What resources would you recommend to someone who wants to write?
November 5, 2007 6:35 PM   Subscribe

What would you recommend to someone who wants to increase their confidence in their writing abilities? (books/websites/other resources)

Years ago, I decided that one of the things I wanted to do before I died was to write a book. The problem with that is that I now have to write a book before I die.

I feel like I need to learn more about how to write before I actually start to write. I hope that learning the mechanics of how to plan out my writing will increase the confidence I have in my actual ability to write.

The Googling I've already done has led me to many different sites of varying quality and conflicting opinions. I know there is no one answer for everyone, but I would love some help in separating the ideas that work really well from the ones that don't.

I know there are many great writers here on Mefi (I read you here every day!). What helped you gain confidence in your skills so you could get down to the business of writing?
posted by melissa to Writing & Language (32 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
On Writing.
posted by JPowers at 6:40 PM on November 5, 2007 [2 favorites]

Read everything. Read widely. Read within the genre you want to write in. Read outside the genre you want to write in. See how writers mess up. See what amazing things they do with words. Read dreck. Read sublime classics. Reread something you've read ten times before, but read it closely. Read and read and read until you start recognizing how the writer put the story together, and how you would have done it differently.

Start writing now. You learn by putting words on the paper.
posted by sugarfish at 6:47 PM on November 5, 2007

Seconding JPowers.

In "On Writing," Stephen King is frank, humorous, and plain spoken. It's all there. Get it and read it.
posted by SlyBevel at 6:54 PM on November 5, 2007

Best answer: I'll get laughed out of the room for this, but livejournal has been the best thing for my writing.

It's taken all of the urgency out of my writing: it doesn't have to be perfect, and I can write about anything I want. Sometimes, I'll write something so good that I want to flesh it out more and send it out somewhere. When the good stuff comes out on livejournal, it's much less painful than it is when I sit down at a desk and Write.

When I write something that sucks, or is of little consequence to anyone but myself, it gets ignored. Getting slammed makes me want to write less. Getting ignored makes me wonder why I'm not connecting to people.

Some of the people on my friendslist have written very successful books. Others are neighbors and friends. I don't know of any way I could get such a mixed audience so easily.

Livejournal helped me to stop thinking that every word that comes out of my head has to be good or useful, and it kept me from falling into a Natalie Goldmanesque-trance where I'd think that any writing, even if it was unreadable crap, was better than no writing at all.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 7:01 PM on November 5, 2007

Best answer: I feel like I need to learn more about how to write before I actually start to write.

Don't wait for anything - start writing! Learning to write means actually writing, much like learning to swim requires getting in the pool. You could read all you want about how to swim, but you could never say, "Aha! Now I can swim!"

For inspiration, mechanics, etc. you can read some good books (the one above by Stephen King is excellent), read blogs and read good literature. But, again, read all of that as you begin writing. Don't wait! Start writing!

Your probably thinking, "But what do I write?" I am a big believer in prompts to get you started. You can find many good lists of prompts on the Internet. This is a good way to begin writing creatively without the need to be creative about the subject, only the content. Also, think about beginning a journal. Journaling is probably the single best way to actually get yourself busy writing. Don't worry about it being punctuation, spelling or anything but just writing. Even if you begin by simply writing down what you did today - you are writing.

You can do it. Just don't allow yourself to believe you can actually, "learn to write," before you actually get down to the nitty gritty of writing. Good luck!!
posted by Gerard Sorme at 7:02 PM on November 5, 2007

But when writing on AskMe, be sure to get "your," and "you're" correct, like I did not in the third paragraph above. On second thought, maybe a book or two might be a good.....just kidding!!!!.......start writing!!!!
posted by Gerard Sorme at 7:05 PM on November 5, 2007

Thirding JPowers, and I speak as a writer who doesn't care much for most of Stephen King's writing. It's not a "How to write like Stephen King" book.
posted by WPW at 7:05 PM on November 5, 2007

strunk and white's elements of style is great.

when it comes to writing, you are what you eat. or, as programmers say, "garbage in, garbage out." the more good writing you read, the better your writing will be. george orwell, e.b. white, john mcphee, and ian frazier are great writers to look at in terms of using english clearly and well. if you prefer magazines, read "the new yorker" and "the atlantic monthly."

then there is the matter of practice. get lots of practice. write every day, even if it's crap. good luck!
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:12 PM on November 5, 2007

Best answer: The most important skill to learn in writing is to shut off that little voice that says, as you write the first draft, "this is complete crap". You just turn to the voice and say "I know, I'm going to fix it in the second draft. Now talk to the hand" and carry on. Don't get sucked into revising as you go. Pretend the computer is a typewriter, or BETTER STILL buy a typewriter and don't stop until you type THE END.

