When talking to people at parties, usually one question is always asked: ‘What do you do?’
Person #1: ‘I’m a brain surgeon.’
Person #2: ‘Really? I’ve got an idea for a brain surgery I’d like to try one day.’
Person #1: ‘I’m in bomb disposal.’
Person #2: ‘That’s such a coincidence! I’ve always wanted to disarm a bomb.’
Person #1: ‘I’m a financial adviser.’
Person #2: ‘You don’t say? I’ve always felt I’ve had a knack for financial advice. I’m going to advise somebody one day where to invest all their money.’
Person #1: ‘I’m a nuclear physicist.’
Person #2: ‘Oh, too easy! If I ever get the time, I want to run a nuclear plant.’
Person #1: ‘I’m a serial killer.’
Person #2: ‘It’s like you read my mind! You can’t imagine the people I’m planning to lop off one day!’
You never hear stuff like this because nobody trivialises anybody else’s vocation or passion. They respect that those vocations have required education, training, and practice, or that this passion is is something the speaker has nurtured and cultivated.
Do lay-people think that about writing?
A lot of people believe to write a book, all you need to do is sit down and write. That’s it. And what emerges is this fully formed, perfectly written book. This is all it takes, because how hard can it be to make shit up? Or to break down your area of expertise into an actionable methodology? Or to condense somebody’s life into a story? Or to talk with authority about a particular topic? Or to write a book full of verse?
Good writing looks effortless because an author has put countless hours of hard work into it. They do this so you don’t stumble over the prose, or query the punctuation or grammar, or stop and frown about some element of the content. Good writing is like riding a train. You never think about the tracks. You never think about who’s laid them. You don’t ever question the journey. You just sit back and go from beginning to end. Bad writing is like a bumpy ride with frequent unplanned stops and several crashes thrown in. Most people wouldn’t want to take that trip.
There are a lot of good writing courses, retreats, and workshops out there that can help the aspiring writer. These are awesome because you’re surrounded by like-minded people, and your development is fast-tracked because you have people teaching you things that it might otherwise take you years to discover for yourself.
But there are things you can pick up on your own if you’re mindful.
When you’re reading a book, look at the grammar. Most of us speak correctly, but that doesn’t always translate in writing. Then strange idiosyncrasies creep in. Take apart how things work, and look at why they work.
Observe punctuation. It always stuns me when I see people employing numerous …………………… as an ellipsis. It’s three full stops … That’s it. That’s all you will ever see it in print. But while people see it, they don’t record it.
For fiction, when reading, or watching television or movies, examine how the story is put together. We usually get to know the people, something happens, they go on an adventure, and there’s a big climax. If you’re writing bio, dissect how documentaries work – how they build their history from the ground-up to fit a specific journey. If you’re writing self-help, look at how successful authors break down their methodology. As a poet, deconstruct how good poetry works. It’s not just rhymes. There’s more to it than that.
Look around. There are plenty of lessons in everyday life to develop your craft.
But respect that it’s a craft, and do everything to develop it.