To the Novice Writer

Craig Chalquist, PhD

You know you want to be published, and you’re pretty sure you deserve to be. You love to write. Your bookshelves hold gems by favorite authors: the heroes and heroines of your literary pantheon. While other people walk dogs and go to parks on sunny days, you hunch over your keyboard, possessed. If that is you, there is hope.

There is hope even if that isn’t you. Perhaps you are a student writing papers, or a consultant getting ready to publish workshop materials, or a teacher with a textbook in mind. Or someone else: blogger, lecturer, poet, beggarman, thief who steals volumes of Baldwin or Dillard. The main thing is that you want to write well and publicly. You can.

You can, but you find yourself stuck between two stages of your writing career. The first stage was where you practiced enough to get a feel for your own style of writing. The bare beginning stage. Remember it? Of course. Having passed through it, you now rest your eye on the next stage: publication. How to bridge the gap?

You have tried. Have your queries to editors gone ignored? Is your pile of rejection letters ready for use as mulch in your garden? Do you feel like a misunderstood talent? You there, the crier in the wilderness: you’re my audience for this epistle. So read on.

I’m not going to tell you how to get published because others already have. When I was you five books, two anthologies, dozens of journal, magazine, and newspaper articles, and about a thousand student papers ago, I found all I could want of the contrivances we writers all need: query letter, book proposal, suggestions about whether to track down an agent. No: I’m writing to you to address your stuckness and a possible, even probable, cause of it.

Allow me to proceed by way of a flanking maneuver:

A thinker who shall be unnamed sat down one day and read lots and lots of books on psychology. He also studied texts from related fields. He then wrote a book to announce his own integration of what he had learned. He promoted this book religiously, but most psychotherapists ignored it. Why? Because he had not logged a single hour of psychotherapy schooling or supervision, nor had he ever been a therapy client. So what made him expert enough to advise psychotherapists? Nothing did, and discerning readers knew it.

His chief mistake was convincing himself that having a psyche to which he paid concentrated attention made him an expert on psychotherapy. It didn’t. Only learning over time how to perform psychotherapy could do that—and only if he trained with people who were good at it. But he did not train with them. He believed his kind of insight transcended the rules, guidelines, and wisdoms patiently accumulated by real experts who had perhaps read fewer books on psychotherapy than him, but who had actually worked in the field.

Just as exploring your psyche will not make you a psychotherapist, speaking and reading your native tongue fluently will not make you a skillful writer.

Every editor and publisher has been forced to listen, over and over, to what might be called the Literary Learner’s Lament, la la la—it goes like this:

I wanted to learn, but I quickly found
That rules and instruction left my spirit bound
To limits my freedom could only reject--
Like this lesson to which my poor soul must object:
“Learn the mechanics before you derail them;
“Prune the bare branches before fruits regale them”
--My talents and message brook no such restraint,
Instead, I mail queries until I grow faint.

My writing can’t be chained down by rules and guidelines. My style will dry up if I absorb any writing lessons. Spelling and grammar can’t measure up to inspiration. Maybe so, but where would Mozart have found himself had he not bothered to learn to read music? Unheard, that’s where. As a matter of fact, he used his capacious memory to retain entire works by other composers so he could study the musical technique involved.

We can’t acquire our true writing voice in silence, but only by listening carefully to other writers’ voices—including critical ones offering thoughtful observations about what does not work in our writing. That writers are solitaries remains one of the persistent illusions about writing, especially among beginners. No one writes alone at first.

As an editor facing piles of submission paper, I can assure you that when I see writing filled with passive constructions, unnecessary words and phrases, unexplained jargon, or clumsy diction, I know very well that the writer has not transcended the rules. Consciously bent or broken rules serve the composition, enliven its relevance, and strengthen its voice; inadvertent errors weaken it, and they show. Next!

Here, then, is my best piece of advice to the novice: Learn your craft as well as you can. I offer this advice not as an expert, but as a fellow novice. A published novice still learning the craft himself.

Writing Tips:

• Know what you want to say first, and it had better be important to you.

• Visualize your audience. To whom do you write? Don’t think in categories, at least at first. Conjure sweating activists, technicians stooped over keyboards, meditating thirty-year-old women burning incense: specific groups of people you wish to reach with your writing. Keeping them in mind will give your writing focus and help keep you on topic.