The second most important skill, but not one that all successful writers employ, is to not start writing the draft until you know how it ends and roughly how you get to the end from the beginning. The simplest trick to doing this is to write out the beats of the story on index cards, and when they form a satisfying pile, start writing.

I've written elsewhere about my not-patented method of outlining a story but here it is again: write the story as one sentence. "Martians invade the earth" or whatever. Now expand that sentence into three sentences representing the beginning, middle and end of that story. Now rinse and repeat. Expand each of the new sentences into a beginning, middle and end. And keep doing this until you are actually writing the story.

The beauty of this approach is that you always have an improvable draft.

Finally, two rules to live by. "Seat of the pants to the seat of the chair", and "Stick to the point, and whenever you can, cut".
posted by unSane at 7:18 PM on November 5, 2007 [5 favorites]

"Story" by Robert McKee. it's mostly about screenwriting, but applicable to any type of writing or creative pursuit.

It contains incredible insights into story structure, the nuts and bolts of how a story is actually built. McKee points out (very correctly imo) where so much bad writing comes from: writers taking an "outside in" approach, rather than "inside out."

I don't believe you can write a great book by just reading other great books and then trying to imitate them. it's like watching an auto race full of really beautiful high performance cars, and then trying to build your own car from scratch-- you know what the finished product should look like, but you'll have no clue about the things under the hood that actually make it work.
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:24 PM on November 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

I get a lot out of fictional stories about writing and academia. Zadie Smith's "On Beauty," and the films "Stranger than Fiction" and "Adaptation" come to mind.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 7:31 PM on November 5, 2007

I really recommend "Writing Down the Bones", which you can find at any good bookstore. I have given it to several people who timidly told me of their frustration in writing fiction.
posted by parmanparman at 7:33 PM on November 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

melissa, would you mind e-mailing me a couple of paragraphs of anything that you've written?

I know, it's a kooky request, but I'd love to read something of yours.
posted by snsranch at 7:43 PM on November 5, 2007

Best answer: Just write a lot, I think. I used to have all this tenseness about my writing, and think that it was like... composing a great opera, like you might only have one or two in you. But now I think that good writing is a skill in the vein of being a great bread-maker. You follow a recipe for the while, and then you just have to strike out on your own and do it so often that you develop a feeling for the dough.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 7:45 PM on November 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Yeah, you have to just write, and read. Writing books are great for motivation/inspiration, but writing itself is the only thing that really teaches you how to write.

As for confidence boosters, take a workshop at a local college. You will see that your writing is not so bad. And it'll help you learn to see ways of improving your and others' writing. One way or another, showing your writing to other people (and vice versa) will help your confidence. Also, a writing workshop gets your butt in the seat to get out at least enough writing to share for that semester.
posted by lampoil at 8:08 PM on November 5, 2007

National Novel Writing Month is going on right now. The goal is to produce 50,000 words of fiction by Nov. 30th.

I'm doing it this year, and I find that the need to write and meet that deadline helps silence my "inner editor".

I also echo the others' advice to just write. Get a blog and just write whatever comes to mind. You have to crawl before you walk.
posted by reenum at 8:11 PM on November 5, 2007

Writing workshops can be helpful.

On the other hand, if you're in a writing workshop with one or more wildly talented person, constantly comparing your work to theirs can just make you feel like a no-talent hack who'll never amount to anything. That's what happened to me (after a solid 3 years of enjoying and benefiting from writing workshops, I should add); I haven't written much in years. So, you know, moderation in all things.
posted by willpie at 8:13 PM on November 5, 2007

This is just a start but I'd say that you should read professional writers (not bloggers) and pay strict attention to where they put their punctuation.
posted by dhammond at 8:38 PM on November 5, 2007

Write. It's really that simple.

If you're trying to get your writing organized, you may want to check out the Snowflake Method which starts you writing a single sentence to describe your book to writing your first draft.

A good spell checker program in your word processing software can handle spelling and grammar usually.

We can make more recommendations if we know more about the sort of book you're trying to write.
posted by Kioki-Silver at 9:02 PM on November 5, 2007

Have you thought about taking a peer-reviewed writing class, maybe at a local university's evening program?

I finished my English degree part time over the course of a couple of years, and I was required to take a series of three courses called Expository and Persuasive Writing. Each week the class was required to write a short non-fiction essay and bring copies with them for everyone else. We would go around the room and read our essays aloud, and then take comments and criticism from each other.

This was without a doubt the best writing class I've ever taken, and believe me, I've taken a few in my time. I was exposed to a wide variety of writing styles and I learned a lot just by reading other peoples' contributions and figuring out what "worked" and didn't. I gained confidence in my own writing as the critiques of my essays became more positive over time, and I also learned a bit about public speaking.

