If you want to be a writer, you have to learn to write. Obvious, right? Right. I mean, if you wanted to be a concert pianist you’d expect to have to learn to play the piano first.
But there’s this weird thing that happens with writing, where some people think that, because they can write words down (a shopping list? An email? A letter to a friend?) they can write a story or a poem or a play, or whatever it may be. After all, they use words every day – surely it’s just a matter of choosing the right ones?
If you’re reading this, then you’re probably already well aware that it doesn’t work like this. You have to understand the craft of your writing – to learn about narrative arc, voice, dialogue, sentence structure, point of view, figurative language, rhythm and meter, pacing, imagery…
Sure, you can write without understanding any of this, and if you’re writing solely for the pleasure of it and it isn’t about writing well, then fine. Just because we enjoy something doesn’t mean we have to monetise it – whatever capitalism has to say about it. After all, I’m a far cry from selling out a solo gig at the Royal Albert Hall, but I take huge enjoyment from singing in the shower now and again.
But if you want your writing to be good, as judged by industry expectations, then you’re going to have to learn it, just like any other craft.
So how do you learn to write?
Before you even pick up a pen, you need to read as widely and as deeply as you can. You don’t have to be a particularly fast reader, but you have to read well. By that, I mean you have to read with a critical eye. You’re not just reading for the story any more, to find out what happens. Instead, approach each book as a training exercise.
- How is this author creating suspense?
- How do they make you like their protagonist?
- If the book feels a bit slow or you lose interest at some point, why is that?
- How could you avoid making the same mistakes?
If you don’t like to read (and, believe it or not, I have actually met people who write, who say that they hate books), then you need to question whether you really do want to be a writer. If it’s just because you like the sound of your own voice, then record yourself reading the phone book or something instead. Writers need to read, the same way that painters need to look at other paintings.
I’ve also met people who say they don’t read because it’ll influence what they write.
Let yourself be influenced by others. That doesn’t mean you have to copy their ideas or steal their characters (in fact, there are laws against that sort of thing). But if a writer has a particularly engaging way of writing dialogue, so that you can actually hear the characters coming off the page, then absolutely study their technique and let it influence yours. If you’re an aviation engineer, you need to study the concept of how an aeroplane wing works or the plane will fall out of the sky. If you’re a writer, you need to study how to string a sentence together, or construct a plot, or develop a character, or your book will never get off the ground.
Reading in your own genre is great. If you write crime fiction then sure, read crime fiction. Figure out what other crime writers are doing, what they have done in the past. Where do you fit within the genre? How can you do something different?
But read other stuff as well. Let yourself be influenced by writers of all kinds. Read thrillers and romance. Read literary fiction. Read poetry and play scripts. Read classics. Read YA. Read non-fiction. Heck, read a picture book. As long as you read critically, you’re growing your craft. And the variety of your influences may just give you your distinctive voice.
As well as reading other types of fiction, and poetry, and scripts, and creative non-fiction, try reading books about writing. Study what other writers do, and study what other writers are telling you to do.
There are literally hundreds of ‘how to’ books out there. (Ok, probably there are thousands, but obviously I haven’t counted. I’m too busy reading and writing.) So how do you choose which ones are worth your time?
Honestly, it’s probably going to be trial and error. Recommendations are great, but what works for your friend might leave you high and dry, whereas something another writer has found completely useless might be like gold dust for you. We’re all different writers and, crucially, we’re all at different stages of development in our writing. So we’re all going to be looking for something different. If you want to try a few without a big price tag, see what you can get from your local library. You can then dip into a number of options, and if you find one you like, potentially buy a copy afterwards.
In the meantime, here are a few books on writing that I would recommend:
- Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way
- Louise Doughty’s A Novel in a Year
- Renni Browne & Dave King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
- Will Storr’s The Science of Storytelling
- Peter Sansom’s Writing Poems
- Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry
Reading is all very well, but of course you also need to write. Just as a concert pianist learns to play sonatas by practising scales, so you can learn to write by writing. You can write exercises, or you can write that epic novel that you’ve had in the back of your brain for ages. It doesn’t really matter, so long as you’re writing, and you’re working out at all times how you can improve.