• In the draft stage, write from the heart and the bones and guts. Let it all flow out without pause. Don’t be the least bit critical—yet—because if you are, you’ll stop up the stream. You’ll suffer that syndrome of literary constipation known as writer’s block. Let the muses speak first and record whatever they utter.

• Done with the first draft? Now you can edit and be ruthlessly critical. Start here: Read the entire thing out loud and reword or cut whatever sounds awkward. This step alone can save you a vast amount of extra work later.

• Catch your reader’s interest in the very first sentence; if possible, from the first word. Imagine the busy editor with a pile of writing to get through. If the editor’s eye sees an opening like, “If we go back very far into the history of the West….” the project dies right then. Next! “Is Rome falling today along with the stock market?” Better, but look at this: “Tearing down a civilization: how long would it take? Hours?” “Tearing”—forcible start.

• Inspect your verbs—all of them. Do they move the action along? Do they pulse, labor, give off energy? Don’t write, “She was able to experience a quite strong level of physiological arousal in the vicinity of her potential partner,” write, “She wanted him so badly she bit her lip.” Don’t write, “Perception of a phenomenon…” write, “See….”

• Don’t euphemize, but don’t brandish any bloody unborn fetuses either. Don’t write to shock.

• Commas and periods go inside quote marks: “When swinging the wet trout at your neighbor’s head,” he explained....

• Give the following words their walking papers—they do no work: experience, process, suddenly, interesting, good, marvelous, dynamic, wonderful.

• Cut clichés. Resist the hack’s urge to write “blast” when you mean “attack” or “argue,” “temblor” when you mean “earthquake,” or “rain event” when you mean “rain.” Send home the indigenous people who live in “harmony with nature.” Place the head of every cliché into the literary guillotine: spread like wildfire, 24/7, robust (except for salad dressing), “X is the new Y,” “liars, damn liars, and xx,” “how I learned to love the yy,” smoking gun, war on xx, comfort food, shovel-ready, czar (unless of Russia), teachable moment, -gate (imitating Watergate), ping (for “sound out”), cutting edge (dull from overuse), low-hanging fruit (now spoiled)….

• Don’t use ten words where three or four will do.

• Instead of overwhelming the reader with facts and numbers, fit them into an evocative story about what they mean. Mere data never carried the day. We don’t want to know the what alone: we want to know why.

• Substantiate controversial claims. The simplest explanation isn’t always the correct one, but it often is. You are writing about the extraterrestrial origin of crop circles. From the reader’s point of view, which of these explanations makes more sense: that an alien intelligence descended unseen into a farmer’s field at random and left strangely mythic designs for no guessable reason—or that some farmers got drunk and manned their tractors for a prank? Believe the former if you like, but show your reasons.

• Do your homework on your topic. The Mayan calendar does not end in 2012, nor did the Pyramids of Egypt require superhuman intervention to build. Five minutes on the Internet and you will know why. Lemurians don’t generate steam under Mt. Shasta, magma does. –Prominent scientists say that climate change is natural rather than manmade? Very well, but did you bother checking to see if they are sponsored by any of forty “scientific” front companies funded quietly by ExxonMobil?

• When you find yourself writing about something, try describing it instead. What does it look like, feel like, smell like? How does it taste? How do you actually operate it?

• In most writing you’re safe using “I,” but if the page is littered with one “I” after another, then perform what Glen Slater calls “I surgery” and cut some of them. The idea is to keep the reader’s attention on the topic rather than on you—even if the topic has to do with what you have encountered in life. The encounters matter, but the “I” will distract if overused.

• If you write educationally and use recaps (a fine idea), don’t just restate what you’ve been over. Make recaps interesting and augment them with new information and ideas.

• If you must use abstractions, offer examples to make them real. “….ever-higher levels of sublime God-consciousness”: only God will know what that means or looks like.

• Don't preach, and don’t end your composition with something sappy and moralizing like, “If everyone were to realize this, how happy we [you, children, wild animals, angels] would all become.” And don’t end with someone else's words. Instead, leave the reader with a question to mull, an image to contemplate, or a future direction to consider.