If you lived near Boston, MA I would refer you to the specific course and professor in question, but seeing that you don't, I can just say that you might find something similar to be a good resource.
posted by autojack at 9:58 PM on November 5, 2007

I think reading a lot is very important. It's definitely shaped my writing, and I've been an avid reader and writer since I was a kid.

I read somewhere that Ezra Pound suggested writing every day. About anything. Just getting into the habit of writing every single day would get you into the right mindframe, and get you more familiar with your writing style.

I am not to the point of writing every day, but I did start a blog, and I made myself forward the link to my family and friends. The dialogue it has started, and the feedback I get, is valuable to me.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 10:25 PM on November 5, 2007

Best answer: Start writing.

Nothing you can do will improve the quality of your writing more quickly than actually writing. You can read books and magazines and web sites all you want, but they won't actually make you a better writer. Only writing will make you a better writer.

Yes, there's value to reading. Yes, books can make you ware of certain aspects of the craft. But nothing teaches like actual writing.

Write often. Write what you want. Don't try to force your style. Be natural. Just write.
posted by jdroth at 11:32 PM on November 5, 2007

Nthing the write write write idea. It doesn't matter how good or bad it is, the only way to be a good writer - and good is subjective here - is to write. Write every day. There are many sites which will give you prompts. Pick the prompts which inspire you or the ones you can write at least a paragraph on. Don't censor as you write. Just write and then go back and tweak it if necessary.

I'm a big old hypocrite though. I've been sitting on an idea for a play for at least two years and everyone tells me to just write it already. But I thought I needed to read books on how to write plays, despite reading many plays in my lifetime. The more I read the books, the more I procrastinated actually sitting down and doing the one thing I wanted. My point is, don't use "research" as a way of putting off what you want to do. Read On Writing and the other recommended books, but use them as supplements while you're writing rather than using them as things you should do before you start writing.
posted by firevoice at 12:15 AM on November 6, 2007

There's also On Writing Well by Zinsser, which I am very fond of. It's concerned with non-fiction, so it might have a different take than Stephen King's book (which I haven't read.)
posted by Coventry at 3:44 AM on November 6, 2007

What they all said: the best way to become better at writing is just to start writing.

And don't worry if a lot of it is crap. All writers write a lot of crap. They just never show anyone else the bad stuff. (Unless you're like me and write a blog, in which case it's all out there like dirty laundry.)

And, yes, don't try to write and edit at the same time. As someone I know once put it: it's like trying to drive with one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brake. You can't do it.

I would also add: write to entertain (or inform) yourself. That way, even if no one else likes what you write, at least you're making yourself happy.
posted by davetill at 4:26 AM on November 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Oh my goodness! I wasn't expecting this many answers by this time of the day. Quite honestly, this thread is a real confidence booster! Thank you to everyone who took the time to answer this.

I'm so glad that the most common answer is to "just write". I think I knew that subconsciously, but the "you suck" voice makes me feel a little skittish about putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). UnSane sums up this feeling nicely, and more importantly, describes how to deal with it.

snsranch: Thank you for your kind offer to read something I've written. I certainly wasn't expecting that! I don't have any fiction worth sharing right now, but I do blog and that link is in my profile if you seriously want to read something. A warning, you may need to go into the archives a bit to find something of substance, but there is some stuff there worth considering. (See, more confidence already!)

freshwater_pr0n: I understand what you are saying about livejournal taking the urgency out of your writing and allowing you just to write. I feel the same way about blogging. It forces me to share what I'm writing with the world, and any feedback is appreciated.

I'd like to do a writing workshop or class, but I'm just not in the right financial place for that right now. I also want to have at least a little bit of presentable work under my arm so that I don't spend my time playing catchup with the more prolific writers in the group. (Excuses, excuses!) I do plan to participate in one eventually - it's on my list.

Again, thank you to everyone who took the time to answer this. I think this is the kick in the pants I need just sit down and write already!
posted by melissa at 6:08 AM on November 6, 2007

Response by poster: I forgot to answer Kioki-Silver's question about what kind of book I am trying to write.

Right now, I am working on a series of short stories that interconnect with each other. I'm still in the planning phases, but have strung a few words together for one of the stories, but things are still at a very early stage.

That was hard to say out loud.
posted by melissa at 6:17 AM on November 6, 2007

Best answer: I understand completely. I'm now going to ask you to do something hard.

Write the first story. DO NOT EDIT A SINGLE WORD OF IT - just get it on paper. When it's done, stick it in a drawer for a week. Mark it on a calendar.

Take out your first draft and read it with fresh eyes and a fresh mind. Then start editing it. You'll find that many of the little details you were struggling with will resolve themselves. Mistakes will stand out.

