A couple of posts back, nct2 asked what Other Helpful Stuff a writer could do – besides writing, taking classes, or learning new skills – to improve their work. I blinked at that a couple of times, because my very first reaction was “Learn to touch-type,” and I wasn’t at all sure that would be helpful (since for all I know, nct2 and all the rest of you can touch-type faster than I can, and have been doing so for years).
But that got me thinking about why that was my first reaction, and I realized that it’s because I get this question a lot from middle-school kids, and “learn to touch-type” is one of the first things I tell them. Which got me thinking some more about what I tell people and why.
See, the very first and absolutely most important thing one needs to do in order to improve one’s writing is the obvious one: to write. Writing is a skill that gets better with practice. nct2 already had that first on the list, and anyway I’ve said that enough, at enough length, that right now I’ll leave it at that.
But there are other things that help, and they can be divided into two basic categories: practical skills (like touch-typing) that make one’s writing life easier, and what I’ll call non-specific research.
Practical skills are the things most people really don’t want to hear about. They’re work to acquire, and most of them don’t obviously and directly affect the quality of one’s work. But in my experience, the lack of them generally has a subtle but profoundly negative effect, at the very least. At worst, not having these skills can become an insurmountable obstacle to one’s career progress, the more insurmountable because it’s frequently unnoticed.
In this category, I’d put things like touch-typing and the fundamentals of English (spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax, vocabulary). Also things like the correct use of often-confused words like “affect” and “effect” (see paragraph above for example). Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s books, starting with The New Well-Tempered Sentence and The Deluxe Transitive Vampire, are an excellent, non-boring, humorous place to start; Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style has been a perennial necessity (I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer who wasn’t familiar with it; the vast majority of professionals I know own one or more copies, some of which are falling apart from having been re-read so often); and Lynne Truss’s Eats Shoots & Leaves is a nice cranky, humorous, and informative rant on the uses (and modern misuses) of punctuation in general.
I’d also include things like techniques for organizing and filing (piles of research material don’t help if you can’t lay hands on the one bit of it you want, and spending three hours trying to dig up the contract for a book you wrote twenty years ago to see if you still have electronic subrights is just silly. It generally takes me all of thirty seconds to find that sort of paperwork, and that’s because I have to walk across the room to the file cabinet for seldom-used papers. Several of my friends tease me that my house is a mad clutter of papers and books, but my file cabinets are perfectly organized. They’re right.) Basic business knowledge comes in here, too – getting familiar with the kinds of clauses you’re likely to see in a book or short story contract, and what’s reasonable and what’s not. Exercising. Budgeting. All the boring life-maintenance skills.
I put a lot of emphasis on these things because, as I said, most people don’t want to hear it, let alone do any of it, and I have a slim but optimistic hope that if I say it enough times in enough different ways, somebody will listen.
What most people want to know about is the “other stuff.” The stuff that sounds like more fun, the stuff I call “non-specific research.” At the very top of that list is reading.
I have never met a professional writer who wasn’t a voracious, omnivorous reader. Gordy Dickson once spent ten minutes on a panel trying to find a type of book that none of the other writers had read/liked; he finally ended up at “Men’s Boxing Novels,” which he got by with because most of the other writers on the panel hadn’t been alive and reading when that was an actual category of fiction, so we hadn’t even known such things existed. Writers read.
But writers read in two different ways: for fun, and as writers. We’ll read and enjoy a great new book, then go back over it and tear it apart page by page, looking at the techniques the other writer used, the turns of phrase, the structure. Some of us read things we know we’re not going to like, simply because they’re getting a lot of praise or sales and we want to find out why and whether we can use whatever that other writer did right. We read so-called bad books, because a) it’s frequently easier to learn what not to do by studying someone else’s blatant errors than to learn advanced techniques from a brilliant piece of prose, and b) those books are doing something well enough to attract readers (or at least, to make a publisher think they’ll attract readers), and again it’s often easier to spot the one right thing amongst all the wrong ones.
The other big thing one can do is to have a life. If one never does anything but read and write, it’s hard to make the stuff on the page sound real and interesting. Pay attention to your life, whether that means close observation and no more, writing things down in a journal, or taking up photography or painting. Find something you love besides writing, whether that’s playing the flute, water-skiing, or knitting. Do it with other people and get to know them. Go to the religious service of your choice or get involved in local politics or Habitat for Humanity.
Because doing things, especially things involving other people, has a double benefit: you learn about whatever-it-is you’re doing (and that will inevitably creep back into your books, whether you’re doing gourmet cooking or climbing mountains), and you meet different kinds of people, who agree and disagree with you in areas that are not what you’re used to. Which will, if you’re paying attention, stretch your brain in all sorts of ways that are good for writers, especially writers who don’t want to write the exact same types of characters over and over.
Travel can be good, but you can get just as much mental mileage out of approaching your own city as if you were an out-of-town tourist. Go to museums and water parks and concerts and shopping malls and plays and baseball games, even – or especially – if you’ve never gone before and/or dislike (or think you will dislike) whatever-it-is. Take a free class at a local park. Shop the farmer’s market. Learn to fence or knit or rollerblade or folk dance.
Be awake for your life. Pay attention. Do things.
Doing things and keeping a journal about them really helps for some people, but the journal part has never worked well for me, so don’t feel obligated. The important part is the doing things part.