Okay, everyone hates self-referential rules. And this is clearly circular logic: if you want to write well, the first thing you need to do is write.
That being said, I have found that I have a tendency to avoid things that I would like to do, but I’m not sure if I can do them well. It primarily stems from fear. I am afraid to try and fail. So instead, I procrastinate. Then I can convince myself that I have the best of both worlds: I haven’t failed, but I haven’t given up either. I’ll just do it later. Well, “later” never seems to come. The adage “practice makes perfect” is a bit of an oversimplification, but it also contains truth. In order to be good at something, most people have to practice.
Footnote a to rule #1: write a lot.
Let me diverge a little. I once went on a mission trip to Brazil. I was going to spend two years there, so it was important to speak Portuguese. I had an instructor who once said to the class that before we could speak Portuguese well, we would need to make some number of mistakes. Now, lets assume for the sake of argument that the number of mistakes is 1000. He said that we had a choice. We could go out and speak as much as possible and make those 1000 mistakes in a few weeks, or we could close our mouths, take two years to learn the language and never be able to communicate with natives while we were in Brazil.
In a similar fashion, there is bad writing in every writer. It is not a reflection of the ability of the writer, but simply a fact that not every word you write will be a Gettysburg Address. Unfortunately, if the bad writing never comes out, it becomes lodged in the writer’s cerebral cortex, and can overcome all writing. So, you have to let it out. The bright side: unless it is a writing assignment for some class, you never have to show the bad writing to anyone. But don’t throw it away without at least reading it through first. There may be something valuable in it, one phrase, one idea in pages of garbage. There may be entire sections that would be good with a little reworking, but even if there isn’t anything worth keeping, getting it out of the way frees up your mind for the good stuff.
Addendum to Footnote a: Write a lot, even when every word is not pure Shakespeare.
One further analogy. I used to play basketball quite often, but I was never what you might call a shooter. My problem was, the way I held the ball and moved me hands when shooting were not exactly the most conducive to directing the ball into the basket. I remember a friend telling me that if you have bad form, just shooting free throws again and again will not help you. You will simply be reinforcing bad habits.
So how do you know if you have “bad form” in your writing, and what can you do to fix it? There are any number of writing classes at colleges across the world that can teach grammar, spelling syntax, and even give insights into subtler details such as craft. But there is a simpler (and cheaper) way.
Rule 1.1: Read
And read a lot. Read a wide variety of authors and styles, but it is most important to read other works directed to your target audience. If you want to write a spy novel for children, you should read spy novels written for children. It is not necessary to do any formal analysis of the books, but it is necessary to think critically about them. What worked well, what didn’t? The more you read, you will develop a sense of what you like, and it will make writing easier.
In future posts, I will discuss various exercises or games that can also be used to home writing skills, and stay tuned for Rule #2…