Writing Secrets: It may be a gift, but it still needs to be unwrapped

 In Tips for Writers

The other day, someone told me she didn’t need writing instruction because “I have a gift”.

I’m sure she’s right and I’m thrilled for her. But what is it about writing that inspires this kind of reaction? If you discover your child has a gift for music or art, what do you do? You send her for classes.

I came across this quote from Johannes Brahms the other day. No doubt he was thinking of music, but it perfectly sums up my attitude to writing: “Without craft, inspiration is a mere reed, shaken in the wind.”

Someone I know – not a writer – is keen to write a book when he retires: a memoir based on his sometimes funny, sometimes poignant work experiences. I hope he does because he has some great stories to tell.

When I tentatively suggested a writing course to get him going, he pooh-poohed the idea – because he was good at English at school, and because he’s done plenty of academic writing.

“I know about grammar, you don’t have to worry,” he told me. “I can use an apostrophe correctly.”

Well, I am happy about that: I might abhor the death penalty, but I believe it could still have a place as a deterrent for serial misusers of the apostrophe.

There’s a lot more to writing skills than learning grammar, though. Knowing your grammar is, let me just add, an essential. It’s not a nice-to-have. The days have passed when a publisher would be grateful to accept your deathless prose despite your egregious grammar. It costs too much to fix.

I have a feeling the friend with the book in him will get stuck, largely because he doesn’t want to ask for instruction. The beginning can seem easy if you’ve been thinking about it for ages and are filled with enthusiasm. But then you take a wrong turn and get lost, or find yourself mired in a swamp.

Not everyone realises how much preparation is necessary before the inspiration forces you to write the first page. Develop your characters. Consider your story arc. Where’s the best place to begin? And these preparations are not the sole preserve of fiction writers. You don’t automatically know and understand your story just because you’re writing non-fiction.

It doesn’t stop there. Write in coherent scenes. Set things up in order to pay them off later. Don’t rush the drama. How do you keep readers turning the page? How should you use detail, not only to give readers a sense of the world, but to bring characters into sharp focus? How do you feed in back story, without resorting to chunks of wearying explanation?

Because we, at Allaboutwriting, believe so strongly in skills, I’ll be using this blog to run a series of fundamental and very practical tips to help you build on your inspiration. The series will run over ten or so weeks before I return to my usual style. We hope these will be useful, perhaps something you can print out as a reminder.

The point is that writing is a craft. Don’t ignore the skills because you are inspired or have been given a gift – or even because you were good at English at school and know your grammar.


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