Learning How to Be a Writer–Part 2

Last week we presented some edited excerpts from a series first published in the Eagle Peak Quarterly on learning how to be a writer and thinking about where. This week we’re offering some general tips applicable to most writing and to writing nonfiction.  Next week we’ll cover fiction writing and the mechanics of writing. If you missed last week’s post, get it here

General writing tips

Medieval scribe writing

  • Find a quiet, distraction free writing space if possible—make it so with headphones, a door or other means. Writing is a mental exercise; don’t try to multitask.
  • Devote a solid block of time, whenever possible—build up to a few hours, if your circumstances permit, from 30 minutes. Otherwise, you will find it difficult to focus and get into a flow.
  • Make use of the writing tools that work best for you—try pens, laptops, desktops or even typewriters if you have access to one, until you find a level of comfort.
  • Set meaningful goals or determinations for progress—words or pages, time, etc. Some people suggest you must set a goal of X number of words no matter what; others will say you must spend at least a certain number of minutes/hours. It is up to you, in analyzing your own level of self-discipline versus laziness or procrastination (among other things) to make your own commitment in a way that makes sense to you. Artificial rules won’t help and will only frustrate you.
  • Have everything you need to be comfortable—clothes, food, beverages and the right chair; you can’t write if you are uncomfortable. Poor posture is not good for the body or the mind. Use a keyboard properly to avoid wrist problems. Blink and look away from a monitor from time to time to protect your eyes.
  • If you are using a computer, consider what software you will use for writing. Word-processing software will work for a start. Eventually you might want to consider specialized software such as Scrivener (usable on both Mac and Windows). If you want to blog or put stuff up on the web, you don’t necessarily have to start with a word-processor but it’s not a bad idea to get your work together in the final form you want before you load it up on the web.
  • Is there such a thing as “writer’s block?” You have heard the phrase often enough. It means you are staring at a blank page and can’t figure out what to put there. Some say it’s a myth or it really is something else. Don’t get hung up on the concept. Consider these options to deal with that empty page.
    • Get up and walk around for a few minutes. Step outside for a change of perspective, fresh air, etc.
    • Open or pick up another writing project and work on it for a while, then come back to the one that isn’t moving for you.
    • Re-examine notes, an outline or whatever planning document you may have.
    • Just work through it, if you can, putting something/anything on the page; you can always change it later.
    • Switch media—put down the pen and boot up the computer or vice versa.
    • Get some coffee, tea or another beverage; have a snack or a meal.
    • Only as a last resort, shut it down for the time being and come back to it later—just be sure you do.

Non-Fiction Writing Tips

There are only two major categories of prose—fiction and nonfiction. The distinguishing feature of non-fiction, of course, is that it should be true. That doesn’t mean it can’t be creative—especially for those writing memoirs and personal essays.  Which simply means that these and similar types of writing can make use of a narrative style. That style may include imagery, potentially a story arc and more. For example, creating dialogue the writer honestly believes is consistent with individuals might have said or supplements details of events that follow logically. Could anyone truly believe that Frank McCourt accurately recalled every conversation and every incident in his bestselling and critically acclaimed Angela’s Ashes? I don’t think so, but I’m sure it’s close to reality. When you’re writing most other non-fiction, truth is critical. More on that and other tips below:

  • Be truthful. Facts and not fiction are what you must write or risk justified criticism—but there are exceptions.
    • Memoirs and personal essays, which may require some invention (see above)
    • Opinion pieces, which represent your beliefs and conclusions about possibly controversial issues where the facts are in dispute (climate change, for example)
    • Satirical essays, which often might include hyperbole and inventions but aren’t really fiction if their point is to criticize or suggest change
  • Do the research necessary to be truthful—Google and Wikipedia may be a starting point today, but unless you are writing an item discussing the value of them versus other sources, they are not sufficient.
  • Primary research trumps relying on secondary sources (see Google and Wikipedia, above); that means going to the original studies, reports, etc., on which the secondary sources rely.
  • Reference librarians are helpful; that’s what they chose to do with their lives and they can direct you to sources you might not think of or find on your own, but don’t expect them to do your research for you.
  • If you are a scientist or researcher yourself in any field and you are writing, you already know much of this—especially the need for data, statistics, analyses, etc. to back up conclusions. But these tips are not for meant for your publication of studies in peer journals but for articles or features intended for general audiences.
    • Avoid jargon and write at a grade level of readability so a general audience can understand the meaning and import of what you are writing.
    • Cite sources and attribute facts and conclusions of others properly.
  • History is written by victors or survivors, whose inclusions, exclusions and conclusions about what really happened are not necessarily consistent; certainly not on what significance is attached to events. For example, President Recep Erdogan of Turkey strongly condemned Pope Francis’s remarks last year about the “1915 genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire.” So where there are differing views, you do well to present the differences and defend your position on which is correct, if you are taking one.
  • No matter whether it’s a short piece or a full-length book, you should consider how and why it is different or better than any others out there on the same topic.
    • If it’s not, why should anyone bother reading it—the web is full of regurgitated tips or news about making use of this technological advancement or that.
    • Make yours fresh by putting a new spin on it or distinguishing it from what others have written.
  • Establish your authority through work and educational credentials, as well as commenting on the books or writings of others via the web, magazines, etc., to the point that by the time you publish your item or book your expertise will be recognized.

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