7 (Possibly 8) Things Every Writer Needs to Know

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This week I’m at a conference where attendees are being encouraged in their creative pursuits by a number of different speakers from across the spectrum of American Christianity. All of Thursday’s sessions had one or two helpful tidbits, I’ve had a bit of a hard time resonating with much of what’s been said. Perhaps this is because I don’t fit what seems to be the image of a “creative” presented, or because of communication issues on the speaker side or maybe a bit of both.

Regardless, some of the best nuggets are all ones I’ve heard before in some form or another, which is a really good thing. Truly good advice is rarely original (even if the way it’s articulated may be). While not original, I very much appreciate the way Douglas Wilson offers seven (maybe eight) important things every writer needs to know in excellent little book, Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life:

1. Know something about the world, and by this I mean the world outside of books. This might require joining the Marines, or working on an oil rig or as a hashslinger at a truck stop in Kentucky. Know what things smell like out there. If everything you write smells like a library, then your prospective audience will be limited to those who like the smell of libraries.

2. Read. Read constantly. Read the kind of stuff you wish you could write. Read until your brain creaks. Tolkien said that his ideas sprang up from the leaf mold of his mind: your readings are the trees where your fallen leaves would come from. Mind mulch. Cognitive compost.

3. Read mechanical helps. By this I mean dictionaries, etymological histories, books of anecdotes, dictionaries of foreign phrases, books of quotations, books on how to write dialogue, and so on. The plot will usually fail to grip, so just read a page a day. If you think it makes you out to be too much of a word-dork, then don’t tell anybody about it. Let’s keep it between you and me.

4. Stretch before your routines. If you want to write Italian sonnets, try to write some short stories. If you want to write a few essays, write a novel, or maybe a novella if you are pressed for time. If you want to write haiku, then limber up with opinion pieces for The Washington Post.

5. Be at peace with being lousy for a while. Chesterton once said that anything worth doing was worth doing badly. He was right. Only an insufferable egoist expects to be brilliant first time out. Some writers—those who live charmed lives—have been brilliant first time out, but this happens so rarely that we shouldn’t care who they are. You can’t copy them anyway. You can copy those who got good.

6. Learn other languages, preferably languages that are upstream from ours. This would include Greek, Latin, and Anglo-Saxon. The brain is not a shoebox that “gets full,” but is rather a muscle that expands its capacity with increased use. The more you know, the more you can know. The more you can do with words, the more you can do. As it turns out.

7. Keep a commonplace book. Write down any notable phrases that occur to you or that you come across. If it is one that you have found in another writer, and it is striking, then quote it, as the fellow said, or modify it to make it yours. If Chandler said that a guy had a cleft chin you could hide a marble in, that should come in useful sometime. How could it not come in useful? If Wodehouse said somebody had an accent you could turn handsprings on, then he might have been talking about Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland. Tinker with stuff. Get your fingerprints on it.

Know when to stop.