I have several rules to writing. OK, there are not really rules. Let’s call them strong suggestions. None of these are original and I take no credit for any of them, but all have proved true over my 30 years of writing. The suggestions are not listed by importance — I put them on the page as they tumbled off my pointy, little head.
Write however is best for you. Don’t write how you are told to write. Don’t write how someone else writes. Don’t write how you think you should write. Just write in whatever way and style works for you. Write regularly or irregularly. Write in your sacred place or at a coffee shop. Write every morning or every night or every so often. The more you write the better you’ll get and the less you write the more you won’t get better. Just be yourself.
Write whenever is best for you. The most common writing commandment you’ll read is to “put your butt in the chair. Do this every day as if it’s at a job and a book will eventually appear.” This makes perfect sense and it is perfectly impossible for me. If I were writing a textbook or a how-to-book or some instructional book that had a rigid outline this “butt in the chair” technique might work. But the books I write I don’t outline; I don’t know where they are going and I don’t know how they are going to get there. I have tried the “butt in the chair” strategy and it just doesn’t work for me. The hour of the day is not my motivator and I get no inspiration from routine. I write whenever the inspiration strikes me and try not to write whenever my inspiration has gone elsewhere.
I have written good words in a crowded airplane, diner and train. I have written parked on the side of the road, while (someone else is) driving, waiting for a taxi and in a taxi. I have written at midnight, at dawn, at noon, in the afternoon, through dinner. I have written with the TV on, with the radio on, with music on and in relative silence. I have written dressed, not dressed, sorta dressed and overdressed. I have written happy, sad, contemplative and angry. I have written wet, hot, cold, very cold and just right. I have written on a tractor, on a walk, with a pen, with a pencil, with a good idea and without one. I have written on a laptop, on a desktop, on a yellow pad, on a napkin, in a journal, on a memo pad. I have written in my head, in my bed, unwed and wed, enough said.
In other words, I write whenever the mood strikes and inspiration descends upon me. Inspiration is a rare thing so when it arrives it is best not to squander it. Doesn’t matter where you are when inspiration visits be a slave to its desires. This is why I always have a notebook with me and I have pens stashed everywhere. You can never have too many pens.
Writing is the process of rewriting. This is incredibly important to understand. What you write at first is just the start and hopefully not the finish. Every time you go over your words they become better, your ideas become clearer, your satisfaction becomes greater. When you finish, the words you have will be nothing like the words you started with and that is a good thing. The ideas may be the same but the words you use will be different.
Part of rewriting is deleting what you have already written. This can be hard because putting words on a page is difficult and the last thing you want to do is to take them off the page. The hardest thing to do is to get rid of that favorite paragraph you wrote yesterday because now you realize it actually doesn’t fit into what you were trying to say. But what was compelling yesterday may, and often does, turn out to be not so great today. That’s okay. It’s all a process of clarity and refinement. Work on the good stuff, toss the rest.
Be protective of your words and ideas. Don’t let just anyone read what you have written and especially, be careful with your family. Family has a way of being discouragingly helpful. They don’t mean to, but it just comes out that way. Intentionally or not, they know you too well and they know how to push all your buttons. Pick one or two trusted friends, keep them informed of your progress and thinking and let them read what you have written when it is time. Then consider what they say seriously. They can see the forest for the trees and you can’t.
Write like yourself. Don’t write like someone you want to be. It won’t work and it will come off sounding affected. Don’t pepper your paragraphs with words you would never use, they will sound phony. Don’t feign expertise that you don’t have and don’t take on a persona that…well, never take on a persona, period. It’s too annoying. Put the fedora and the snifter of brandy away and just be yourself, that’s plenty. If you are stuck, imagine you are telling a friend about what you are working on. Then write that conversation down. Conversational writing is very approachable and it will sound authentic. If it’s too casual, you can fix it later.
Also don’t be a slave to computer grammar and editing. I find spell check to be useful but as far as grammar and sentence structure I find that computer writing programs will homogenize your writing, squeezing out the uniqueness of your voice and style. Turn off or deselect auto correct and auto-grammar. You’ll be happy to not write like a computer. Be yourself, not your laptop.
Write without editing. Just write, get the words down and keep going. Writing is like riding a wave — when a good one rolls in you want to stay on it as long as you can. You don’t want to keep jumping off to correct something only to have it pass you by. Besides, it doesn’t matter how your page looks, it matters how it reads. All those brightly colored underlinings and highlights your computer added will still be there when you have finished riding your wave, go back to them then.
My most useful books on writing. There are dozens and dozens of books on how to be every type of writer imaginable. They are mostly all the same. I have read many of them and as I write these words I am looking at three feet of bookshelf over my desk crammed with titles. Of all these books I consider three to be essential:
For grammar, spelling, usage and all else wordy there are two books that are easy and fun to read and full of great information. I go back to these books repeatedly. The information they hold is also great at killing conversations by pompous twits. Nothing better than interjecting a grammar correction to shut up the unbearable.
Woe is I. The grammarphobe’s guide to better English in plain English. Patricia O’Conner, Riverhead Books, Fourth Edition, 2019.
Dreyer’s English. An utterly correct guide to clarity and style. Benjamin Dreyer, Random House, 2019
The truly essential book on writing is one of the most venerable and still most useful. More than a million copies have been sold. My first magazine rejection letter included the strong suggestion that I buy and study this book immediately. I did. It soon became my writing Bible. The author also has two other books — Writing to Learn and Writing about your Life.
On Writing Well. The classic guide to writing nonfiction. William Zinsser, Collins, 2006
Writing better is reading better. One of the best ways to write better is to read good writing. Find a couple authors that you love and read everything they have written. Then reread the special books and read between the lines — how did they introduce this idea? How did they set up this transition? How much detail did they use to describe a person or place? You can learn a lot about good writing by being sensitive to the unwritten messages between the lines.
You can also go to YouTube and listen to your favorite authors speak at book signings and presentations. I always pick up little nuggets and insights about their thinking and process when I do this. Watching them also humanizes them for me and takes them out of the realm of Gods. Robert Macfarlane, David Quammen and Robin Kimmerer are inspirations to me.
Writing is rhythm and sound. It took my years to understand this. The rhythm and sound of your words will greatly enhance your writing and the enjoyment of your readers. After you have gone over your work a few times, go over again and listen to the words and listen to how they fit together. Is there a clunky phrase or a misplaced sounding word you keep mentally tripping on? Is there an overly long sentence that sneaks into a paragraph of nice short sentences? How about an out of place five syllable word where a nice three syllable one should be? Computer writing apps can’t listen and they won’t be your reader. Listen to your writing, feel its rhythm.
Writing this essay. This essay started as part of another essay on writing I was working on. After a late night of cobbling together sentences, I removed everything I had written that had to do with technique the next morning. Those words all slid over to this essay so the original idea I was working on in the first essay didn’t wander off topic (like those last sentences just did). I’ll try again. Reading over the original essay I realized that I was including material that was not part of my initial idea and was leading the essay astray. I cut it all out and tossed it over to here then expanded it into this mostly cohesive essay. This is now the fourth, no fifth, no sixth, (never mind) time I have reread and rewritten these words and I’m sure I’m not done yet.