The Secret to Writing

First, there is more than one.  But there are few.  So this should be a rather short post.

The primary secret to writing is to write.  A lot.  Many many words.  Often.  I think we have all known bright, interesting people who are convinced that the Great American Novel hides somewhere in their minds.  But unless the GAN actually makes the trip from inside the mind to on the page, it really doesn’t exist.  Writing is like any kind of performance, it requires talent, opportunity and rehearsal.  We may be intrigued by the possibility of competing on Dancing With the Stars or The Voice, taking a bow for an Oscar-winning role, appearing onstage at the Met or Carnegie Hall, receiving a standing ovation for a rendition of Mendelssohn‘s First Violin Concerto (or, for that matter, for a soulful solo of “At Last”).  (Or maybe that’s just me.)  But, let’s face it, without a combination of chance, ability and practice, the only thing any of us would be able to do if we found ourselves onstage at Carnegie Hall is to blush and sidle off stage right.

English: A post-concert photo of the main hall...

Carnegie Hall--Image via Wikipedia

Native talent is something that we can do little about–it either exists in us or not.  (Although I believe we each of us have more talent, more talents, than we have ever explored or will ever have time to explore.  And there is something to be said for the notion that talent may be another word for desire, for love of the thing.  So it’s not something to worry about.)

Opportunity can be iffy.  If you want to be an astronaut, apart from the training and the scientific and physical abilities you must demonstrate, you have to realize how few slots open up each year.  That’s simply a given.

But rehearsal?  Now, that’s something we all can do, each in our various areas of desire.  All the time.  Every day, in some way.  Keep a journal, start a blog, Write poetry, songs, short stories, novels, words on a screen, as many as you can.  To be a writer, write.

The second secret to writing is to read.  In my friend’s blog, Sharon Sings and Writes, she tells us the many ways in which she organizes her life to make it possible for her to read what she wants and needs to read to help her enhance her writing.  I do many of the same things, skimming through articles, discarding those that aren’t ‘speaking’ to me, choosing books and magazines carefully.  But I read almost to the point of addiction (oh, well, actually, far past that point) every day.  I read when I’m eating (alone), when I’m watching TV (except for Downton Abbey and The Good Wife), when I’m taking a bath (I wish they’d create waterproof books–far too many of mine have wavy edges after an unexpected dip in the tub), when I’m doing chores, and sometimes while I’m writing (this is not easy).  I read the newspaper, magazines, articles on the web, books (books for research, books for enjoyment, books for knowledge, and novels, novels, novels).  I hope you love to read.  Very few writers who love to write hate to read.  And, by the way, if you are writing without loving it, there is very little point.

The third secret to writing is to learn how.  Writing practice and reading as much as you can are key here, but there is also formal learning.  Learn the structure of our language, learn how to write a sentence, a paragraph, an essay.  Read books on writing, such as “Bird by Bird” and “On Writing”. Learn syntax and grammar, punctuation (a fun way to do this is to read “Eats Shoots and Leaves“), and spelling.  Yes, even in a Spellcheck world, you need to know how to spell.  Spellcheck does not pick up everything.  Take classes in composition as well as in creative writing.  Constructing a non-fiction article requires using detail and evidence rather differently than you do in fiction, essays or poetry.  Learn how to touch type.  Unless you are Anthony Trollope, you will probably do your writing on a computer.  While Hildy Johnson in “My Gal Friday” managed quite well using two fingers, touch typing is a lot faster.  And you don’t want the mechanics of getting the words out to interfere with the flow inside your mind.  Learn formats.  In other words, learn the rules of your trade.  You may then break those rules at your pleasure, but you can’t break rules unless you know what they are.  Remember, Picasso knew how to draw.

