Monday, December 20, 2010

How to Write Better

Once you're an adult, and you've been writing for a while and teachers and workshops are long behind you, how can you become a better writer? I mean besides the obvious, which is writing a lot, reading a lot, and sharing your work with good readers. How can you improve your prose? Are there any techniques, like Hanon exercises for pianists or running sprints for marathoners?

I'd like to know because I think the years of following Anne Lamott's "shitty first draft" advice have done a number on my prose style. For those unfamiliar: Lamott suggests that writers -- especially new or blocked writers -- should not worry about quality in the first draft, but just get it all down and make it better in the revision process. It seems like good advice: I know I couldn't have written a single paper in college if I didn't do it that way. But I'm wondering if it's so great for fiction. Fiction lives in the words on the page, not in the outline. Lately I've found that I don't like what I write. Is it because I'm just throwing down any old thang in order to have something to revise later? The problem seems to be that I have no motivation to revise if the prose is crap. I can't work up any love for the shitty first draft.

So: how to get better without obsessing over every sentence? I had exactly one idea about this (and hope you have more): read Strunk and White again.

First revelation: so many ideas I thought were my own turn out to be things I stole from S&W! Second: a lot things here are not obvious. For instance: Do Not Inject Opinion. Sometimes we feel like it's all about opinion. But no.

Funny thing about Strunk and White: this sentence: "By the time this paragraph sees print, uptight, ripoff, rap, dude, vibes, copout, and funky will be the words of yesteryear..."

(Neither Strunk nor White would have anything good to say about my colonophilia, I know.)

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

For a rather different view of The Elements of Style, see: http://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/25497

Anonymous said...

Hey, yeah: Strunk and White. Two Cornellians, of course. (The latter was the pupil of the former.)

rmellis said...

As for the Chronicle article: feh! No writing guide should be followed like a set of eternally-fixed directives. Though I do agree with the author that some modern-day writing pedants have insane ideas about the "passive voice"; sometimes it's perfectly appropriate.

Hope said...

Strunk and White was huge for me in college, but when I almost taught freshman comp a few years ago, the comp guru insisted that I should not use it.

He seemed to think it was fatally flawed. It's kind of tarnished my thoughts about that book, so it's validating to see that writers I admire think it's useful ...

I've been wanting to reread it for awhile now. Maybe I should.

Pete said...

We just listened in the car to White's "Stuart Little", read by Julie Andrews. It really is a brilliant work, and Andrews does a great job with it. My son loved it. Although it's really more linked short stories than a novel. (Hey Ward Six? How 'bout that?)

I can only write in the painstaking way, not the crappy first draft way. My production would be higher if I wrote crappy-style, but I don't enjoy going back for major revision. My own writing can inspire me and give me new ideas as I go along... but not if the writing sucks.

Sung said...

A humorous take.

Actually, that whole site is hilarious -- Bipolar Express for Sylvia Plath's poems. You gotta love it.

Writing a shitty first draft never made much sense to me. I can see the attraction for it, that you're outputting something tangible.

The best way to improve your prose is by writing good prose. I know it sounds stupid and circular, but the conscious act of trying to make something sound better is the only way for me. Which means there's a lot of rewriting, of course. Reading it out loud also helps...

- Sung

Kevin said...

My answer lately has not been to go back to the correct sentence or the orderly sentence but to turn to my poet pals Hugo or O'Hara or Lynn Emanuel (or dozens of others). Sometimes it's a new ingredient, sometimes an omission or foreshortening, sometimes just a little surprise in the language -- but for me it's all about getting some energy, some speed & surprise on the page. I find that I can come back & sharpen this later but if the energy ain't there, for me, it's not writing it's typing. And I hate to type!

rmellis said...

Hope -- do you know specifically what the comp person thought was wrong with S&W? I get the fact that their grasp of grammar was imperfect (though certainly far better than that of yr average editor) but I think they are exactly right about style -- but to emphasize: writing rules are made to be carefully considered and carefully broken.

Pale Ramón said...

The real pitfall of a shitty first draft is not finding the appropriate structure for the work, not any lack of precision in the language, etc. A poor structure can set you so far back that abandoning the project can become a strong temptation.

jrlennon said...

Yes...been there, failed to do that.

rmellis said...

I agree about the pitfalls of poor structure. I've lost several nearly-finished novels to that phenomenon. Lately though my problems seem to be arising sooner -- think it's the prose this time...

Hope said...

Rhian, I don't remember exactly why the guru hated Strunk and White. He was pushing another, newer style guide. If I could dig up what that was it might hold a clue.