Wednesday, May 21, 2014
Being a 'Good Writer'
The other day, someone included this in a tweet to me: ‘I’m an amateur writer, can you give me some tips about how to be a good writer?’ I would have liked to respond in some way, but in 140 characters? This request raises so many issues.
First, let’s not forget what the French word ‘amateur’ actually means. It means, first of all, a lover of something; in this case a lover of writing. An ‘amateur’ does what they do for love, pleasure, enjoyment. Hopefully, even professionals do this. It is wonderful when you are paid for what you really enjoy doing, but the enjoyment comes first. All things are difficult to do when the enjoyment has leached out of them. I can’t ever imagine writing because I have to, in the sense that I have to meet a deadline, or fulfill contractual obligations, or because I need the money. As much as writing might be a business and an industry in the eyes of some people, for me creative writing, at least, is an art. It is a form of self-expression. This cannot be forced. So an amateur is what all creative writers should be, first and foremost.
Never forget, also, that the first and perhaps greatest source of love and enjoyment is the act of writing itself. Of course it brings great pleasure when someone else also likes what you have written, especially if they are prepared to pay for it. But the love is essentially for the act of writing itself. This doesn’t mean that every moment of the process is enjoyable. It doesn’t mean that there are not moments of pain and frustration. Any worthwhile endeavour will have its challenges. These serve to heighten the pleasure of the achievement.
How to be a good writer? This is going to be different for everyone. There is no single formula that fits all. Don’t let publishers and market experts convince you otherwise. Of course, it is essential to master the basic elements of the craft. Spelling, grammar, and so on. How to structure a plot; how to build suspense: some of these things can be achieved by learning and applying specific techniques. If by ‘good writing’ my questioner means technically proficient, then this is the answer. But for me, a ‘good writer’ is more (though never less) than this. Someone can tell a good story, but not necessarily be a good writer. For me, a good story, competently written, does not automatically make the writer a ‘good’ writer. It makes them a competent writer. The additional element is not easy to define. It is also almost certainly somewhat subjective. This is always the case with any form of art. This is where the almost indefinable aesthetic quality enters in. For me, good writing is always evocative, rather than just informative. It makes me feel and experience: hence aesthesis, the Greek word for ‘sensation’ and ‘perception’. Good writing does not simply tell me a story; it enables me to live it. Of course there are techniques that can be used to achieve these effects. They are much more difficult to teach and learn; experience, both of writing and reading, are the best teachers. But the effect is always something more than just the sum of these techniques, as it is in our response to music or poetry or a painting.
So the elements of being a ‘good writer’ are these: To first of all be a lover of writing, an amateur; to secondly be a competent writer, having mastery of the craft; but finally to be an artist, using words to evoke and not just to inform. So, off you go!