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Advice To Writers: Getting Started

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I dedicate this piece to Firsty, whose pieces sparked me to consider writing down advice I’ve given to many new and experienced writers.

1. Write often. Write as much as you can, wherever you can, and whenever you can. I’ll say more later about the “when” part — partially because it’s one area Firsty and I differ on — but for now just do this for me: Say the words, “I write, therefore I am.” Go ahead, I’ll wait. Ok, good.

2. Don’t seek perfection when first writing. There’s a reason this experience of putting words together in a way that is meaningful is called writing. Notice it’s not called editing, it’s not called cutting and pasting, and it’s definitely not called rewriting. There is a time and place for editing and, yes, rewriting what you wrote, but that time is later in the process.

3. Use writing exercises, like Writing Down the Bones. Why? I can give you three reasons off the top of my head: 1) Having someone else choose the topic will spark ideas you might have not previously contemplated. 2) Material you did not even know you had will come spilling from your brain through your fingers onto the page. 3) It forces you to turn off your inner editor.

That last one is key and is my next point.

4. Lose your inhibitions as much as possible. I write everywhere (following my rule #1). You name it, I’ve written on it. I’ve written on everything from napkins to newspapers to crossword puzzles to receipts. The only thing I don’t think I’ve written on is a condom and that’s because that spermicidal stuff is yucky to write on.

The point is I know I get weird looks from people who see me writing a 100 word summation for a story that came to me while I was having dinner at McDonalds, curious as to why I’m using paper placemats and brochures to write it down. I know those people think I’m a freak, but I don’t care. I know I will get something interesting out of it and it’s worth it.

If you become self-conscious about what people are thinking you as you write — or read what you wrote — that is a stumbling block you are putting in your own way. It’s the same as saying, “Oh I don’t want to write because I can’t write as well as (fill in the name of author here).”

To quote Pink Floyd, “Tear down the wall!” Remove your inhibitions and you will find it easier to write. The more you write, the more good ideas will come to you.

5. Always be prepared to write. Yes, that sounds like Boy Scout advice, but in this case it works. Pen and paper – don’t leave home without it. There will be times when you will have to get all MacGyver and find ways to write down thoughts without your own pen and paper (see #4).

6. Read good books. You will get mixed advice on this topic. I’ve interviewed writers who avoid reading authors, or at least authors of their genre, while writing in order to avoid getting mixed up with their voice or accidentally stealing a tone or something. On the other extreme are writers — or books for writers (that's #7) — that suggest you copy down pages or books of your favorite authors because simply by doing that you are noting their cadence and their style.

I come down in the middle. I think you can learn a lot from reading others. It was by reading Kurt Vonnegut that I picked up the habit, which might be jarring or annoying (is it?), of stopping mid-stream to talk to the author. Books like the Phantom Tollbooth showed me that it’s good — hell, it’s great — fun to play around with words and basic concepts.

Does that mean you sometimes steal pens you only meant to borrow while writing something down? Yes. Does that mean you will find at times you have eight pens? Yes. Is that okay? Yes. Is it okay when writing to switch styles from long paragraphs to short ones, from statements to questions? Yes.

Some people carry around voice recorders to deal with ideas that come to them when they are driving. I should do that, but more often than not, I should admit (I’ll deny this in traffic court) I’ve jotted down writing-related thoughts while driving. Remember, Friends Don’t Let Friends Write and Drive, but it’s hard not to do so when driving alone.

Another alternative to writing while driving or using a tape recorder is to call your own voice mail and share the idea that way. Sure, it’s a bit surreal later when you get home, especially if you’re not alone or, worse, someone else checks the voice mail, to hear yourself talking to, well, yourself. Consider the alternative – you ignore or repress the idea and then it goes away.

7. Avoid the “Being a better writer” traps. It’s very easy and tempting to get distracted or delay your writing because first you want to attend writing workshops, writing classes, and read books on writing. Avoid that temptation.

What’s important right now is to get down on the paper what you are thinking, what you are feeling, why you bit your brother’s ear off when you were eight, why you shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, or whatever you are writing about.

Between Firsty’s pieces and mine, you have been told just about everything you could gain from attending those classes, workshops, and seminars, and not reading those books. See, I just saved you money. Now you owe me.

What reading about writing does is delay your writing. There will be a time later, after you have finished that novel or written that 300-page summary of your life story, to read books about how to improve your writing. When you reach that point, the book I endorse is Stephen King’s On Writing. This is an ironic choice considering my criticisms of King, but King concisely and clearly makes all the important points. Yes, I’m aware this piece is a violation of my own suggestion in that you are, as you read this, reading about writing. I am teaching you by example.

8. Find your own writing habit. The key part of that sentence is “your own.” One of the most annoying questions I see people ask, even more annoying and grating than asking someone how they are feeling after getting some piece of good or bad news, is people asking writers about their writing habits. Why does that annoy me?

First it enters into the territory of #7 in that the writer, and by extension the person’s readers, are reading about someone else’s writing habits, which most likely will help you about as much as when a smoker asks a former smoker how they quit the habit. That is to say it won’t help. Everyone has their own habits and quirks.

The idea that we are all the same, that we can all write at the same time or in the same place or mood is the kind of stupid idea that makes authors of the books I reference at #7 much money, but helps the reader very little. This is, I note, one area where I differ with Firsty.

Yes, I too do some of my best writing at night. Heck, re-reading my piece last week, where I spoke in the voice of my pet beta fish, it appears I was on a controlled substance (Firsty’s #1,) when I was not. Instead I was writing from midnight to 4 a.m. and there’s something special about that time when you are waking up or falling asleep that results in more creative and wild thoughts. I think it’s the subconscious sneaking a run play past inhibitions, but that’s just a guess.

