“So, what’s your secret to good writing?”
I was taken aback by my friend’s question. I’m not saying that my writing skills are bad – I wouldn’t be a writer if I’m terrible – but I’m not really into “secrets.” After all, I’m not a multi-awarded writer or blogger or anything like that. I really can’t give an expert opinion on the matter, except that I should instead channel and share the things I’ve learned over the years.
Yet my friend egged me on: what’s the secret to good writing?
I assume my couple dozen readers would think that I write in a dark room with bloodied wrists, abusing my liver and my lungs on the way to The Great Filipino Novel. To a certain extent I do (save for the bloodied wrists part), but those things don’t have anything to do with the “literary” or anything like that. Yet I wouldn’t have had a very small measure of success – and many failures – as a writer if I didn’t have “secrets.” To answer my friend’s questions, here are my “secrets” to “good writing.”
Carlos Fuentes once said that the first question he asks whenever he writes is, “Who are you writing for?” The answer to the question is not as much as an “audience,” but the purpose of your writing. Some people write because they want to share their thoughts and opinions, and others write because they want to express their feelings. For me, a written work must always realize its purpose when it is committed to the relative permanence of text.
That doesn’t mean that you should expect people to pat your ego or kiss your feet just because you wrote something. For me, it’s very important for a writer to keep himself or herself grounded, if only because there are so many ways to fail at writing. That humility should define when to start, when to stop, and when to revise.
There’s a little saying that goes, “Write to express, and not to impress.” That doesn’t mean that you should allow your grammar to falter just because you’re telling the truth; that just means that your purposes should always frame your writing. I’ve seen too many people – myself included – fail in their writing because they put their ego above everything else. While it pays to have a little bit of arrogance to back up what you show off, it’s also important to have a lot of humility to accept criticisms and points for improvement. Without a purpose and without humility, you’ll have a hard time accepting those criticisms and that you’ll always take them as personal insults.
What about “passion?” Whatever happened to a “love for writing?” Things like “The Writer’s Truth” and “literary creativity” are great and all, but these things are only possible if you write, and only if you keep writing. Much of writing involves technical stuff like spelling, grammar, and punctuation: writers cannot do without them.
Often, what keeps a writer from being a writer is the unwillingness to write, and the refusal to learn. It’s not enough for you to learn on the job or to get better as you write volumes upon volumes of notes and entries. Every now and then, you have to open a book to learn how to write.
Writing is a very technical task. While it’s good to have a love for writing and a passion for the written word, those things shouldn’t get in the way of practice. Like any art or any lesson, a writer should always be open to new knowledge, and apply things that are useful to him or her. The best way to express your love and passion for writing is to be diligent, to learn and apply new lessons, and to keep writing.
Remember: writers write, and non-writers don’t write.
If there’s any “secret” I cannot stress enough, it’s the down-and-dirty work of revision. The ability of a writer to take a step back from his or her own work and edit where it’s necessary is what makes all the difference between good writing and bad writing.
Sometimes we can get too engrossed in what we write that we fail to take that necessary step-back to read and edit our own works as objectively as possible. Through revision, the writer becomes a reader, and completes the writing process.
Revision also helps to get rid of that “I’ll-write-whatever-I-want” attitude so prevalent today in blogging or even writing, where people disregard this down-and-dirty task. Some people view the process as“dishonest,” that the truth only comes out when you write and publish immediately. I disagree with that notion: nothing is more honest than demonstrating the ability and the willingness to revise.
Writing is such an engaging and personal activity that we tend to be blinded by our own engagement in it. Taking a step back allows the writer to get in touch with other relevant truths, to clean up lines, and to perfect the work. Revision, for all intents and purposes, is to bend over backwards on your own work.
Lately I’ve been having this quirk of writing drafts twice and editing each draft twice over. After I do that, I post or submitting the better draft. It may have slowed down my writing speed, but it does give me better insights into flaws I really need to correct. It was the result of “workshop trauma,” when I submitted an incomplete work for the panel sessions and got my writerly arse handed over to me for it. While it may be inconvenient for some people to do that, I think that there’s nothing wrong with going over drafts at least once to check lapses, to cut paragraphs, or in some cases, delete the entire draft altogether and start over.
These aren’t much of “secrets,” as much as they are reminders to everyone (myself included) of the many things that make up good writing. It’s not that I’m a good writer – I think I have yet to scratch the surface of what I can’t do, and that I haven’t been doing a lot of scratching – but that writing, to me, is no secret. I’m sure these three “secrets” can help you improve on your own writing, make you a better writer, and probably make you a better person along the way.
Of course, I should take my own advice, and learn from others as well. Do you have writing secrets to share?