A lot of people think being a writer simply means having good grammar – all the commas and colons in their proper places, with no dangling participles or improper conjugations. Honestly, I’m not the best when it comes to grammar – though, to be fair, the rules do tend to seep in over time. Still, in my estimation, the finer points of articulation don’t automatically equate to eloquent writing.
People who know the rules might make for excellent copyeditors, but that’s not the same as being a great writer. Being a great writer means knowing what to put on the page and what to leave out. It means knowing what angle to take to best describe a scene, or express a thought or action. Being a great writer is about being a storyteller.
What exactly does that mean? It’s about instinct and imagination – the stuff that writing classes can’t teach. In the absence of these intangible yet invaluable assets, even the most eloquent author ends up with what has been described as “an eloquently penned ‘So What?’”
Let’s be honest, not everyone has a good instinct for how to tell a story. Writing courses across the country are filled with students who know how to write, but don’t know what to write. And isn’t that the key? It’s much easier to find a copyeditor than it is to find a truly unique and creative story.
So how does someone figure out what to write? To me, this brings up the age-old question of nature versus nurture. Some things can be taught, while others are perhaps simply a matter of how you were born – your storyteller DNA, so to speak.
Of course, there is also the middle ground – a mix between cultivated and inherited traits. Perhaps some of writing is innate talent, but there are also tools that can help improve both instinct and imagination, regardless of the starting point.
First and foremost, practice is key. Like everything else in life, the more you write, the better you’ll to get at it. The more you try and tell different stories, the more you will learn how to tell different stories.
Distance and a keen eye are also helpful. I firmly believe that setting aside your work for a while and revisiting it later helps you see your own flaws with greater clarity. While a keen eye for good writing is, again, something that can’t always be taught, there are ways to work on that as well. One of the basic mantras of a good writer is to read more than you write. Reading with a critical eye helps you discern good writing from bad, which in turn will help you evaluate your own prose.
Lastly – Try a different angle. As a fun exercise, I like to imagine different approaches to various scenes. The more variations I create, the easier it is to see the scene for what it needs to be, and to pick the one that delivers this vision the best. Write the scene from a different character’s POV. Change the details around. Add characters. Remove characters. Play with them in your head like action figures or Barbie dolls until things align properly to tell the story you want to tell.
Above all else, remember this simple mantra: writers write. Don’t be discouraged if your grammar is poor, or you suffer from a lack of ideas. If writing captures your heart, then express it. Let it out and enjoy it, no matter what the form – good, bad, or downright awful. Regardless of where you start, I promise you this: the more you write, the better you will become.