By Eric Fischl
The Internet abounds with countless instructional lists about how to write, often in the guise of “Famous Writer X’s rules for writing”. Write every single day. Always quit on a high point. Start as close to the end as possible. Write one word at a time. So on and so forth. I have yet to find one list where even half of the supposed rules worked for me, even those proffered by some of my favorite writers. There’s a simple reason for that, and that’s because none of us is Famous Writer X, aside from Famous Writer X his/herself. The writing process is a personal process; perhaps the hardest part of the endeavor is simply figuring out what works for you and, as importantly, what doesn’t.
It can be small things: I personally get very finicky about the font I use and can’t really focus if forced to use another one, and I start every project with the same couple of small blurbs and mostly blank pages, for entirely superstitious reasons. It can be procedural things: some people can only really write effectively in the morning, or when it’s dark. Some people can go for 4 hours without a break; some people need to stop after an hour. It can be structural things: meticulous outliners versus seat-of-pantsers, for example. One line sums up the writing process: Your mileage may vary. So try on various “rules” for size; keep what works, ditch what doesn’t. The important thing is to keep at it and eventually you find what works begins to outweigh what doesn’t.
This leads to my second point. I don’t remember who said it, and I’m almost certainly paraphrasing but, of all the supposed “rules” of good writing, this is maybe the only one that should actually be a universal truth:
There is no bad writing. There is only writing that needs more editing.
National Novel Writing Month should really be called National Novel Drafting Month. The work of writing is an iterative and (usually) reductive process. Getting the story down is a hard part, but not the hard part. And, just like figuring out what works for getting the story down, your mileage will vary for figuring out how you can best edit. Again, there are all sorts of suggestions for how to do this, but one of the most important goals is getting to a place where you can read like a stranger, not like the person who wrote the story. What makes sense and seems clear to you, as the author – with deep familiarity with characters/setting/so forth – may or may not make sense to someone coming to it fresh. Sentences that flow and sound melodic may ring clunky to new ears. Errors of continuity, that you can’t quite see, will likely abound.
There is absolutely no substitute to having other people read your drafts. None. While you may want your story to spring forth from your forehead perfect and complete without outside interference or suggestion, you are almost certainly selling yourself short. Even the worst reader will see things you don’t and help make your story better. Good readers can help make your story great.
That said, and in the spirit of lists of arbitrary “rules”, here are some things to try, to help achieve that sweet editorial distance:
- Leave your project for as long as you can. There’s no distance like time. Forget about your project, move on to something else, and come back to it that much closer to fresh eyes. If you give your subconscious time to percolate, you may be pleasantly surprised or you may be disgusted by what you wrote, when you come back to it, but you are virtually guaranteed to have a new angle on things.
- Fool yourself. Read your draft in a different font. Different display format. Different computer. Different room. Anything to shake yourself out of the familiar, yes-I-wrote-this frame of mind.
- Go analog. This one was a game-changer for me personally: after completing every draft I print it out on good old-fashioned paper and take an actual red pen to it, line by line. When the edits (sometimes explicit changes, sometimes vague suggestions to refine later) are done, I type them into the next version of the draft. There is some actual science about how our brains work differently when physically writing pen and paper versus typing; whatever the reason, I find paper and ink indispensable.
Finally: remember, when you’re cursing at your screen and wrung out from the difficulty of just trying to tell a story, the process of writing, for most of us, neatly sums up the difference between enjoyable and satisfying. It’s hard, miserable work, much of the time but, when you’ve written something you’re proud of, there’s no better feeling.
Eric Fischl lives in rural Montana, where he works for a conservation non-profit. He loves books that transcend genre boundaries.