Six Ways to Study Writing
Ever since I majored in creative writing in undergrad, I’ve heard “You can’t study writing.” Bizarrely, the people who adore this statement include fellow students, the authors of our creative writing textbooks, even teachers.
“You can’t learn writing,” they’d say with a nonchalant wave of their ink-stained fingers. “You’re good or you aren’t.” The implication was that if you weren’t at least THIS good, don’t bother with the ride.
Well, that’s crap. There may be a few things in life we can’t learn, (a first grader I tutored told me he’d learned to breathe underwater, and even included a helpful illustration), but writing isn’t one of them. Oh, you picked up a guitar and can’t strum a single chord? GIVE IT UP MAN. You tried to ski and fell down? Don’t bother coming up the mountain ever again.
Four years ago I was hired to teach creative writing at a summer camp. The camp was three weeks long, with the same group of middle school kids from nine to four each day. It sounded like a very intimidating heaven. How could I teach writing—it wasn’t like studying algebra. A(character) + B(conflict) might equal C(plot), but that was no guarantee C would be good. My undergrad classes had been almost entirely workshops, but critiquing seventh graders’ writing for six hours a day didn’t seem like a great idea.
I felt lost.
Until I broke down writing into separate skills. The skills weren’t sequential, but they were concrete enough to separate into different units of study. The first week we focused on character, dialogue, plot outlining, unique details and ‘show don’t tell’, setting, voice, and tone. With each lesson, my kids improved. “Kevin was cool” became “Kevin casually fed his hawk a chicken nugget as they flew away from bad guys.” My students were my proof: writing can be improved through study.
I am lucky that I get to teach writing, in part because I constantly examine how to explain what makes writing good. Each lesson is an excuse to keep learning, to focus in and practice elements of storytelling.
If you find a way to teach writing, that’s great! You don’t need your own class to learn though. Here are six tips for creating your own writing study plan:
1) Go back to the basics. Think about a story you love and reread that book, studying how the author earned your adoration. Was the character quick witted, as shown through clever dialogue? What subtle details did the author include to show there was magic in their world?
2) Do research. Find books on writing*, read articles by writers, visit your favorite authors’ blogs and check out their advice. What tips do they give for plot? Characterization? Worldbuilding? Revise your work, focusing on those elements.
3) Do non-writing research. Approach topics you find interesting as a writer: those pictures of temple ruins are gorgeous—if my protagonist explored them, what details would they notice?
4) Find patterns. Study the writing habits you’ve picked up. I use way too many parenthetical statements. I cut out about a million each time I revise. Make an effort to change. Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark is great for specifics on language and usage.
5) Connect with writers. My writing friend Laura is amazing. We exchange chapters, encourage each other, share inspiring quotes, recommend books. It helps to have a writing friend, because they will have a much deeper capacity to analyze the writing minutiae that other people inexplicably find less than fascinating. The NaNoWriMo forums are a great place to find an active online writing community as well.
6) Try the dumb stuff. I find lots of advice I hate, but I try it anyway. Like this prompt: Write dialogue between two characters about to divorce. Yawn. But if I make myself write for at least 5 minutes I develop momentum to keep writing. Sometimes the work is nonsensical—two insane people fighting over cats. Sometimes it’s usable—hey, those two characters are actually my protagonist’s parents! Who knew? Do anything to get yourself writing, anything to add to your portfolio, anything to keep going.
Neil Gaiman says, “The best way to write better is to write more.” Being mindful about applying what you’ve studied is the quickest way I know to improve.
How do you study writing? What resources would you recommend to others?
*Some of my favorite writing books include: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser, Writing Magic by Gail Carson Levine, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Steal Like and Artist by Austin Kleon, and Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern
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