Any detail you've worked out should go into a "writer's bible" - think of it as your personal reference book on the details of your world so if you have a question you can look it up - like the color of a character's eyes.

Once you've edited your first draft, you've got something to show people. Find a writer's group near you or a writer's web site that handles whichever genre of writing you're doing.

To get your own work critiqued, you'll often be asked to critique others. When critiquing others, tell them what you liked first, then what you didn't like. Give a full explaination - just don't say, "I didn't like it" because that doesn't help them at all; tell them why you liked or didn't like something.

Something to remember about critiques is you know your story best. Not all the advice you'll receive will work - feel free to accept or reject anything anyone says.

Good luck. - Silver
posted by Kioki-Silver at 8:16 AM on November 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't mean this snarkily, honest -- but I wonder if you should think about your priorities. In your post you say you want to have produced a book by the time you die. I want to suggest in as friendly and gentle a way as I can that it might be better for the quality of your writing if you think about the process of writing, rather than some bullet-list, life-coach-goal end-product (I am assuming you want to write something that will be of quality in terms of its style and characterization and social concerns). Ditch the goal and just write if you feel the need to write.

To that end: be thoughtful about the world and how you would describe the human experience of living through writing; think about all the senses with which people experience the world, not just sight; avoid agendas, morals, and lessons (they are the lifeblood of the worst writing); write as much as you can, and get the opinions of others whose opinions about good books you trust -- and train yourself not to be mopey or defensive or despairing when someone dislikes something; remember that it is likely to be years (seriously) before you write something really good, even if you are very talented; periodically consider that if writing every day isn't a passion or doesn't fulfill you in some profound way, it might not be the right "life goal" for you, and that there would be nothing wrong with that (I've known many people over the years making themselves miserable with the ambition to "be a writer" -- who didn't actually like writing).

For expert advice: I enjoyed reading Samuel Delany's recent book of essays for writing students, About Writing. I think he's one of the best prose stylists writing today, and he's been teaching writing for many years.

Others in the thread have recommended writers' groups / workshops. Maybe. If it's a particularly good group, workshops can be an source of excellent feedback. But keep in mind that sometimes they are not good -- and that the loudest voices in a room are not necessarily the most informed or insightful ones.
posted by aught at 8:26 AM on November 6, 2007 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Aught, I understand what you are mean about altering the goal, and I don't interpret it as snark at all. Writing a book is something I've wanted to do for nearly my entire life, and one day in my early 20s (well before I was stuck in corporate bullet-list land and had never even heard of a life coach yet), I made a list of things I wanted to do. This was at the top, and probably because it was something I could always put off until later - after all, I can write at any point of my life, right? :)

However, I can't write the book - or anything - if I don't write at all. So I've got to start small, and just write. Writing well will hopefully come with time and practice. And if it doesn't, hopefully I'll have the sense to stop beating my head against the wall. :)

There is so much good advice here. I know I haven't acknowledged all of you by name, but every single answer has been incredibly helpful. and I hope it helps other people in the same situation.
posted by melissa at 10:02 AM on November 6, 2007

Best answer: Write. It's been said. I'll say it again. Write.

Send proposals to publishers: Magazines, books, and other media all want your content. Use the proposal to force yourself to write the outline/lead. When your proposal is accepted you'll have confirmation your writing is valuable and a deadline in which to undertake and complete the writing. This will force you to write.

Don't waste too much time writing for yourself or for workshops unless your goal is to write for yourself and workshops. Instead, sell your writing.

Yes, I'm a successful author.
posted by lothar at 11:16 AM on November 6, 2007 [2 favorites]

I stumbled upon this site looking for other information and being impressed at the quality of comments, I felt compelled to register and chime in. I am on my first novel and after writing about three chapters, I found it helpful to create a framework for the story in Excel. This is similar to a few other earlier suggestions. The Excel file has columns for; i) the chapter number; ii) a brief description; iii) expanded ideas and points to be included in each chapter; iv) and a list of the characters in that chapter. As I continue to write chapter by chapter and think of ideas for the rest of the novel, the Excel file gives me a placeholder for my thoughts. I used to use a journal but found this more organized. Very early on, I also created a two page reference sheet for the characters, places, and other details. I am close enough to finishing that I have now just created a chapter heading for each chapter in Word and pasted the information from Excel to each chapter heading in the Word file.

There are several ways people work and process information but I found for myself that having the Excel file active (but still not completed), gave me a sense of accomplishment and I felt that the book was more real than not.

On the other hand, this method may be much to mechanical for many good writers.

I intend to follow much of the advice offered earlier and will buy the suggested books. For someone starting out, I found all the insight very helpful and when I finish the book, you are all invited to the book launch party.
posted by Volume11 at 8:20 AM on November 13, 2007

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