The other day, my iPhone made that happy little “you have a text message” sound. I opened the application to find this from my sister:
Hi! I called the other day, talked with the girls. Bean said she would tell you I called…. I need some help from you. Please list the top 5 rules of writing. Also, thinking about the MSW program at L.U. Can you ask around and see what people have to say about it? Thx! How have you been? xoxoxoxoxoxo
“HUH!” I thought. First of all, Bean did NOT tell me that Auntie had called. No one in my family is particularly good at transmitting phone messages, so this shouldn’t come as a big surprise, especially to Auntie; I never get the message that she called.
I buzzed her back and told her that there wasn’t a tablet of commandments or anything, and then told her that I’d put together MY list and send it to her (she’s helping a client, with crappy writing skills, who’s trying to get into college). She only asked for five, but when I sent them to her, she told me to just run with the 10 Commandments theme and go all the way.
Here’s what I came up with. Keep in mind that, if you ask me tomorrow, my priorities might have changed a little bit, and do feel free to contribute your OWN commandments for the craft of writing!
1. Thou shalt READ! Read everything you can. Read magazines, read newspapers, read books and blogs and poems and song lyrics and old speeches and… well, you get the idea. Good writers read ALL THE TIME. Good readers suck language in like sponges. Good writers geek out when they find words that are arranged in just the right way. Good writers try on different voices and styles, and the best way to do all of those things is to read, read, READ!
2. Thou shalt figure out how you organize thy thinking, and then DO IT. Some people outline, others brainstorm. Some make maps or webs. Some writers draw storyboards or write the first line of every idea on index cards. Some do “brain dumps” or free-writes or fast-writes (some even write their first drafts with the monitor of their computer turned off). Some talk their friends and lovers to death about the ideas in their heads. Whatever works for you, DO IT! The greatest fault I find in my students’ writing is a lack of organization and cohesiveness, and that’s tough to fix once the writing’s on the page.
3. Thou shalt worry about the big stuff first. I can’t tell you how hard it is to get my kids to outrun their inner critics (and, to be honest, it’s hard for me, too). They look at me suspiciously when I tell them that I DON’T CARE about their spelling or their punctuation or their subject/verb agreement.. for now. What I want them to do is to get their ideas on the page – to take care of the big-picture issues first. Don’t bother wasting time fixing something that might be edited out completely later. Get the big ideas out now; making it pretty and proper can come later.
4, Thou shalt find thyself a reliable critic. Maybe more than one. I don’t care how good a writer you are; you need – yes, that’s right, NEED – new eyes to see your work. It’s hard to gain any kind of critical distance from something you’ve been intimately tied to (and trust me, writing becomes intimate after a very short time), so it’s hard for you, as the writer, to see the piece with any critical objectivity. I know that I very often read right over mistakes or omissions in my own work that are absolutely glaring to someone else. Getting feedback from fresh eyes is vital if you’re going to get any better. Work with these people – let them read your work out loud to you, ask them specific questions, make the time you spend together worth both of your efforts. As a subtext to this commandment, I’d like to add Thou shalt learn to take criticism in a healthy and professional way. That intimacy I talked about a second ago? That’s going to make taking criticism about your writing very hard. Remember, a good critic will never, ever, make criticism personal, so you shouldn’t take it that way.
5. Thou shalt train thyself to become a keen observer of thy world and the people in it. Great writing can be inspired by anything (I, myself, have been circling around a bit of graffiti on a Local U. ladies’ room stall that reads “April is the cruelest month.” I KNOW I’ve got a story in there, somewhere!), and if you don’t start looking around – and looking closely – you’re going to miss a wealth of thinking and writing opportunities.
6. Thou shalt understand the concepts of tone and syntax as they relate to audience and purpose. If we were doing these in order of importance, I’d put this one up at the top when talking to my students. How they do not understand that addressing me, their teacher, as “hey” and using IM-speak in their papers is a bad idea is entirely beyond me.
7, Thou shalt understand the conventions of grammar and style BEFORE breaking them. Sometimes, one just has to start a sentence with a conjunction. Every once in a while, a sentence fragment is exactly the right thing. All of that is fine, but there is a huge difference between breaking the rules on purpose and breaking them because you don’t know any better. Trust me; it shows.
8. Thou shalt give thyself permission to write crappy pieces. We all like to imagine that our favorite authors come downstairs in their bathrobes in the morning, grab a cup of coffee, sit down at their computer, and just allow literary greatness to spill effortlessly out the tips of their fingers. The truth of the matter is that all writers have to clear out the clutter in order to find that elusive literary greatness. Don’t freak out if you write something that sucks so hard it embarrasses you; we all do it.
9. Thou shalt write, regularly and often. Open a blog, write a letter, start keeping a journal or a notebook; do whatever you have to do to write something every day. Give yourself an opportunity to try on new voices and to play with new techniques and strategies. Keep the door open to your creative self and you’ll find that, if you give that creativity a voice, it will manifest for you more often than you realize.
10. Thou shalt remember that writing is a process. Every good writer knows that this thing we do is a craft – a practice – and we never really “get it.” We’re always learning and growing and changing as writers – anyone who tells you that they “know” how to write is handing you a line. Remember, though, that while we say that “practice makes perfect,” the truth is that “practice makes permenant,” so keep seeking out mentors and teachers and inspiration to help you continually improve your craft. Keep looking closely at the people and things and events in your life. Keep asking questions and chasing down the ideas that intrigue you. Don’t let your crappy writing overshadow your moments of eloquence and brilliance. Most of all, just keep at it.