There is No Right Way to Write
There are many reasons that people to choose to put their thoughts down on paper (or cyberspace) and no matter what your purpose for writing–going to school, therapy/peace of mind, or as a profession I hope these ideas can help.
A Writer is not Simply Born:
Lately people are asking my advice about writing and publishing so I felt it might be useful to jot down some of the things I have learned about writing over the years. Some people tell me I am a good writer (thanks mom) and although I think of myself as average, I have had some luck getting my work published and want to share my thoughts. Keep in mind there a million ways to successfully convey your thoughts and this is just one view. Shop around for other advice.
No one is a born wordsmith. I had two very memorable moments in my life that let me know I needed to intensely work on my writing skills and want to share them here so that you can see that writing is simply an art you must practice repeatedly to improve.
My first moment was while I was earning my bachelor’s degree at Auburn University. Many professors admired my work ethic but tried to implore me to get better at sharing my thoughts in the written form. One professor who was the kindest sort of southern gentlemen and had an accent that was straight out of Gone with the Wind made the most impact. I got a paper back from him that I was particularly proud of. My dreams were shattered by a beautifully worded note at the bottom of page seven.
“Very enjoyable, thoroughly researched, good approach. Now if you’d just had an editor—wow—there are quite a few atrocities that could have been eliminated.”
Luckily he still gave me an 89 for my heroic yet pitiful effort to describe the military genius of Alexander the Great. My second wake-up call was after I went to my first national-level meeting between my boss (a two star) and the Deputy Minister of Defense for the country we were working in. I was a First Lieutenant and a bit confident, so when he asked me if I could take notes at the meeting and provide him a write up he could send back to DC I assured him I was a good enough writer. I once also told someone I was a good horseback rider, yet I hadn’t ridden in 15 years and was thrown on my last attempt. I was put in charge of breaking horses on that ranch and it left some scars while I learned.
Luckily on this go round I was not injured but Major General Eikenberry certainly threw my pride down when I sent him my meeting notes that I had worked for a couple hours to neatly organize. As he was crushing my soul (in a fatherly way) with his thoughts on my ability to write he was also inspiring me to get better at it. After 10 more months together working 16-hour days I became a tolerable writer due to his mentorship and he also inspired me to start trying to write for publication. By the time I got to graduate school I had honed my craft and immediately published in a political science journal. Since grad school I never stopped publishing. More importantly I never stopped studying about the art of writing and never stopped reading. Having lots of ideas and taking the time to actually write about them is the foundation of writing improvement for me. Hopefully some of these thoughts will be useful to you.
Before we get started a few questions about your purpose for writing might help set the stage.
Who are you writing for? Do you know your audience or are they strangers? Is it an academic medium like a journal? Either way you must adapt to their style for publication. Is it supposed to be serious and formal or is it entertaining where informality is more welcome?
How do you want to write? For instance this article is simply informative (and hopefully a bit entertaining) and is trying to make you think about how you write and how you can improve it. As Hemingway would say this piece “it is not an attempt at prose.” So I am not going to be overly worried about being formal in my writing—it’s going to be purposely informal.
Lessons I gained from Hemingway (insert your favorite author here):
One of my greatest sources for writing advice is from a man who refused to write a book or article about how to write. But many of his books allude to a writer’s skills or are great examples of how to write with passion. You can study as many writers as you like but find one that inspires you to be better and learn from them.
My big takeaways from Hemingway. Write about what you know–even if you are writing fiction. Be passionate when you write and live–it gives you lots more to write about. Write what you want not just what others ask you to write. Write standing up–it actually makes it easier to think somehow. “All you have to do is write one true sentence.” Just think about that one it has many meanings. Its useful to have a good sense of right and wrong to be a writer. Finally he told someone once in a letter that “in truly good writing no matter how many times you read it you do not know how it is done.” Sometimes you will just never reach the mark that others have set, so set your own standards. 85 percent perfect and published is better than 100% correct and still on your computer.
Read these three short books (some are very long) by Ernest Hemingway. 1) A Moveable Feast: This memoir of his early years in Paris was constructed from his early writings left in a trunk in a Paris hotel in 1928 that wasn’t reclaimed by him until 1956. A fascinating look at his early writing style and the physical environment he immersed himself in as he grew as a writer. It’s a way to go to Paris without the airfare cost. 2) The Old Man and the Sea: You probably read this in school but believe me you were likely to young to really understand what he was writing about. There are lots of things I missed as a child because I lacked the vocabulary and understanding of the world that an adult has. This was his Pulitzer Prize winning book. 3) Finally you must read The Sun Also Rises: This book was one of his earliest published works and is about the Great War generation (“the lost generation”) in post war Europe. If you are a veteran you will understand so many of the things he is trying to express in this piece and in many ways Global War on Terrorism veterans will find his post-war experience very similar to ours.
