressing yourself. Another thing that is common to both writing and teaching is the need to be entertaining and engaging. If your writing is so convoluted and complex that no one gets it, then you have failed. This is especially a failure of much academic and so-called literature. It is so self-referential and up itself that no sensible person would read it. It is possible to make all writing interesting, entertaining and engaging. You just need to work at it.
Let’s return to the issue of mistakes. Many mistakes in your writing you can catch yourself. Go back and re-read what you have written carefully. Does it flow? Does it make sense? Is the language suitable for the intended audience? Check spelling and don’t just rely on the spell checker, as it will not pick the mistake of using loose and lose, for example, as they are both correct spellings, for example. If at all possible get an experienced reader to look over your writing. Ask them to not only spot spelling and grammar mistakes, but to also comment on flow and clarity. When I edited print magazines I always had a sub-editor who would look over my edits. I miss that since moving out on my own and will certainly hire one again as soon as the cash flow allows. But even getting your spouse or a friend to read through something will help. They may not pickup all the subtle grammar issues but they are perhaps more likely to reflect your intended audience and will certainly spot the obvious mistakes. My wife keeps nagging me to do this more, but in the flow of writing on the web I often forget to do this, and then my readers point out the issues. Well, if I were perfect I wouldn’t be on the earth plane.
For many of us formal writing study is in our distant school past. Thankfully it is not hard to compensate for this with a bit of reading. I have set myself the task of developing my fiction writing skills. So I have disciplined myself to read one book of good fiction and then to follow this with a book about writing before I can read the next piece of fiction. I intersperse this with non-fiction reading, both magazines and books (mainly on photography and related areas). My favorite magazines are New Scientist, an excellent UK science weekly, and then a wide scattering of magazines in the architecture, art, religion, spirituality, photography and business areas. I love variety. One interesting think I have discovered is that what I am reading about writing good fiction is also helping me to write better non-fiction. After all, writing is writing.
For a writer, reading is a great source of education. So even as I read for entertainment or information, I also try to analyze the writing. Is it appropriate? How has the writer decided on this approach? What can I learn from their approach? I take notes, I think and reflect.
As I work on my writing I am finding that I am enjoying it more and more.