The key to great writing is not necessarily developing a systematic filing system of scenes and plot points, which you then craft through connecting together 4×5 note cards in an elaborate series of color-coded drafts.
It might be for some people. But many writing types—the one typing included—tend to be artsy types, too. And artsy types seldom use 4×5 note cards for anything except half-finished collages for creating world peace. Or jotting down the occasional website.
The key to great writing is not merely reading what writers have written about writing. That helps. But if it’s all you do, you can teach a writing class and that’s about it.
The key to great writing is not even shrewd editing.
The key to shrewd editing is great writing.
Editing the Moment
Too often, the examples of great writers we see as examples are the great editors—writers who would pass works through dozens of manuscripts before completion. Write quickly, we’re told. Edit later.
If that’s your style, this can work. If it’s not your style and you adopt it, prepare for creative anguish. You are about to make yourself miserable.
The difficulty with obsessive editing is that it’s an art unto itself. You need to know how to edit well in order to—well, edit well.
But editing is somewhat like acting—it’s a derivative art. In other words, it can reach high levels of brilliance and artistic achievement, but it needs words already on the page. It does not independently create. It interprets a creation.
We do need to edit, obviously. I believe every writer should be their own severest editor, with their own exacting editorial standards. Real editors appreciate this, as it makes their job easier. They can take a good work and help make it better, rather than taking a shambles and making it good.
(Think: your mum wanting you to tidy your room so she could dust, rather than wanting to tidy it for you.)
But we should edit with respect for the voice of what’s written.
A story is momentary. It exists within a certain moment, a certain setting. The harmony of words and ideas, the counterpoint of expression and thought, converge uniquely every time we sit to write. We never have the same experience of writing twice.
Each time we write, we create. Nothing is being repeated. (Unless you believe in time as a circular dimension, in which case everything has happened already aeons before and will happen again aeons later. But that’s light years beyond the scope of this post.) The writing is discrete, unique, momentary. We say something a certain way because of that moment. A different moment, those words would not have come.
So, as Keats urged, we must edit while honoring that moment. We are no longer in that moment, we are in another. It is different. We will choose different words, perhaps tell a different tale. In some cases, that can be good, and strengthen the original vision.
Keats himself was a brilliant self-editor. But what sounds good later can, potentially, destroy what was created. So Keats’s revision of ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ is, frankly, awful. Everyone ignores it except scholars (who read anything anyway), and reads the original (penned swiftly in a private letter).
How do you know what to edit and what not? When do you improve and perfect a moment, when do you fumblingly destroy it?
Whether you edit as you write or write as you edit, the answer is, I think, the same. You know whether your writing is good by knowing what good writing is. The more you do it—and I’ve been doing this frenetically for over ten years now—it really does get easier. You develop an intuitive sense for the language, a feel for its rightness, an ear for its music.
Great writing really is fun to say, and to hear.
This cycles back to the original question—what is the key to great writing? I don’t think I could give a propositional definition. But I can say, read the great writers. They’ve found it. You will learn to hear it in their words.
This is one area—and there are probably others—where the music world has the writing world beat. We think because we use language every day, and read a lot from our local library, we can become great writers with a little time—perhaps a month. We tend to see ourselves as idiosyncratic and free, learning the practice of a craft from, well, doing it and reading about how to do it.
But every music student knows—or learns very quickly—they inherit a tradition of what great music is. Of course, they’re not going to go out and ape the Baroque Masters, writing strictly within the rules of 17th century counterpoint. But if they’re going to compose or perform, they will need to learn those rules, and learn them well. The modern movements, the John Adamses and Phillips Glass, are rooted in that soil.
To be an edgy, contemporary composer writing for this generation, you have no choice but to know Josquin, Bach, Bartok, Lutoslawski, Schubert, Stravinsky, Beethoven, and on and on. Otherwise, you will not know what music is, and you will not be able to compose what you choose to compose. (The same would be true in other music traditions—jazz, for instance.)
The same should, I think, be true of writers. We stand, simply and utterly, in one ripple of one rivulet of one eddy of one current of one bend of one flow of the river of our craft. Whatever language we write in, it has been written in before.
Naturally, we won’t write in Victorian English (unless we have a political investment for doing so). But—like it or not—we will never fully understand our own novels until we have understood Austen. And we will never fully understand Austen until we have understood Fielding and Defoe.
We cannot write free verse without first learning all the rules it breaks—why Arnold wrote it well and why Yeats wrote it better. We will not learn how to write realism until we have read the Russian masters. We will not learn how to write emotional authenticity until we have read the Romantics. We will not learn how to write English until we have immersed ourselves in Shakespeare.
Too often we fail to realize this.
What I, as a young and idealistic writer, am attempting has been done before. It sounds different, and of course, as I said, we shouldn’t presume we’ll survive in today’s market if we write like Fielding. Without consciousness of what has been, I will never learn to listen for what could be. It doesn’t matter whether I want to embrace what’s gone before or defy it, support it or subvert it. To write, I must listen.
Editing, therefore, is listening. We listen to the text before us, the fruit of a moment. And we listen to the texts behind us, the harmonies of words and struggles and dreams over centuries, the music and potential of our craft. And, firmly but cautiously, we wield our red pen and try to bring our words into that symphony.
Addendum: Pragmatic Suggestions
As I promised Wednesday, I wanted to suggest a pragmatic answer to the one o’clock in the morning dilemma. Being well read does not, of course, automatically make you a great writer. But, as Jenna has also observed, the glut of friendly advice on how to write can be paralyzing.
All that’s great, but for me I’d rather read a book. These are the five I’d say every writer should read at all costs. Are these the only ones I’ve read? No. Are these the only ones you should read? No.
But if you read nothing else on how to write, read these. So, in alphabetical order:
- Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002) Atwood teaches by example—this book is superbly written, with a distinct and musical voice and an awareness of past voices. (Thence the title.) It’s pleasantly subversive about everything you think you know about the theory of why you write, and how you do it.
- Sid Fleischman, The Abracadabra Kid: A Writer’s Life (New York: Greenwillow, 1996) Fleischman’s autobiography is replete with whimsical and remarkably sound advice on writing. He begins each chapter with a less than flattering letter from a well-intentioned reader. Read this book. Then read everything else he wrote. You won’t regret it.
- Jerry B. Jenkins, Writing for the Soul (Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2006) Although Jenkins writings are primarily faith-based, which he discussed freely in this tutorial/memoir, his observations as a skilled writer and editor with an eye for the market are invaluable. His personal warmth combines with his frank assessment of his own writings to make this an unforgettable read.
- Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969/2000) Read this book. Just—read this book. Whatever else you don’t read, read this book. It will shatter everything you think you know about writing.
- William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 4th Edition (New York: Macmillan, 1972/2000) Perhaps the most predictable title on this list, but for a reason. Memorize it. Inscribe Rule 17 everywhere you can legally inscribe something. And pay particular attention to White’s fourth chapter.
Other titles recommended to me are Stephen King’s On Writing (2000) and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (1995). I’ve sadly not read them yet, so they’re not on the list. But with these five and those two, you’re probably pretty well off.
Another pragmatic suggesting, flowing from this post, is to read and understand as much literature as you possibly can. C. S. Lewis recommended reading three books from earlier eras for every one you read from your own. And he was probably right.
If you’ve read this far, hooray! You get to read the thoughtful, recycled disclaimer:
Are you an editor, agent, or established writer reading this? Please don’t navigate away in disgust—let’s talk. I’d love to get your perspective on these things, to let you explain what you’ve chosen as your guidelines for writing and why, what you’ve found helpful and what you haven’t. Dialogue with me—that’s why the comment box is there.