This blog’s title could also be “The Art of Writing,” “The Art of Writing Well,” “Steps to Writing Well,” “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,” or any of the hundreds of published titles that hold the promise of success within their glossy covers.
But what is the craft of writing? What does that even mean?
I pondered how to write this article. I mean, I was a teacher for nine years and taught literature and creative writing – surely I should be able to come up with something, even if it was just a regurgitated lesson plan. But this topic isn’t something that can be covered in just one blog article. In fact, discussing the craft of writing is a bit like asking the meaning of life – everyone has an opinion and values particular to them. This topic encompasses so many facets, so many areas, and each one deserves its own heading and attention.
Don’t panic! While I could write for days about the craft of writing, I won’t. Instead, what follows is a general overview that conveys some of the essentials to help guide you down the path of writing well.
Know your genre
If you want to write well, you need to read widely, especially, but not exclusively, in your genre. The fact is, you may not even know your genre when you first start writing. Learn the common elements of different genres. For example, there are certain guiding rules for those who write mysteries, one being that the detective must solve the case using rational and scientific methods. No pulling a rabbit out of a hat allowed. Familiarity with similar, well-written books by authors you admire will help ensure that you are following the accepted method that readers rely on. That’s not to say you are limited to only these methods—just use them as a guide from those who may have more experience as you let your own creativity and words flow.
Know your story and plot
Some people are prodigious plotters, going so far as to create character backstories before they start. Others eschew the outline and let their pen or keyboard take them where it will. Whatever method is best for you (and don’t knock one until you’ve tried it), what matters most is that you know what you are writing about, even if you don’t know exactly how the story is going to unfold. One tip to help in this area is to know your story’s main themes before you start and make sure the storyline is consistently presenting them. A theme is not a topic or subject. A theme is the idea you wish to convey about that subject. For example, a subject could be pride. The theme could be that pride can be the downfall of the greatest people. Themes are best when they attempt to convey human experiences and wisdom.
Think about structure
After deciding on your topic and plot, it’s often helpful to decide on the structure. This means deciding on how you want to tell your story. You may have a straightforward, chronological tale à la The Tortoise and the Hare. But maybe you want to use flashbacks, or jumps in time. Perhaps you’re interested in some added complexity by layering in subplots, which are especially intriguing when they complement the main storyline. Multiple character arcs and perspectives (think Star Wars: Phantom Menace) provide depth for your reader to sift through and establish their own meaning of your story.
Is your story told in first person? This technique is great for engaging the reader and really making them connect with the character. Most stories are told in the familiar third person, and if it worked in Harry Potter for J.K. Rowling, you should feel pretty confident using it yourself. Second person narration isn’t very common. It addresses the reader as “you” instead of the first person “I” or third person “he/she/they.” One novel that uses this technique brilliantly, however, is Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. This technique brings the reader closer to the story: we are the characters in the story. Your novel’s point of view is an integral element of the story and can help convey mood and tone.
Any story your write, in any genre, should have what’s called a narrative or story arc. This refers to the chronological construction of the plot. Typically the arc looks something like a pyramid, made up of the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. It can be helpful to do more reading on each of these and think about how they might look in your story before you start writing.
Create compelling characters
No one likes bad characters. And by “bad” I don’t mean the villains, I mean the poorly written, flat, static, one dimensional characters. You want your characters to leap off the page and nestle into our hearts and minds the way that Anne Shirley does. Bring your characters to life. One of the easiest ways to do this is through simple details. You don’t need to dwell on their appearance, although Anne’s fiery red hair complements her passionate temperament, but you can use elements of their appearance to build their personality. Would Quasimodo be such a sympathetic character if he were a strapping, handsome young man? No. Other ways to describe your characters are through their actions, words, thoughts, and how other characters respond to them. Make sure that your character is growing and changing throughout the story by means of conflict.
