From the newsroom
Writing is a creative form, but it involves a fair amount discipline
As an editor, some of the writing that has made it to my desk has driven me to despair. As an avid reader, some of what I have chosen to read has made me smile, cry, cringe, snort (in public!), all because a writer managed to play my emotions like a finely-tuned instrument. My second-hand experience of writing has convinced me that the difference between the sublime and the pedestrian is, of course, talent, but also effort. Writing is a process that should, in my opinion, begin long before you encounter a submission deadline. Genius is probably gifted with the ability to produce masterpieces at will, but for the vast majority of us, only disciplined effort will eventually yield something great.
I like the late American Poet Robert Frost’s approach to the subject of discipline… “Life is tons of discipline. Your first discipline is your vocabulary; then your grammar and your punctuation. Then, in your exuberance and bounding energy you say you’re going to add to that. Then you add rhyme and meter. And your delight is in that power.”
Writers will argue that creative expression is not about discipline but about letting your thoughts flow onto paper. Maybe, if you are a stream-of-consciousness writer. For the rest, the creative process cannot be executed without discipline, in my opinion. I echo author Pat Conroy’s view: “The writing life requires the tireless discipline of the ironclad routine.” Without going into minutiae, I offer three fundamental practices that I believe should form the routine for every aspiring writer.
As reporters and copy editors, every day, before we came into work, we were expected to read every major city newspaper. To an extent, this is about staying ahead of the competition. We were expected to read so that if we wanted to write the same story, at least we could offer a different perspective. If you don’t know what’s out there, how do you set yourself apart? What is your USP? What will reel in the web-surfer who has a million other options? Don’t forget that as writers you are catering to an audience that is far more knowledgeable than ever before.
Reading is also about honing your talents by learning from the best. Read, to know how to write and how not to write. Avoid other people’s mistakes and learn from the success of the truly skilled. Nobel Prize winning author William Faulkner described reading as a sort of apprenticeship that eventually led to writing. If you have never read anything that stirred your soul, how will you mesmerise mine? Make the reading of quality publications or acclaimed writers a part of your routine and over time you will find it leaves its mark in your turn of phrase, choice of words, and writing style. It’s also a wonderful way to enhance your vocabulary.
However, don’t reduce reading to a task on a to-do list. That is almost like eating chocolate only because the doctor recommended it. Find writers you enjoy and take pleasure in reading. According to Oscar Wilde, author of The Picture of Dorian Gray (a brilliant book that is short enough to read quickly and come back to again and again to savour its many delights), “It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” Or in the case of an aspiring writer, what you will write when you can’t help it.
Also, given writing is such a solitary, introverted activity, reading of any sort makes sure you stay in touch with the rest of the world.
One of my favourite authors, Georgette Heyer, is relegated to the Romance shelves of most city bookstores. It is a great tragedy in my opinion, for there is no other writer I know of who has managed to recreate the Regency era with greater veracity. In fact, she is credited with having created the Regency genre, which is more than just brainless, tittering romance. Writing in the 1900s about the early 1800s, Heyer visited libraries and filled little notebooks with notes and drawings of types of carriages used, clothes men and women wore, and even slang that was spoken in the 1800s. All this when Internet was probably science fiction! In fact, Heyer’s account of the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, in her book An Infamous Army, is so good that it was required reading for cadets at the Sandhurst Academy in Britain.
For instance, you might dream up a story set in the Galapagos Islands but if you put the islands in the Atlantic Ocean, you lose credibility with your reader. Or if you are writing to refute an argument, how cogent will your reasoning be considered if you merely vent your spleen and cannot address each and every point made by the other party? Research lends credibility to your opinion and earns you respect. In the Internet age, there is no excuse for skimping on research; it should be an essential part of your writing routine.
This aspect ties up with reading to some extent. The Internet offers boundless potential that you can exploit to your advantage. I went online to check the name of the defence academy Heyer’s books were used at, because I had, of course, forgotten the name. I went online to confirm that the Galapagos Islands were not in the Atlantic because it’s been a long time since I read a Gerald Durrell and I didn’t want my example to come back to bite me. However, it’s important to sift through the information available and use what’s relevant; it’s tempting to get carried away by the wealth of information available. Expertise in sifting through research and making the correct choices will come with the help of editors or trial and error, which brings me to my next point.
Have writing ambitions? Sign up for NaNoWriMo. National Novel Writing Month is a wonderful initiative that has people dedicating themselves to writing a 50,000-word novel every November. It is an exercise in disciplined writing that you can choose to sustain, with a few tweaks, over the whole year. Don’t let it bother you if the end result isn’t your masterpiece. At least, you would have made writing for a few hours part of your daily routine. Set aside some time to write, use friends as guinea pigs, and discover what works and what does not.
Another aspect of practice is familiarising yourself with the tools of your trade: vocabulary, grammar, and punctuation. As an editor, I am willing to forgive language errors because that is my area of expertise; I expect my writer to have his/her subject matter correct. However, I admire writers who have managed to understand the nuances of language (although that might put the likes of me out of a job!). Often, this is the difference between an amateur and a master of the art.
Be warned though: don’t make practice a chore. The minute you stop enjoying writing, I stop enjoying reading it.
(Behind every great novelist cartoon)
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