My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, June 4, 2021

How Can I Get Prose Like Yours [Mine]? (The Mailbox)

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox." I will use your first name ONLY, unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Feel free to tell me how much you like my writing as often as possible.] 

Just a note before I jump into this question. My queue of questions isn't EMPTY, but I can kind of "see the bottom," and like a cat, I'm absolutely sure that this means I will soon run out and perish. So if you've got questions for me, now's a good time to send them.

Amanda asks:

I'm not a pro writer, my job involves a good amount of making myself understood in writing (emails, slacks, project proposals, documentation). I really admire the clarity of your writing style. Do you have any advice for non pro writers about writing clearly and being understood? 

My reply:

I know the answer you're just DYING to hear isn't "Thirty years of experience," so I'm going to do my very best to talk you through some of the places I lost time and spun my wheels during my own journey. However, I do want to emphasize that a lot of effort and practice and time spent finding my own voice as a writer has gone into the sprezzatura in front of you. Writing is never ever EVER as easy as experienced writers make it look, and the irony is, the easier writing is to read, the harder it probably was to write. The elevated vocabulary and purple style that look sophisticated are actually kind of rookie mistakes that ends up being more prolix and clunky than anything.

The best advice I can give you to find your voice and style without taking 30 years is similar to most of the general writing advice out there.

  1. Read constantly
  2. Practice practice practice
  3. Get feedback
  4. As your unique voice develops—tease it out
Of course the basics of reading and writing constantly are things I extol constantly in this blog for anyone who wants to "get better," "be great," or certainly "make it." 

You have to read a lot. You just HAVE to. You can't be a good writer if you're not a voracious reader—it's just part of the cost of doing business. No musician runs around talking about how they don't like music very much or painter says they're not that big into painting. No filmmakers hate film. It's only this weird anomaly in the writing world that you find people who will expect to be decent writers without reading all the time. Get it out of your head that you read enough in high school and now you're moving on to the writing phase of your existence. (That's not directed at YOU, Amanda. Just at sort of a general attitude that seems ubiquitous.)

You have to write a lot. Look, one of the ironies of most writing programs or writing groups is that there are a peculiar number of people who want to be writers seemingly more than they want anything else in life—BUT WHO DO NOT WRITE AND GET MAD IF YOU TELL THEM THEY SHOULD BE DOING SO. There are no shortcuts around this, and anyone who says otherwise is selling something. No writer worth their salt will suggest differently, even if they don't share specific advice about how to HIT that goal (like trying to write every single day). If, however, you're maybe not wanting to take the long-ass, 30-year route to Easyprose™, one of the things I can tell you is not to take long breaks from either writing or reading. Much of that 30 years involved me not writing very much, not reading very much, or both, and I would have gotten better faster if I had kept with it. I started taking my writing VERY seriously about fifteen years ago. I do not think it's any coincidence that about nine years ago, I started making some money and about five years ago, I started making real(ish) money. 

My trajectory as a "real" writer really began when I started getting feedback. I started with professors in a writing program, then peers, and now I have the whole internet making sure I unequivocally have no doubt of when they don't absolutely love something I've written. Still, as good as getting feedback can be, my greatest "learning moments" actually came from giving it. When you have to think consciously about why you like or don't like something, it converts into a specific lesson for you (to do or not do). As long as you are afraid of feedback, convinced of your own genius and unwilling to be edited, more argumentative with peer review than grateful, or generally see the process as antagonistic from a place of ego rather than as helping you to get to the best writing you can create, you will never take your writing to the next level. 

Your writing voice won't be exactly like anyone else's voice. Even as flattering as it is that you like mine. When I taught English, I would tell my students to imagine getting a call from a complete stranger who had a device that changed their voice to sound like someone who they often spoke with on the phone. Would they be able to tell after a few minutes that it wasn't the person? They always said yes. The turns of phrase. The emphasis on certain words. The way they had a certain pace. And then I told them to believe in their hearts that a person's writing carries the same distinctive voice. Of course, that was a lesson about plagiarism and how stolen words immediately had a different "resonance" that stuck out like a sore cliché. But it's as useful a lesson to experienced creative writers. Your voice is unique. So if it's a bit more elevated, that's okay. If it's a bit more folksy, that's okay. If it's a bit more terse or a bit more byzantine, that's okay. Anthony Hopkins has an amazing acting range, but every role he plays still has that distinctive voice. Most experienced writers can take the level of their writing up or down a few notches or be more playful or serious, but their voice will always be their own. It is when you're comfortable in your voice that your writing will flow and find its clarity—even if you send someone to the dictionary once in a while. Simple doesn't always mean easy. Find your own voice, even if it's not like mine (or someone else's) and lean in. 

Dale asks:

I was SO excited to see the article on types of dialogue that alluded to something more coming. I am so verklempt [about] the W.A.W. version of dialogue advice that I may need people to talk amongst themselves for hours. Your craft articles are always really easy to understand and SO helpful. When will we see the main article?

My reply:

Nothing like a reference to a somewhat problematic early 90s SNL skit to out a fellow Gen Xer, eh Dale? 

A jazz hands article typically takes me an hour or two. A mailbox, maybe four to six. Many of my lengthier articles take between five and eight hours. Craft articles typically clock in around 16-24. I do research. I compare notes. I look up what fifteen people say about the topic. I check the latest sources to make sure there hasn't been a shift in the way people look at it since I last studied it. I find examples. I spend a significant amount of time annoyed that I'm only going to get ONE article out of three fucking days of writing effort and be back to feeling guilty for not posting by the next day. 

Only fiction takes longer.

Which is just to say that it's going to be a couple of weeks for the article to go live. I'm hoping to get it done by next Friday, but then my Early Access Patrons will get the first look at it. (They've been as patient as saints through the whole pandemic.) After that it'll probably go live the FOLLOWING Friday. 

Thank you so much for your kind words and enthusiasm, though. I feel like someone just handed me a mana potion.

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