By Leslie Miller
The main problem I find with editing new writers is that although their ideas may have real potential, they are unable to express them in a way that hooks a reader. Why? Because they have not taken the time to learn basic writing craft.
I participate in a lot of LinkedIn groups and there are always threads with authors (usually as yet unpublished) bitterly complaining about the tyranny of writing rules. They don’t want to learn them, they don’t want to follow them, they don’t understand the “why” of them, they don’t want their creativity roped in or stifled in any way . . .
They hide behind the myth of subjectivity. Who’s to say what is or is not good writing? It’s all personal taste, right?
I have a very different opinion of writing rules and writing craft than the “rebels” on LinkedIn. In my experience, if you really study your craft, it will enliven, deepen, and perhaps even liberate your writing. If you do not, your book will be much weaker than it could be. Your story less compelling. Your characters less interesting.
The purpose of writing is either self-expression or communication–or both. If you are merely writing for yourself, have at it in any fashion you choose. But if you are writing with the hopes that others will read and enjoy it, or learn something from it, then a good knowledge of writing craft is your best friend. It allows you to convey your story or ideas clearly, in a powerful, entertaining, or compelling fashion.
- Wouldn’t you love your action scenes to have readers holding their collective breaths?
- Wouldn’t you love your emotional scenes to bring tears to readers’ eyes?
- Wouldn’t you love your plot twists to make readers gasp out loud?
- Wouldn’t you love people to say, “You have to read this; I just couldn’t put it down!”
This type of writing usually doesn’t happen by accident. Sure, there are probably some wildly talented writers who have absorbed whatever they need to know by osmosis, in school or their own reading. And when they sit down to write, they have an inherent mastery of consistent tense, effective use of POV, knowing when to show and when to tell, using active voice, stimulus and response, story structure, etc. But I suspect these writers are the proverbial one-in-a-million.
I haven’t run across one yet.
Brilliant ideas are not enough–you need the skill to make them come alive on the page. That’s what writing craft is to me: it’s that skill. It’s not just some ridiculous, arbitrary set of rules designed to stifle your muse. It’s not something designed by a bunch of old, fossilized gatekeepers who are trying to keep you down. It’s not something you can skip if you are planning to self-publish, because readers don’t know the difference anyway. They do know–they just don’t know how to explain why they put the book down.
If you want to do your ideas justice on the page, you need to have a solid understanding of craft, plain and simple. So how can you learn it? Well, there is a lot to learn, but it doesn’t have to be mastered all at once. Popular author James Scott Bell suggests spending at least one hour a week studying your craft. You might find you enjoy it so much, you will spend many more hours at it and your writing will grow that much faster.
I have several suggestions for people who would like to study the craft.
1. Have beta-readers, critique partners, or an editor evaluate some of your work, to find out where you need the most help. After all, you don’t know what you don’t know. Focus on those areas in your study. Many people swear by critique groups and critique partners. Be open, but have discernment. The best crit groups focus on constructive criticism and contain some published writers who are farther along than you are.
2. Follow writing craft blogs. There are dozens online. This is a great free and easy way to study, because you are taking information in little bits at a time on an ongoing basis. After a while, seemingly without much effort, it clicks in. Some of my favorites include:
There are many more as well. Google “writing craft blogs” and follow the ones that most resonate with you.
3. Take online writing courses. They are relatively inexpensive, you can take them at your own pace so they fit in with your lifestyle. Getting feedback not only on your own homework, but on other students’ as well, will really drive the points home. However, let the buyer beware. There are gazillions of these courses online of varying usefulness. The instructor makes all the difference so before signing up, go onto their website and see if you resonate with what they are teaching.
I highly recommend the Lawson Writer’s Academy and I know there are other great ones out there too.
4. Writing craft books. These are numerous, and again, of varying degrees of usefullness. To avoid wasting a lot of money, try finding them through your public library, or read the opening pages on Amazon.com to make sure you resonate with the subject matter. If they offer exercises, make sure to do them! You might think you “get it” but when you sit down to do the exercise, you’ll see where you are weak and where you need more practice.
5. Read, both in your genre and in others. This is classic advice, but I want to put a new spin on it. You’ve probably been reading your whole life, but that doesn’t mean you can write anywhere near as well as the authors you love. Instead of just reading and enjoying a book, try to break down what the writer did that made it such a great read. Once you start studying writing craft, that will become much easier. Once you study the problems of info dumps and long passages of exposition, you’ll be able to study how your favorite author avoids them and what he or she does instead, to get the information across. Once you know you are weak in the area of dialogue, or dialogue tags and attributions, you’ll be able to study how successful authors are using them. If you find you’re completely sucked into a passage, later go back and examine exactly what the author did to make it so compelling. What kind of sentence structure? What kind of word choice? What kind of description?
Get it? Don’t just read–study!