The fourth secret to writing is to figure out what you want to write, why you want to write, and how.  Not everybody wants to write for publication.  If you wish to write for your own enjoyment, have at it!  And find a writing group specifically designed for expression.  But if you do want to write for publication, first, learn to cope with criticism.  Hopefully you will receive the kind known as ‘constructive criticism,’ that only hurts when you breathe.  But you will have to deal with criticism in one way or the other even if the only person who ever reads your work is your mother. Second, find out what markets there are for what you want to write.  Writer’s Digest can help you here; it is an invaluable resource for the writer for publication.  This magazine will help you learn how to find the market, how to present your work, and how to handle the business end of being a writer.  It will also help you improve your writing with prompts, contests, and articles about specific writing issues.  I can recommend it wholeheartedly.  And if you want to write screenplays, realize that nobody, NOBODY, will read your work if it isn’t in proper format.  This is as the laws of the Medes and the Persians.  Even if you’re the brother of the producer’s nephew’s girlfriend’s nanny, which is as close as most of get to nepotism in a most nepotistic Industry, you won’t get it read unless it looks like a screenplay, reads like a screenplay, is as long as a screenplay should be, and uses camera directions properly.

Summer reading, 2011.

Summer reading, 2011. (Photo credit: revbean)

The fifth secret to writing I may have mentioned.  Write.

And, finally, note I did not entitle this blog post “The Secret to Publishing.”  My list of published writings is so slim that if you blink while reading them, you’ll miss them.  And none of them would you find on  Ahem.  So that’s a secret I’ve yet to crack.  Anybody out there who’s figured that one out, please do not hesitate to let us all know.  Happy writing.

The Great American Novel -

The Great American Novel - (Photo credit: unprose)

14 responses

  1. I am prepared to be slapped…just name the time and place! BTW, new study from some reputable medical school finds that drinking makes one more creative. Hemingway, Faulkner, Bergland…

  2. I too must concur. For I find an engaging Romance Novel as well as write one, as much a pressing deadline as filling the Copper pot to boil and await the tea leaves to steep, then sip. I can scarcely concentrate without one, quite literally.
    I shall have to, also, look up the RWA.

  3. You know, I’d settle for something less than the “great” American novel, which I am convinced does not lurk in the deep recesses of my mind. I would be pleased as punch to just be published! I know I am published, but self-published hasn’t the same level of credibility, despite the fact editors are not all that brilliant in selecting successful works (Rowling as an example).

    You are so correct about the four “secrets” which are not really secrets. They are common sense for writers. What most aspiring writers seem not to be able to accomplish is putting them to practical use. They procrastinate. When I wrote “The Escapes of Oliver Fluff,” if I sat down to seriously write, the words and the story seemed to flow out of nowhere…it quite literally wrote itself. What fun that was, for I had no idea where it was going, yet it went ahead unabated. That is particularly what makes fiction the most fun.

    • Sometimes, for me, too, it flows. Sometimes it’s more like tugging. Another secret I forgot to mention is the application of the backside to the seat in front of the computer. Even if you have to tug, just keeping at it will unsnarl the logjam (to wildly mix every metaphor just to keep you on your toes). And I also forgot about the rule for “a *&(y first draft,” which basically means to stop censoring yourself and just write it. Very few writers can write a first draft that is the final draft, so get out of your own way and just write the thing.

      • A screenwriter once commented that he only wrote when inspiration struck, and it struck every morning at 9:00 am. And Tschaikovsky said that he had an arrangement with the muses that every morning he would sit down at his composition desk (or the piano) and they would show up. So yes: take butt, deposit in seat, apply fingers to keyboard.

    • I found that, as a anal writer, if not brought to my senses by outside forces, I would just keep re-writing and re-writing and re-writing and never finally submit the final draft. Every writer needs someone to slap them into reality.

      • I can’t remember who said it, but some very wise person once said that it takes two people to paint a picture: one to paint it and another to say when it was done. Deadlines have a function (ooops, and I’m still working under mine, so best get back to it!).

      • An “anal writer” conjures an image I would just as soon do without. And much as I love you, Bert, I would be honored to slap you into reality. You need a critique group.

        And Gail, thanx for the shout-out to “Sharon Sings and Writes” (

  4. Absolutely true! And clearly set out. A very good checklist. If you are not a member of the Romance Writers of America (RWA) you might consider joining even if you don’t write romance. For one thing, a little romance in most (not all) books isn’t a bad thing, but mostly RWA is the most organized of the major genre-support groups I’ve yet run into. And there’s a monthly magazine that rivals Writers Digest for comprehensive usefulness.

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