Writing Tips Part 2 (Your humbled language student)

It continues: my not-so-pro tips of how to write well for 2015. You can find Part 1 of this series here where I discuss my discoveries as reader. (Or you can scroll down. Don’t fight the mouse wheel.)

Today, I’m going to discuss writing from the perspective of a language student. (I study Japanese on the side.)

Everything is Practice

As an adult, life is a series of boxes. If you want to study a language, you pick a textbook and work through it. You set aside an hour of study each night and hunker down with a pen and earworms to truly soak it in. You go to class. You take notes and practice set phrases. Then you relax, take a deep breath, and enjoy an English movie.

Study and enjoyment. These are different boxes. If you want to get good at a language, you have to study. And you have to study a certain way with white walls, a serious-faced teacher and learn grammar structures.

If you want to be a writer, you need to read novels, write fiction and go part-time at your job. That’s the only way to get better at writing. I know because I’ve read author interviews. They usually say three things:

  1. Read 1,000 novels.
  2. Study your market.
  3. Write.

Except, that’s a way.

Go back to when you were a child. When you were trying to grasp what all those confusing letters and sounds were. Think about what you did to get better. You attended class, studied a textbook, listened to radio shows, watched TV, wrote in your journal, sent letters to a friend, told stories to co-workers, played video games, gave speeches on topics you hated, read comics, completed difficult to understand government paperwork, laughed at memes and gifs. You did all of these things. And all of them were done to a less than perfect standard. All of them were practice. You practiced so could communicate better with your loved ones. So they could understand you and what you meant. You did all of these things so when you had a conversation, people grasped what you were discussing.

As an adult, it’s easy to forget that enjoying a Japanese comic is just as much practice as drilling phrases. It doesn’t fit in that neat cuboid. Listening to a podcast, writing a letter to my in-laws, expressing my opinion about a movie, watching a dumb variety show … all are exercises of the alternative sort.

Writing is the same. What is writing? It’s communication. It’s taking something in your head and conveying it to a wide audience. That’s all it is.

Do you know where you can practice that? Emails. Letters to friends. Journal entries. Blog posts. Skype chat.

Want your characters to be funnier? Try making some jokes with your friends.

Want to learn how to describe a scene? Write a review about a concert event.

Need a better way of being poetic? Try your hand at songwriting. Or creating a different version of your favourite band’s tunes.

It’s all communication. Eventually those skills you hone in life will work their way into your stories.

I often forget that. I love my boxes, but now I’m trying to drown them in a the waters of the orange cosmos.

Passive Practice is Overrated

You ever met that person who loves to talk about talent? They take off their monocle and snort, only a little, out of their petite nose. Then they proceed to lecture everybody within earshot about how you need to read to be a good writer. And the reason you (or your friend) is not very good at writing is that you haven’t read enough.

I don’t disagree that writers need to read. How much I’m not sure, and what constitutes ‘reading’ is up for debate as well. News articles? Monthly magazines? Chat conversations on-line? Book reviews? Essays about political topics? Comics? Scripts?

The thing is I’ve yet to meet a teacher who is excellent because they’ve only read a lot of teaching textbooks. And if passive practice was all we needed then there would never be a bad parent. We could assign them the 50 best parenting books and look forward to never hearing a screaming infant again.

As a language student, as a person who has had to start from scratch and then scratch again, it becomes woefully clear that listening, speaking, reading and writing are four very different skills. If I want to speak well, I can’t just listen to others. I need to speak. I fail, flop around with my words and blurt incomprehensible sentences, but I have to. If I don’t, I will never speak well. I have to do it worse before I can do it better.

Writing is the same. If I want to get good at expressing my thoughts on a page then I have to put them down. If want to learn to write drama scenes, I can read the top 500 of them over and over, but until I start putting quill to parchment, I’m not going to get better at writing them.

Take my language study as an example. I learn about four new phrases a chapter. It takes me, perhaps, 1-2 minutes to read them and understand them. Then I practice those same structures for 10 hours. I practice them by writing them down, by speaking them out loud, by listening to them on the CD. Do you know what happens after those 10 hours?

I’m still not fluent. I still communicate poorly with my in-laws.

{Sad Face.}

So when someone in your writing group says, “You haven’t learnt how to dialogue tag correctly.” How long do you think it’s going to take for you to master that skill?

Do you really believe that by reading a few books and writing for 3-4 hours you’re going to master dialogue tags? Or dialogue?

No?

Which means you should stop reading this completely and go and write for 10 more hours. Like I should be studying harder.

{10 hypothetical hours later}

The basics are the most important thing you’ll ever learn. 

I love shiny things. I love new things. I embrace dancing sloths on top of rhomboid aliens more than anything.

It’s why language study is hard for me. See, I don’t want to do the basics anymore. I want to dress my literature up with pirates and forcefield cannons that emote over bitter divorces. For movies, there should be long dissections that discuss theoretical constructs and symbolism.

Instead, I’m in the corner struggling to explain where the lamp is. Every class is, “I had a good time at bad camp. It was cold. It was wet. Let us go to band came next week.”

Where’s the fun in it? Where’s the zesty zinger of a fantasy mind?

In books, why do I have to know how to spell? Or proper grammar? (Seriously, fuck grammar.) Why should I learn, re-learn and learn once more all about topic sentences and ‘show, don’t tell’? Why do I have to keep going back to the beginning to start once more?

‘Cause, with these skills, with these phrases, we can build cathedrals of words. We can carve out a universe full of gooey life that clings to people’s souls.

Eventually.

Writing is no different. At first, y’know, you try to make it esoteric. To skip past all the ‘boring’ bits like plotting and world building and planning. Except that’s where it’s at. Sitting down with a pen and learning how to describe a room effectively. How to evoke mood and write decent dialogue. How to structure a paragraph so it’s not too long. How to cut unnecessary words.

All these things that we learned in 101 Writing. We will do them 100 times, then we will do them 100 more times.  Yes, they’re boring. Yes planning is awful, but essential. Yes, re-reading grammar rules suck. Yet, these are what makes us better. These are what elevate us to the cosmos where our finger tips stretch back in time and touch the big bang.

Or you could just write more. Write until your fingers bleed and your brain is in synch with the cosmos. Anything that works really.

Image: Student (C) stillkost. Used under Standard License from US Dollar Photo. 

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