Chris Clarke and I have been online friends for a long time now, almost all the time I've been blogging, which will be seven years this coming week! We became friends when we were both contributors to the Ecotone Wiki, a collective early project of a number of bloggers who were interested in writing about "place."
Chris has continued to write about place, nature, life, and spirit, first at "Creek Running North" and now at Coyote Crossing. He's one of the internet-based writers whose work I admire most, for the consistent quality of his thought, his luminous prose, and for his dedication to writing itself. He not only keeps at it, he thinks deeply about what he's doing and believes, as I do, that we can always improve our craft.
Readers here may have seen Chris's comments on some of the previous posts, and he's written about Phoenicia at his own blog too. I'm so grateful for this kind of give-and-take and thoughtful discussion about topics of mutual interest; writing used to be one heck of a lot lonelier than it is today.
I asked Chris for permission to reprint his recent post, "How to Write," because the advice he gives is worth its weight in golden bytes -- and there's wisdom here for aspiring and expert writers alike.
HOW TO WRITE by Chris Clarke
1. Spend most of your time reading. Start as early in life as you can. Read everything — billboards, cereal boxes, books, letters, instruction manuals, correspondence course texts, magazines and affidavits. Drown yourself in a sea of sentences.
2. Keep track of the reading material that most moves you. Don’t worry if you can’t find commonalities among the various pieces at first. Don’t pick a favorite, or even a top ten. Keep it all in one big category: “stuff I loved reading.” Reread items from this category on a frequent basis.
3. Keep track of the work you least like reading. When you’re about to add a work to this category, spend some time thinking about why you’ve decided not to like it. If it’s simply a matter of the author being boneheaded and wrong, waste no more of your time on the work. But if it’s something else, figure out what that something else is. Pay attention to that. How does the writer fail you as a reader? Are there patterns within the writer’s work — consistently mangled metaphors, illogic, clunky language?
4. Edit other people’s writing. Take a class in editing at your local community college if you have to learn the basics, then volunteer your services at a non-profit or other community organization helping out with their newsletter or paper or magazine or website. Nothing teaches you what you want to avoid in your own writing as quickly as finding and correcting it in others’ writing. Nothing teaches economy of language more quickly than editing a 2,200-word article to fit it into a 600-word hole in a newsletter. As an alternative, take some of the books from step 3 and mark them up. Find the problems that caused you to dislike the work. Underline them. Describe them.
5. Go back to your pile of stuff you loved reading and do the same editing. Make positive comments where you feel moved. Note problems if you find them on rereading.
6. Pay attention to the world. Find something, or many things, that affect your emotions. It doesn’t matter what they are. Birds, stones, music, pastries, books, software, toys, bottle caps, medical procedures, politics, sex, other people’s writing. Whatever. It doesn’t matter except that it should matter to you. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of anyone writing about those things before. Just pay attention to them. Pay attention to how you feel about them. Note the nuances. Learn everything you want to know about them until you run out of time, information or interest. Keep doing this, with one thing or many things, until you die.
7. Eavesdrop. Sit in restaurants by yourself, or with another person who’s quiet. Be non-chalant and non-intrusive. Pretend to read a newspaper. Note the rhythms of conversation, the pauses, the phrasing and repetition.
8. Spend a couple years learning a new language. Nothing makes the inner workings of your native tongue more apparent than learning to think, and write, in a new one. If you already speak more than one language, add another to your repertoire. Pick different language families. If you speak English and Spanish, study Mandarin. If you speak those three, study Euskadi.
9. Start a blog. Commit to yourself to write and post 100 words a day on your blog. Feel free to write more than that if you get momentum going, but give yourself that daily deadline. Don’t edit before publishing, aside from a cursory once-over for embarrassing typoes, spelling and grammatical errors. Don’t worry if you have nothing to say. Don’t worry if you blather. Just: 100 words a day, at least, put up where people can see and respond to them. And replying to comments on your blog doesn’t count toward the 100-word total. Though you should reply to comments. You make friends that way, and writers need friends.
10. You pay attention to getting your spelling right, and to word choice. You pay attention to sentence structure. You need to take that up to the next level. Pay attention to paragraph structure as well. A paragraph is an idea. You’ve heard that said, if you’ve taken composition classes, and it’s basically true. But it’s more than that. A paragraph is not just a string of sentences in a logical order. A paragraph is a stanza in a poem, a verse of a song. It has an internal structure that has nothing to do with the information conveyed by the sentences. If all the sentences in a paragraph are the same length, you have a monotonous paragraph. Sometimes that’s what you want to do. Mostly it won’t be. Vary and balance sentence length within a paragraph. Put a long sentence in the middle of a series of short ones. Put two short sentences after a very long one. Language is music. Pay attention to its rhythm.
11. Read your writing aloud. Even better, have someone else read it aloud. Note where the reader stumbles. If it’s not over a word that’s hard to pronounce, then phrasing or sentence structure is probably the stumbling block. A sentence that’s stumbly when read aloud is a sentence that will distract the silent reader. Note the tripups and fix them. Smooth them flat. Sand them down. At the very least put up some caution tape. This is also a good way to learn about words you use far too often, phrases you’ve done to death, and concepts you haven’t illuminated sufficiently.
12. Write things. Put them away for a week. Don’t even look at them once in that time. Take them out again after a week and edit them. Look for stumbling block sentences, paragraphs that don’t quite follow, ideas that there’s an obvious better way to convey.
13. Remove the first and last paragraphs of each drafted piece altogether and see how the piece works without them. Most writers take a paragraph to crack their knuckles and warm up at the beginning of a draft, and you’ll find a perfectly good and more economical beginning at the start of the second paragraph. Taking a paragraph to wind down at the end is common as well. If, while reading your last para, you can hear the theme music swell in your head and imagine credits rolling, cut it out. There’s almost always a great ending line at the end of the previous para.
14. Explore indecision and doubt where they exist. Don’t try to explain the things you can’t explain. Doubt is way more interesting anyway. Find the weak points in your argument and acknowledge them. Hell, celebrate them.
15. There’s another level of structure above the paragraph. John McPhee once described some of his essays as having a structure like a lowercase “e.” They started out in a direction, made a wide expository loop, then ended up near but not precisely at the starting point, heading in more or less the original direction. Write a 2,000-word essay structured like a lowercase “e.” Then write essays structured like an “O,” an “S,” and a “Z.”
16. Take two wholly unrelated concepts. Write an essay about both of them. Make the transitions seamless. Write so the reader says “I never knew those two things had anything to do with each other, but it’s so obvious now!” Hint: Most of the effort lies in selecting the two things. The writing comes naturally.
17. Above all, enjoy your writing. Go back and reread things you wrote years ago and find joy in them.
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