Next read these books about him and his writing because they will give you another’s perspective on how he wrote and what inspired him to write. 1) Earnest Hemingway on Writing: In this thin volume Larry Phillips collects the most valuable tips for writers he could find in Hemingway’s books, short stories, and letters to friends and family. 2) Papa Hemingway: This is a book written from the point of view of a young journalist sent to Cuba to convince Hemingway to write an article about the future of literature. This odd mission (that largely fails) led the young man to become a traveling partner and friend to Hemingway so you can really get a sense for how he wrote and how he found material to write about. This book is full of hilarious and unbelievable stories so it makes a great gift to his fans.
Finally I find it useful to drink when I write, even if it’s an energy drink, coffee/tea, or glass of water. Just put it in a nice glass and pretend you are Hemingway or one of your favorite authors. By the way if you don’t like Hemingway’s writing style you are not alone. You might be a bit odd and are not welcome to drink scotch in my den, but you are not alone.
Read everything. Don’t just read topics you like and don’t just read things you agree with. Read always. Carry a book, journal, or magazine with you everywhere so you can always feed your brain. Read around the subject. I forgot who gave me that advice but it’s brilliant. If you want to know about Saudi Arabia then you need to also study the oil industry, the history of Islam, British and American spying efforts in the Great War, and how maple syrup harvesting has become like the oil industry. Let your main subject lead you to all kinds of other topics that are related. Finally, take notes in the book. Some people treat books like Faberge eggs I consume mine and leave them covered in a pen or two of ink. This is a place to create an outline for your on piece on the topic. Make an outline in the first few empty pages, create a list of topics by page that you want to return to in that book, and make notes on the margins to summarize or point out key topics.
Get organized. Create a writing folder on your word-processing device. Save drafts there until you send them for publishing then file them by publication type. This folder can get pretty big but it will give you a source of topics to return to when you want to drop off a shell to elaborate on later or grab a rough draft and put the rest of the meat on the bones when you get the urge.
Letting it out
Write when you are inspired wherever you are—use email, scribble notes, use bookmarks you can write on, keep a pad by the bed, get up and write if you can’t sleep because of thoughts running through your mind. Just start writing about whatever you get passionate about. Save it in your writing folder. Never stare at a blank screen. Try to walk, run, roll, or drive and craft paragraphs in your my mind. I find that I often think about the topic and write it in my head for a few days before I start typing.
Structure and sharing/publishing
Use an outline if you need it or just write the thoughts as they come in little notes and move them until they make sense as you form complete thoughts. Everyone’s brain works different.
When editing, if it’s long or you are just starting out as a writer hire a proofreader. They find grammar mistakes, can tell you if the paper even makes sense to a stranger, and they pick up the mistakes your brain has started to correct when you read it. When you get assigned a publishing editor listen to them unless they are changing the meaning of your content—it’s always your thought so don’t let anyone change your mind. If you can’t work with them go somewhere else. Some editors are a-holes and others are great so shop around for publishing outlets.
Don’t just write for one outlet unless you need the money. Publish in various places and publish pieces of various lengths so you can learn to write long and short. Write for free or for pay the important part is getting it out there. Not everything you craft needs to be for public consumption so save some writing for yourself or friends and family. Sharing with your friends and family is a great way to get some good feedback. Find someone that is brutally honest but likes you and wants to help you grow.
Speaking of feedback what about those comments from readers? If your friend gives you negative comments listen. If a troll makes comments—don’t read them. Never respond to a troll but do respond to constructive criticism or thoughtful disagreements from sensible readers if you have time. Learn from others thoughts but don’t let it change your attitude just your skills; although you never know when someone’s ideas may change your mind.
When do you know when you have made it? In arguments or opinion pieces the people who disagree with you notice that you are trying to be balanced. People will start to tell you that you should publish a piece after you share a draft with them. You really know you made it when your work is used by others, picked up by other outlets for republishing, or is passed around to other people and you get comments from strangers around the globe. It’s ok to attach an email address to what you write so that you can get feedback, just make up a new one just for writing as it will be very public.
Growing as a writer
Get in contact with other writers in your genre and meet authors of other topics too. Twitter and other social media tools are great ways to meet others that share your interests. Tell people when you publish something and ask them to share it if they like it. The best way to get your piece in front of readers is to tell your friends via social media and email that you have an article or book that just came out.
Finally you should find two or three good examples of the type of style or product you are trying to create. I have a few great political science essays that I keep near my desk to ensure I am close to the model of what I think right looks like. It’s not plagiarism to emulate great styles of writing or content structure—it’s honoring the original author. At some point when you write if you have not developed your own style yet you can honor the great author you admire. Just never borrow a series of words or an original thought without giving credit. You would want someone to honor you by giving you a shout-out, so return the favor.