I make my living on words. Reading them and writing them. I’ve been an English and writing teacher for over twenty years and a part-time writer for the last two. And this is why I have a hard time digesting the “this is how to be a great writer” articles, especially those with simplified lists or numbers.
Throughout history, great writers’ extremely diverse styles are proof that no such cut and dry recipes are accurate. Shakespeare, one of the greatest writers ever to have lived, rarely spoke in direct language. His power is metaphor. Ernest Hemingway’s straightforward style, which most likely came from his job as a reporter for The Kansas City Star, is just as revered.
So don’t believe the hard and fast rules people try to tell you about what you can and can’t do to achieve writing success. Here are three of the cut and dry statements that I urge you to ignore.
You can’t be a successful writer if you have multiple responsibilities
I was fuming yesterday. I read an article saying if writers have a lot of responsibilities or a full-time job, they should choose one or the other because it’s impossible to do both. I am a soft-spoken mother of two, but some very unladylike words wanted to spew out of my mouth.
My fellow writers, if you haven’t learned this yet, only you define your limitations. A full time job doesn’t. Being a parent doesn’t. Having a full-time college course load doesn’t. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
It may involve planning and organization. You may have to get up earlier or stay up later. You may have to forego a few hours sitting in front of the television after work or enlist the help of friends from time to time. But never doubt you can succeed.
The New York Public Library reports that Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes’s creator, worked as a surgeon while he was writing. Kurt Vonnegut, the author of Slaughterhouse 5, was a car salesman. Margaret Atwood, the famed author of The Handmaid’s Tale, worked as a barista. I’d say they managed to juggle their responsibilities successfully, wouldn’t you? They are, after all, some of the most famous writers in all of literature.
So if writing is what you genuinely want to do, you can do it successfully alongside other things. You just have to make the most of the time you have.
All you have to do is write more to succeed
In my personal opinion, this is the biggest lie told to all writers. And I should know because I’ve taught writing for over two decades. I’ve also written over three hundred articles, and recently I had the chance to look over my old ones. This activity made me both extraordinarily embarrassed and extremely happy at the same time.
At the beginning of my career, I had paragraphs that took up a third of the page. I capitalized subtitles just as if they were headlines. The flowery metaphors I thought were so beautiful clouded the clarity of my writing. There were words that were repetitive, sentences that were repetitive, little to no formatting, and tons of long, long sentences that I now realize would weary any reader. And though I mentally scolded myself for these errors, I was extremely pleased with how much my writing had improved over the years.
And it didn’t get better by writing. It got better by learning. I read books on writing. I watched interviews with successful writers. I discussed my craft with others in my field. Because of this, I learned the power of a headline and a subtitle. I learned ways to engage my reader with compelling introductions and ways to provide value to my readers with actionable advice.
And the more I learned about the art of writing, the more my mind threw up mental alerts when I caught myself reverting to my old bad habits. Some examples of those alerts?
That’s repetitive. Delete it. That word is unnecessary. Leave it out. That paragraph is too long. Break it up. That’s passive voice. Make it active. Without these mental alerts, not only does your writing not get better, it cements the bad habits you already have.
Now, this is not to say you shouldn’t write a lot. Just make as much time as you can to do some reading or research on the art of good writing. Then, focus on one of those skills and practice it in your next article.
When I teach writing, I instruct my students on one thing and then have them focus solely on developing that skill. For example, if they are learning to write a good introduction, we practice ten introductions, not ten essays. So, you may find it helpful to write and edit with one particular skill or weakness in the forefront of your mind or make a list of do’s and don’ts from your learning and check your writing for these things paragraph by paragraph after your first draft.
The road to improvement should not look like write, write, write and write. It should look like learn, write, learn, write, learn and write.
Good writing is all about creativity
You’ve probably heard Nobel Prize winner Robert W. Sperry’s theory relating to the differences between the brain’s two different hemispheres. This theory centers around the idea that one hemisphere of the brain is more dominant than the other. For example, people’s brains dominated by the left hemisphere are more adept at logic, analysis, and reasoning. People who are “right-brained” are stronger at creative thought, emotional expressiveness, and imagination.
Many writers describe themselves as right-brained because writing is an exercise in emotion and creativity. However, writers who only focus on channeling their imaginative powers do themselves and their work a great disservice. The best writers use both right and left brain “skill sets” to produce great work.
Great writers often choose to invoke the right brain when they are composing their first drafts. Then, using left-brain skills, they critically analyze their writing to make it more coherent and accessible to all readers. Others prefer to start with the left brain skills, creating a template or outline of main ideas, filling in the already formatted structure, and harnessing their creativity to make the sentences and images more emotionally compelling.
Regardless of the strategy, the critical thing is writers use both hemispheres of the brain in the writing process. For example, here’s how the different hemispheres work together to produce a great headline and sub-heading.
• The Title: (Left Brain) Use logic to create a straightforward headline to let your reader know the specific topic you are writing on.
• The Subtitle: (Right Brain) Use imagination to arouse curiosity about what exactly you will specifically say in the article itself.
Spanish painter Joan Miró explains the importance of embracing both creativity and logic in artistic endeavors best by stating that “works must be conceived with fire in the soul but executed with clinical coolness.”
The bottom line:
Author Kurt Vonnegut expresses an excellent metaphor on how to be successful in writing (and life): “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”
In other words, a writer must work hard, believe in himself, and have a lot of practice runs under his belt to take to the skies successfully. However, without learning how to use his wings to their max potential, the landing may not be a pretty one.
Many writers will try to tell you which cliff to jump off and how to best use your wings. Listen politely, but don’t automatically take their words to heart. Your wings are unique, and so is your writing journey.
And my sincerest hope for you? A gorgeous flight and a safe landing.