Drum up good dialogue
I have discarded books with perfectly enticing storylines and otherwise well-written narratives because the dialogue sucked and the first page of conversation signaled an amateur scribbler who hadn’t grasped the mechanics of speech. A professional author adroitly uses dialogue to build character, reveal relationships, and propel the plot. You need to be adept at crafting natural-sounding dialogue. Dialogue is hard to write and even harder to write well. One way to improve upon it is to listen to conversations around you and record them. Listen to the nuances, innuendo, rhythm. Don’t be afraid to punctuate your dialogue with ellipses or the em dash to show hesitation, trailing off, or interrupted sentences. These things happen in real life. Novice writers, in particular, need to study dialogue writing.
Find your voice
When I was still teaching, I was lucky enough to connect with Lawrence Hill and invite him as a guest speaker for my classes. One of the things we talked about was prose style and how important it is for each author to establish their own voice. This is easier said than done. We often consciously or unconsciously mimic the writing styles of authors we admire or read often. Hill’s suggestion was to start with small, daily writing tasks that focus strictly on your own observations with the freedom of not having to share this with anyone else. For example, describe a person you know intimately, focusing on appearance and then personality. Just write the thoughts that come immediately into your head when you think of them. The next day, write briefly about a memory you have of an event or occasion. Again, you are using the words that only you have about this time. From here, you can expand into larger paragraphs about situations you’ve experienced. The idea is to keep these writing activities intensely personal and write from your point of view. This will help you to remain authentic and you can then look over your entries to note the types of words and sentence styles that are intrinsic to your own writing style.
Bring your setting to life
Off the top of my head, when I think of the strongest examples of setting or world building in novels, I think immediately of Hogwarts, the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, Oceania in 1984, and 221B Baker Street in Sherlock Holmes. There’s Alice’s Wonderland and even the rabbit-run Efrafa in Watership Down. Sensory imagery brings settings to life. Many novice writers get bogged down with descriptions of setting. Don’t be one of them! Instead, use strong literal and figurative language to show us places and yes, situations. Don’t tell us that London is raining, because when isn’t it? (Sorry, Londoners! I love you and your city!) Show us it’s windy when a character struggles to open and hold on to her umbrella. Convey how it’s cold and wet by her reddened fingers clutched around the umbrella’s shaft, slipping down as she tries to maintain her grip without impaling someone’s eye or sloshing in a puddle. Be creative.
Do the research
Thorough research and accuracy are imperative. You might not like wading through the library stacks for a piece of obscure 11th century Germanic folklore, but that’s why we have Google. Don’t guess facts. If you don’t like to research, hire someone. If that’s not in your budget, consider offering the job to a student in return for providing a recommendation. This is especially true if you’re writing historical fiction. I would love to ask Diana Gabaldon how many hours she spends researching for each of her Outlander books.
Also, don’t fall behind the times. If you’ve decided to dig out a dusty manuscript from your college days, check that the names of people and places haven’t changed. Ensure the dialogue, setting, even actions of your characters are in sync with the timeline of your story. This may also require researching the types of language, fashion, hairstyles, and even appliances or cars of a certain period.
If research and fact-finding are difficult or don’t interest you, you may want to consider writing fantasy.
Get another set of eyes
I may be biased on this next point, but hire an editor. You might have fantastic ideas, you might be able to spin the greatest yarn, but grammar and sentence style are tricky little devils. A professional editor acts as an extra pair of eyes. While learning about grammar and punctuation (two very different things) will undoubtedly help you, if you aren’t trained in these areas, or in how to give a manuscript evaluation or a developmental edit, you’re going to miss things. If Hemingway, a professional journalist and one of the world’s greatest authors, needed an editor (the brilliant Max Perkins)…so do you.
Connect with your readers
Finally, learn as much as you can about writing, but never forget the purpose of writing is to tell a story. Stories that connect with your reader and take them on a journey of emotional or intellectual discovery. Stories that show how we cope with tragedies and rise up on the wings of dreams. Stories that speak of who you are and who you may become. Stories that inspire, terrify, encourage, or teach. Stories that bring a smile to our face and a tear to our eyes. Stories that show us we are all connected somehow in our differences.
While this is by no means an exhaustive exploration on the craft of writing, it is hopefully enough to give you the motivation to sit down, pick up your pen or laptop, and begin sharing that story that’s waiting to be crafted.