Here is where I differ from Firsty: I know many writers, some famous, some not, who do their best writing in the morning. Everyone is different and there is no one right time or place for everyone to write. For me, ideas for stories or even ideas on how to start or finish stories, be they factual or fiction, come when I least expect them, be it while driving (see #5), while sleeping (which is why I keep post-its near my bed), and in the shower.

The key is to find what works for you and then using that to your advantage. A friend told me she likes to write when she first wakes up before tackling life’s problems and distractions and potentially forgetting what she was going to write about or what creative gift her subconscious developed while she was sleeping. I said, “Ggreat, try that.”

More important than the time or place you write is the self-discipline. I run into people all the time who tell me they don’t have time to read books and don’t understand how I find the time to read an average of 100 books a year. They note that they work 50 or 60 an hour weeks. I have to hold my tongue because I’ve been reading two books a week in recent months while working three jobs with over 100 hours a week.

So what’s the trick? I gave up sleeping. No, wait, that’s not it – it just seems like it. No, the trick is self-discipline. I always spend an hour each day reading. If I don’t get that hour it’s like missing a meal. My body and brain feel like something important has been missed.

It’s the same way with writing. You have to give yourself time for writing. Ideally you set aside some time each day to write, but if that’s not possible at least promise yourself that when an idea comes to you, you will stop what you are doing and write down the idea.

Personally, I’m a strong believer in journaling every day. Much of the stuff I journal I can’t share here because of privacy issues, but being in the habit of writing every day is like giving foreplay to the creative writing part of the brain, telling it not only is it okay to think creative thoughts, but encouraging it to come up with even more.

9. Experiment as you write. If usually you write in one voice, for example, then try writing in another voice. One reason I really liked the result of my beta fish piece was that I was speaking with a different, possibly physically impossible, voice. That freed me up to try new things.

A common complaint or problem from new writers is they are not sure how to get started. This is what leads them to the books I warned you about at #7. Instead of fretting about how to best start, just start writing. If you are going to write down your life story, for example, it’s okay to start at the beginning of your life and work your way to the present. It is also okay to do the opposite. You can always change that later after you are done. The important thing is to write it all down now.

I used to marvel at the idea of writer’s block because for almost 10 years I was writing at least 10 articles a week for newspapers on every topic you can possibly imagine – from sex ed to Amish art. If I only had one story, my editors scowled at me. If I had no stories I’d practically be shunned. When expected to write that often, you don’t have time to wonder if you are blocked or why.

If you’re stuck on how to start something, try a different way. Put even simpler, use my mantra: “When in doubt, rewrite.” If you are writing and you are struggling for the perfect word to complete the sentence, then rewrite the sentence and move on.

Obviously, if experimenting is getting in the way of writing, then stop experimenting.

10. Minimize distractions. I just seeded a column by a professor that makes an excellent point about how multi-tasking affects learning. The professor is prohibiting students from using laptops while taking his class because they are focusing on checking their emails and chatting while also, at least in theory, listening to him. The same goes for writing. Distractions will interfere, so the best solution is to do what you can to keep them to a minimum.

If you are trying to write down what it was like to have an ex-girlfriend’s cat start licking your feet and the realization that this cat has now given you more physical affection than the girlfriend and then – beep – you get a text message, and, blink, you have new email messages, you’re going to not only lose your place in that sad-but-true personal story, but also forget what you were planning to write next.

Sometimes, and I know this is a shocking idea to my fellow net addicts, you have to disconnect from the Internet. When I want to do some serious writing work, I unplug the cable modem.

Heck, lately I’m doing some of my best writing while on a weekend job where I couldn’t have Internet access even if I wanted it. That sort of proves my point. The less distractions, the better the finished product.

This is not to say everything will be gold if you write without distractions. If you write like Dan Brown, maybe the only way your writing style may improve is with an excellent editor or a controlled substance.

For most of us, the more focused we are when writing the better the result. The fewer distractions, the lower the odds that we will make embarrassing typos like, say, referring to a person as the pubic works manager (which sounds like a cool job, but is not actually his title.)

11. Lastly, don’t worry about length. Well, okay, it does matter later when you are confused about why you can’t get a 3,000-page opus on how you slept with your twin brother and are not sure if that counts as incest or self-love, but you can worry about the book's length and legal issues later. For now the important concept — the refrain in this piece — is to get down your thoughts. Worry later about your audience and where you can get published.

I’d come back from government meetings sometimes and would be expected to write three or four stories in less than an hour. When I would tell non-reporters this, it sounded impossible. The solution has been known as vomiting or regurgitating what you just saw. It’s an unpleasant way of saying something truthful; that it’s faster to write down all of what happened on a particular topic than to try to make it all flowery with symbolism and beautiful prose.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to see 300 articles in Newsvine, Blogcritics, or in newspapers tomorrow that are 99,999 words long. You do want to edit and cut once you have finished your first draft, but that editing and cutting is a whole different process and one best addressed separately. If there is interest, I can write something another day on that topic.

I’d apologize for this piece being long, but I’ll just pretend it’s intentional in order to demonstrate the importance of #11. Besides, there is something amusing about writing the words “lastly, don’t worry about length” when on the fifth page of writing this down. I wonder how many readers I would have lost if I put that first.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • Scott Butki

    Out of curiousity about trying something different I wrote some suggested writing advice for email spammers.

  • http://www.myspace.com/writer4web writer4web

    Really great article my friend. I want to paste a link to this on my blog. You are invited to come in and see a little later on…

  • http://writer4web.blogspot.com writer4web

    If you want to come in to check out a list of great articles, take a look at my other blog as well

  • Scott Butki

    Oops, somehow I didn’t see these responses before.
    Thank you.
    I’m writing a sequel of sorts to this tonight.