Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Ask Tabitha... A Novice Writer's Cry for Help

I was having some trouble thinking of a topic for today's blog, so I asked for suggestions in one of the writers' groups I frequent. Within a short time I received a cry for help from this young woman who is embarking on her writing career. With her permission, I've quoted her words verbatim:

I don't have enough words to express myself. Been reading a lot to improve on my vocabulary but when I get to the writing process words fail me. Also looking at other writers' works discourages me. Everyone is writing so beautifully, so meticulously ...apart from me. Yet I really want to tell stories, talk to an audience out there through writing. That's my challenge.

Why I Want to Help

Usually when I see posts from novice writers in these groups I just cringe and keep scrolling. Most writing wannabes are all too clearly not willing to put in the hard yards. But look at this one. Look at how articulately she's expressed herself, and how succinctly she's summed up her problem. Not to mention the correct use of the apostrophe. This young writer is on her way, and is well worth spending some time on. I suspect her writing is already much better than she thinks it is; in my experience, the worst writers tend to think they're the greatest thing since Austen.

The Issues

Two issues are identified here: paucity of vocabulary and quality of writing. I'll address them in turn.


First of all, I'll say this: vocabulary is probably not such an issue as you think. You do not need an enormous vocabulary to write well. Sure, it helps, and there are ways to extend it, but it has its dark side too. You don't want to be one of those writers who's always searching for fancy words. It's off-putting to readers to have to be always looking up words. One or two new words can be a pleasant bonus for a reader, but if they're having to access their dictionary every few pages, most people will get irritated. Even if they know the word, you can overdo it. An example of this is Stephen Donaldson's flogging to death of the word 'intransigence'. It made me want to smack him with my Shorter Oxford.

How to Increase Your Vocabulary

One word. Read. You've already been doing this, and so this won't be news, but the very best way to improve your vocabulary is by lots of reading. This isn't a quick fix, of course. You'll need to read hundreds, thousands, of books, but then we are all works in progress. You can increase your hit rate in two ways:

Read the good stuff

The kind of thing you read makes a big, big difference. Hopefully, you're already reading the classics. But if you've been scared off them, don't be. Classics got that way because they are good books, and this means they are fun to read. They're also easy to find, and many of them can be downloaded free.

Never let a chance go by

It can be tempting, when you're engrossed in a thundering good story, to let a word go. Don't do this. Stop everything when you encounter an unfamiliar word. First, see if it's clear from the context. Then look it up - even if it was clear from the context. You may find there are nuances to it, or alternative uses, that you missed. Then, for a few days try to use the new word as much as possible yourself - even if you get a few strange looks in conversation. Using a new word, in both written and spoken form, will accustom you to it and will nail it firmly into your mind; if you don't use it, you're liable to forget it again.

How to Improve Your Writing

The process for this is very similar to that for expanding your vocabulary.

Read the Good Stuff

As I said above, read the good stuff, the great writers. As you read, try to look objectively at what you're reading - don't just get immersed in the story so that the actual writing becomes invisible. If you're one of those readers who sinks right into a story and loses track of your surroundings, a second reading is the best way. It won't hurt you to read the book twice if you really enjoyed it.

Take notes

As you read, have a notebook and pencil at your side. Whenever you strike something that impresses you, make a note of it. Examine it. Is it a technique? How does it work? What attracts you to it? Does it depend on something else to work or is it standalone? 

Try it Out Yourself

Whenever you have some time, go back over your notebook and look at the notes you've made. Try out these things in something of your own. One thing that can be interesting to do is to write the same short scene in several different ways and compare them. Remember, you're not just looking for whether you can do a particular thing, but whether it meshes well with your own style. As you go on, you'll start to get a feeling for whether particular things will work for you or not.

Particular writers do specific things better than others. Make notes of this too. For example, Stephen King's use of his narrative voice is worth a look. He uses it almost like a Greek chorus. It's an interesting technique and works well for him. Dickens is great at describing a scene. Robert Ludlum has been widely praised for his action sequences. Wodehouse and Pratchett are great comics. Over time, you'll develop your own list of 'go-to' writers - people who excel at particular techniques, and this can be very useful if you feel you're struggling with something specific, or if you feel drawn to a particular area.  

Practise, practise, practise.

Do as much writing as you can. If something interesting or funny happened in your day, and you want to tell a friend about it, instead of picking up the phone, recount the incident in an email. See how exciting, funny or what-not you can make it. If you see an accident in the street, write it up as a witness statement. If you meet a person who's different or intriguing, write something about him. Something upset you? Let your writing be your catharsis, before you cry on a friend's shoulder. You'll sharpen your powers of observation as well as your writing, and this is gold for a writer.

Don't Give Up

Like just about everything that's worth doing, these things will take time to show a result. You may work at your writing for years before you're ready to submit or publish. Don't worry about that. It is the people who rush into print before they are ready that end up looking stupid, not the patient craftsperson who goes the extra mile.

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