On Writing: write and write and write some more.

I’m a member of Chicago Writers Association. In a recent newsletter, Dorothy Parker’s, “Advice from the Expert,” quoted several well-know authors’ advice to writers. She and her quotes got me thinking.

I’ve read three books on writing:

  • Steven King’s On Writing
  • Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird
  • William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style

Different authors. Different genres. Nearly the same advice.

On Writing, taught me if I want to be a writer, I must write.

I have this book in print and audio. I feel inspired every time I listen to or reference Stephen’s book.

I admit, writer’s block is a mystery to me. When I wonder what I will write about, I just start writing. Words fall out of my brain and onto the mostly virtual page. It is pretty simple. Still, all of those words are not share-worthy. Some need to be deleted, changed, rearranged.

We have it so easy. I marvel at Nathaniel Hawthorne. He worked with quill and paper. Out of necessity, he must have been miserly with both. Yikes! I reworked the last sentence three times. What would I have done in Hawthorne’s time? I’d have to rework my thoughts in my head until I got it just right.

Bird by Bird taught me the importance of diligence.

Anne Lomott’s example of her brother panicking over a school paper sticks with me every time I approach my work in progress.

Her brother had procrastinated on his paper about the birds of North America. At the eleventh hour, his anxiety paralyzed him. How can I possibly do it, he moaned. Anne’s writer father gave him this simple advice: Bird by bird, son. Bird by bird.

Or Just Do It. Write.

Chapter by chapter, I edit. I revel in parts that I can hardly believe I wrote, change the parts that make me scratch my head, identify the holes, and keep writing.

Every time I wake up with a character speaking her story to me, or when I realize something else needs to be changed, I’m reminded of something Anne said in her book. She warned me that just when I think everything has been tucked in and secured, a character will get out of bed and beg for attention. My job is to keep getting them that figurative glass of water and tucking them back into bed.

The Elements of Style taught me the elegence of simplicity.

Yes, that E.B. White. The author as Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web. This is a tiny reference book that I think every writer should have. Are you wondering whether it should be “Stuart’s and Charlotte’s tale” or “Stuart and Charlotte’s tale”? Should the quote marks go before or after the question mark? Elements has the answer.

Elements of Style taught me to write in a way that comes naturally, not to explain too much, and above all, be clear.

Here’s one of my favorites.

Rule #15 “Put statements in positive form…. avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language. Us the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion.”

Oh my word! I like to call this “getting the nots out of my writing.” I practiced on emails at work. I got rewarded with, “Your emails are so much clearer these days.” This little thing is so important to me, I must share the examples in Elements.

He was not very often on time. He usually came late.

She did not think that studying Latin was a sensible way to use one’s time. She thought the study of Latin a waste of time.

The Taming of the Shrew is rather weak in spots. Shakespeare does not portray Katherine as a very admirable character,, nor does Bianca remain long in memory as an important character in Shakespeare’s works. The women in the Taming of the Shrew are unattractive Katherine is disagreeable, Bianca insignificant.

Elements of Style (I used the strike-through font to simplify)

See how much clearer “getting the nots out” makes my writing.

As far as I know, every serious writer has another piece of advice in common:

Read, read, read. Even read books we don’t like. I suppose it’s sort of like learning to be a parent. We learn as much from writing we dislike as we do from authors we admire.

My little piece of advice:

Join a book club or attend discussion groups. You’ll be surprised what you can learn from other readers.