Getting Better

A line of thinking I continually revisit is how to improve my writing. It’s a multifaceted topic, and could be broken down into dozens of tantalizing subtopics. Tone. Twists. Master plot types. Genre expectations and how to subvert them. Creating sympathetic characters. The importance of surprise. The need for contrast or rhythm.

But I think that improvement comes down to three fundamentals: never forgetting the basics, getting feedback, and having a Beginner’s Mind.

What are the basics? For the sake of argument, let’s say the basics are whatever you’d find in a freshman composition course or any how-to-write book. Find your favorite old book and writing. Flip through it. Read the chapter headings. Be brief. Don’t belabor the point or linger in scenes longer than necessary. Be brief. As George Orwell said, “If it is possible to cut a word out, cut it out.” Be careful in adding complexities that might be hard for readers or audience members to track on the fly. Avoid infodumps. Show us the fictional world in stasis and then inject an element that throws the world into chaos. Be clear—especially about what your characters want and need and why they cannot satisfy those wants and needs at the beginning of the story.

Never Forgetting the Basics doesn’t mean slavishly following the advice of manuals and forebears. It means working according to what usually works. I don’t cut out every word that can be cut, that’s slavish, but I do try to reduce my word count. Because I know that brevity is generally better than bombast. I try to use surprise and suspense in my writing — which are more advanced techniques — but I put much more energy into making everything clear, upfront and as soon as possible. Because if I clarify what needs to be clear, then I can spend time later in building pit traps and tweaking sudden reversals. If a rough draft is not sufficiently clear, then my beta readers will tell me, and I’ll spend minutes or hours in dealing with the basic issue of clarity rather than deepening and thickening.
Remembering the basics, especially as you journal and outline and begin typing, is fundamental to getting better as a writer because it saves time for the finer touches. Painters don’t fill one square inch of their canvases with fine detail and then move on to the next inch, but start with blocking in shapes, and in getting those shapes right.

It should be obvious why getting feedback is fundamental to improving, but I include it because it never stops being true. The reasons for getting feedback may evolve. As a novice writer, you get feedback for an evaluation of your technique. As an experienced writer, you may not need as much feedback on your technique, but you still need to know what’s resonating with others. Writing is communication. And it’s important for the communication to be understood. It’s important for the communication to thrill, even. But most important is creating some sort of resonance. To connect with somebody. When a piece is not connecting… Well, it may be because you’ve ignored some basic.

Having a Beginner’s Mind is wholly separate from the practice of basics. The Beginner’s Mind is the ability to read and hear your own writing as if you didn’t write it. I suppose this could be called objectivity. It could be called seeing with fresh eyes. It’s the hardest practice of these three fundamentals. But there’s no great secret to it. An easy way to bring objectivity into your writing is reading passages aloud. Even printing off your writing and stepping away from the screen can help you engage with it more critically. To be sure, time helps. Always put your manuscripts in a drawer for a week. Or at least twenty-four hours. Another technique: pretend to be your best friend and read your work, imagining what they would say and how they’d encourage you.

But where Beginner’s Mind really starts to help you improve your writing, I think, is in combination with remembering the basics. If I want to a scene to feel tense — and tension is pretty basic, especially for thrillers and mysteries — then I read a printed off copy of my play and circle the pages that feel emotionally taut and put an “X” in the upper right-hand corner of pages of dialogue that have gotten looser, or have wandered into tangents, or have retread old territory (gotten repetitive). And then I cut and reshape the scene accordingly.

Go back to basics.

Get feedback.

Cultivate a Beginner’s Mind.

Now go write.