Try different voices. Try different forms. Try using techniques you’ve observed in your reading – how do they work for you?
Practice makes perfect – and although I’m not entirely sure I believe in ‘the perfect novel’, at least practising can help to get you closer.
Join a writing group.
Once you’re on the way with your writing, you’re going to realise what a solitary process it can be, if you haven’t already. I guess it’s a bit like parenting – sometimes you just need to talk to other people who are going through the same thing.
Writing groups can take any form. They can be workshopping groups, where you get together to comment on each others’ works in progress. They can be support groups, where you share opportunities and talk about the problems you may be facing. They can be physical groups (at someone’s house, in the pub, in a specially booked room somewhere), or they can be online groups. They can be mixed ability, or grouped so that everyone has similar levels of experience.
I’m in a number of writing groups, each with its own focus:
- A poetry group that meets once a month, where we each bring in a poem to workshop as a group.
- A group that focuses more on fiction (and scripts), which also meets once a month, and for a full day. In the mornings, we do a number of writing exercises, usually with a specific theme or focus, and in the afternoons we workshop bits of our works in progress, which we circulate about a month in advance.
- A WhatsApp group of other debut writers, which we use as a support group for sharing experiences / successes / difficulties etc, rather than for sharing actual work.
- I also have a number of friends who are writers, who I often share things with individually.
I’ve also been in a number of other groups over the years, as I’ve moved around geographically, and as my focuses have changed. For me, the groups that seem to work best are the ones where everyone is at a similar level – if not of experience or knowledge, then at least of commitment. As with many things, it helps if everyone is coming from a place of similar understanding.
If you’re looking for a writing group in your local area, and you’re not sure where to start, try by googling, or by asking at your local library, arts organisation or community centre. Talk to other writers in your area – particularly ones who write something similar to what you write. If you’re not sure who these might be, try asking at any local bookshops.
Still can’t find anything? Start one yourself!
Look at writing courses.
This one isn’t essential. You can absolutely become a good writer without ever going on a writing course. After all, most of the hard work is done between you and the notebook, and it takes time. It isn’t something someone can teach you in a week, a month, or even a year.
That isn’t to say that writing can’t be taught. Writing is a craft, and any craft is teachable, as long as the student has the willingness, passion and skill to learn. But it takes time. You might learn to play the odd tune on the piano in a year, but you won’t yet be a concert pianist.
But, with that caveat made, there are still a number of really good reasons to explore courses as a means of improving your writing.
- You can learn from experienced tutors.
- They’re often a good way of meeting other writers, who’ll have similar writing interests to yourself – and whom you may also be able to learn from.
- If you’re stuck in a rut with your writing, a course can help you to see things from a new perspective.
- A course can give you confidence as a writer, and goodness knows we all need that from time to time.
- Particularly with residential courses, or longer courses such as an MA, they can be a good way of forcing yourself to carve out writing time from your daily life.
- They’re also incredibly fun!
As with writing groups, there are all kinds of different courses available, depending on the needs, experience level and budget of the writer.
- Arvon and Ty Newydd are well-known as centres for tutored residential courses, usually over a weekend or a week.
- Online courses such as the Poetry School.
- One-day workshops, as well as longer evening / afternoon courses run by adult education providers.
- One-off workshops through libraries, arts organisations, bookshops and book festivals.
- I’ve also heard great things about Sophie Hannah’s Dream Author coaching programme for writers.
If you want to go down the university route, there are undergraduate courses (usually 3 years full-time or 6 years part-time), or Masters level courses (1-2 years full-time and 2-3 years part-time). Beyond that there are PhDs, if you’re more advanced.
These courses vary hugely in terms of cost, and of course we know that even well-established writers are rarely rolling in it, let alone writers who are just starting out. But many of them will offer bursary schemes for writers on low incomes, so they’re still worth exploring, even if your budget isn’t huge.
And there are my thoughts on learning to write!
Next week: The Writer’s Apprenticeship 2: Learning the Ropes of the Industry