I was reading a blog the other day that was written with limited vocabulary, some poor grammar, and an overly-informal voice. It was easy to read, and it flowed like a conversation, so it wasn’t unpleasant. However, there was nothing to grab me.
To be honest, the writing was pretty parochial.
Even though it was “just a blog” (an excuse I often hear to justify poorly-constructed ideas and sentences), it could have been more — so much more.
It could have exceeded its elementary use of language and really wowed the reader. Instead, it was something that you were likely to read and immediately forget. Nothing stuck with the reader, because the writer didn’t spend any time constructing his prose.
I don’t want to be disingenuous here; I’ve said before that there are different styles of writing. Some writing ought to be simple. You shouldn’t write pretentiously or with complicated vocabulary if the audience can’t relate.
There is, of course, something to be said for a writer’s choice of style. Yet, at the end of the day, if your writing is just a bunch of fluff or is overly simplistic, your writer will recognize it, even if she isn’t a an academic or grammatician. People can recognize bad writing pretty easily.
This brings me to my point: good writers need to read. Great writers need to read a lot and jot down ideas in response to what they read. As a writer, you’ll find yourself hitting plateaus and roadblocks when you aren’t regularly reading. You’ll find that you actually run out of words, if you’re not regularly being challenged through reading new things.
Many people read books to finish them. This is not always necessary. Read books or articles just to read them — to glean new ideas, to learn new words, to fall back in love with language.
Don’t read to necessarily accomplish anything. That is, you don’t need to read to necessarily finish what you’re reading. Just read to read. But don’t neglect this necessary discipline in becoming a better writer. Make reading a habit, a personal passion. Grab hold of anything you can get your hands on.
As a writer, words are your lifeblood. Read anything. Just get started. If you don’t know where to start, begin with my suggested reading resources for writers.
When writing nonfiction, you’re faced with two choices: you can write about yourself, or you can write about others.
I recommend writing more about others than yourself, but it’s your choice.
When you write about yourself (i.e. first-person autobiography or anecdote), employ humility without sounding too self-deprecating. Nobody likes someone who is too hard on himself. Present the facts, even the ones that don’t make you look so hot.
When writing about yourself — this is extremely important — avoid making yourself the main character. It’s hard not to think of ourselves as the protagonists of our own stories, but sometimes we’re not. Sometimes, we’re the supporting character. Sometimes, we’re the narrator.
So many people are talking about themselves; be different, and make someone else the hero. If you do this well, people will be drawn to the stories you tell.
When you write about others (i.e. in a third-person story or article), illuminate the person’s strengths, but also bring to light her weaknesses. Don’t trash their reputation by any means, but make them real. Give them flesh. Make them human. People will relate more with truly flawed characters — they will find themselves in the story, instead of as just a bystander.
In all of these things, your goal is authenticity. A story is nothing (even if it is nonfiction) if people do not believe it.
It happens to every writer. It’s inevitable. Eventually, you come to the end of yourself when your prose has turned to mush and you feel like throwing in the towel.
Writer’s block. How do you overcome it?
It’s a tough question to answer, and I’m afraid that I don’t have a great solution.
I will tell you how you do not overcome writer’s block. You do not overcome writer’s block by refusing to write until you feel “inspired.” You do not overcome writer’s block by wallowing in self-pity. You do not overcome writer’s block by reading articles on how to overcome writer’s block.
You overcome writer’s block, I believe, by writing.
Start there. Write a few lines. Say anything. You’ll get past the hump.
Every writer has something that they love to write about – a passion that drives them, a favorite subject that fascinates them.
I think that I like writing anecdotal stories that call to action. I like real-life incidents that are told in a conversational manner that leave the reader with a challenge.
What’s your favorite writing subject?
Just heard this great quote from Ernest Hemingway, thanks to Rachel Aaron:
Those who say they want to be writers, and aren’t writing, don’t.
So, are you talking about writing… or actually doing it?
I know a lot of people who like to write. They blog, email, maybe even journal.
And that’s good. It’s important to have communication skills during this Information Age. It’s good to be able to write and express your thoughts in a culture with so much electronic access to so many other people.
But if you want to be a writer, that’s not enough.
I don’t meant to sound harsh here, but can you do something — anything — for an extended period of time without loving it? I suppose you can, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
Of course, many people do this — everyday and throughout their entire lives. They’re hacking away at jobs that they hate, doing it because they feel stuck and have no idea what else they could be doing.
But if you’re to be a writer, a bard, a storyteller, you really need to love writing. This is the difference between vocation and occupation. Vocation is a life calling — a passion — and occupation is, rather, something that occupies your time (and hopefully pays the bills). With a vocation, you may never get paid much, but it’s still something you have to do. As one friend says, it’s something you “can’t not do.”
If you’re going to be a writer, you have to love it. If not, you’ll burn up and flake out. Life is too short to spend your free time doing things you don’t love. Don’t get serious about writing unless you love it. But if you do love writing, it’s time to get serious.
Terry Whalin wrote an interesting article about how to get published in a magazine called “The Basics of Magazine Article Writing.” There is no formula for getting published, but reading articles like this will help you glean things that may be relevant for your own writing.
Whalin writes about rejection:
Every writer meets with rejection and projects which are never published. In fact, I have files of material which has circulated and never been published. I caution you that rejection and unpublished articles is a part of the writer’s life and the road to consistent publication. Read More about the Basics of Magazine Article Writing…
Another article is Gary Bell’s “Eight Tips for Getting Published in Magazines.” The main takeaway, in my opinion, is building a relationship with the magazine. Like so many things in life, getting published isn’t about what you know as much as it is about who you know. Once you prove yourself to a publication and have a relationship with an editor, it’s much easier to come back the second and third time to get published.
EHow’s “How to Write a Magazine Article” is a good, practical resource, as well. Perhaps, the most relevant “tip” is what it says in the upper-right corner in the “difficulty level” of this how-to: “challenging.” Writing an article isn’t easy, if you’ve never done it before. If you’re looking for an easy shortcut other than just doing the hard work, you won’t find one.
Lastly, check out my article on “How to Get Published as an Author,” which goes into detail about how to get published, particularly in magazines, which is where I have most of my publishing experience.