The Glass is Full: Your Way or the Highway

by Sam

Welcome back. This time, I’m going to tackle a topic most writers have encountered at some stage of their writing journey: the [proper] way to write.

One of the oft-repeated misconceptions is that writing cannot be taught. It’s a belief voiced by professional and amateur writers alike, but the reality is that art is achieved via exercise of a craft, and all craft has fundamental rudiments that require teaching.

Writing is no different. There are certain aspects of writing that do not lend themselves to the teaching environment, and no matter how much you learn (whether from a class or from a book), there is simply no substitute for hands-on experience, but there is much about writing that requires teaching. Thus, one of the first questions my students invariably ask is, “How do I write well?”

I often rephrase it, whether for those who come to me to learn English language or literature, or those who want to learn creative writing, so that it reflects my goal as a teacher: “What can you learn from me that you couldn’t learn on your own or via a book?”

It was John Fairfax who said, and I paraphrase, that the only reliable teacher of writing was an experienced writer. The majority of English teachers do not have time to engage in extensive writing, or to write for years in order to approach mastery of their craft, and in that sense I agree with Fairfax.

Yet, the question “how do I write well?” is so subjective as to be virtually unanswerable. If we rearrange the wording to ask “how does one become a good writer?” we can begin to answer it. It was Epictetus who said, “If you wish to be a good writer, write”, and in reality, that is the crux of the matter. A ‘good’ writer is an experienced writer.

Let’s imagine an uphill journey marked in increments of one mile, and let us suppose that every mile equals one thousand hours spent writing. Now, imagine that on each of these markers there is also a message that tells us what our current writing level is. The more we climb, the greater the view we’ll have of the journey made and the greater our experience will be. At some point on this hill, we will reach an apex where we’ll be able to look back with an unfettered view of everything. From here, we can surmise that at this stage in our writing journey we will be experienced enough to recognise how much we have improved skill-wise and how long it has taken us to get there.

Now, imagine we haven’t yet amassed those hours or that experience. Imagine we are just beginning and we just finished our first written piece. We feel a sense of satisfaction, but also a keen sense of dissatisfaction. Why? Because we have nothing to compare it to. We have no idea how to make the piece better, or the meaning clearer, or the impact stronger.

To learn this requires one of two things: a teacher, or a book, and both will give clear and concise ways to take our writing to the next level. But until we actively seek out that knowledge, I believe we will flounder as we try to improve by doing the same things we’ve always done.

This is why we have critiques and beta-reading and anything else that attempts to help a writer take the next step. Then, when we have arrived at the apex of our hill, and are experienced enough to see our growth, we begin wondering where to go from there.

We theorise about the proper way to write. That is to say, the way of bringing our writing to a place where it achieves maximum precision and effect. In this place, there is a tendency to consider certain techniques, processes, or methods paramount. And this, in my opinion, is one of the gravest mistakes a writer can make.

The ineffable desire to write is a function of needing to express oneself with words, and therefore to write reliably and to the best of our ability, we must first remain true to ourselves. That means that our processes and methods and techniques are established from our experience of what works for us and not from someone else telling us what they believe should work for us.

Yeats said, “To speak of one’s emotions without fear or moral ambition, to come out from under the shadow of other men’s minds, to forget their needs, to be utterly oneself, that is all the Muses care for”.

This is why we, as writers, strive to create and hone our own ‘voice’, perfectly unique to each of us, and often considered the ultimate hallmark of our authority. We are told that we should only emulate the voices of our idols and icons until such times as we create our own, and this is sage advice.

Thus, one of the hardest things for a beginner to understand is that the ‘proper’ way to write is entirely dependent on the person doing the writing. This is because they have been told to emulate their betters and therefore believe this applies to anything related to writing. So they find out everything that Stephen King does, for instance, and put it into practice in their own work.

The problem is that they’re not Stephen King. They’re John Doe, the writer, and copying Stephen King only makes them a copycat.

It sounds harsh, but as I’ve already said in this column, I’m okay with you disliking certain parts of the content. It is my firm belief that to be the best writer possible, you need to remain true to yourself.

If you are an extensive pantser, then pants, but your preferences do not dictate other people’s processes and vice versa. The proper way to write is, and will always be, your way.

That isn’t to say, however, that you can break the rules indiscriminately, or that you know everything about the history of writing, but what it does mean is that when it comes to writing, the method by which you put words on a page is yours and yours alone. Own it, accept it, and move on.

And so we come back to the other question posed in this month’s instalment of The Glass is Full. “How do I write well?”

Again, this is such a subjective question that it has numerous answers. How you write well in an academic environment is by answering questions in a clear, concise, and confident manner, whilst also including sufficient citations to corroborate your point of view.

How you write well in a technical environment is by creating manuals that are coherent, unambiguous, and straightforward, but which also impart necessary information to the person reading them. How you write well in a journalistic environment is by doing strong research, having good sources, and employing eye-catching articles.

There is, of course, more to it than just that, but essentially each form of writing has its own idea of what constitutes writing well. For creative writing, I believe it is the ability to create engaging characters, interesting plots, and page-turning intrigue or suspense. When you can marry that with prose that remains true to you, the author, then you won’t be too far from a winner.

A student once asked me how I came to be good at writing, how I had the patience to craft great novels from scratch, and how I dealt with the prospect of failure. My answer then was a trifle long-winded, but I did come upon two quotes sometime later that perfectly answered her questions and which I will leave you with for this month.

It was Leonardo Da Vinci who said, “In truth, great love springs from great knowledge of the beloved object, and if you know it but little, you will be able to love it only a little or not at all”. And it was Thomas Edison who said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”.
Happy reading and happy writing.

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