People often ask me – Peter, what are some good writing tips? How can I be a good writer? And I say, the first thing to remember is, if you get started, if you just get started on whatever it is you need to write, like a blog post even, then you can have a drink. Everything after that will either solve itself or it won’t, much like the entirety of life, vitiating the need for questions and clearing the way for a drink.
Once you’ve had a drink (regard, please, how I didn’t start this paragraph with “In all seriousness” or similar), you’ll notice, or remember, that “writing” is the practice of laying down a bunch of words next to each other, much like bricks or cobblestones. I detest this simile, when it is offered as something more than a comical truism, for what it captures as much as for it what leaves out. In other words (more bricks), I immediately stop listening and start doing something else entirely whenever I hear a writer say that a writer should be like, say, a mason, inasmuch as one never hears of “mason’s block”. The writer’s job is to write, this line of argument goes, so write. Nobody will be able to tell the difference between what you meant and felt good about and what you wrote because it sounded okay and wasn’t misspelled. This is nonsense. The reason you hear writers talk like this is simply that recognition of a crude truth (writing is a series of words, just like anything composed of anything else comprises those things) serves as a goad for getting down to business. It’s like insulting someone to start a fight, except you’re the only person in the room. The reason it gets under my skin when I hear other writers adopt this tone is because I can’t tell if they actually believe it or not. Obviously writing is more than laying down interchangeable bricks, or fixing a machine of set specifications, or any of the other similes. Writing is a way of saying something, and if you think of all the things you’ve heard people say, you’ll notice those things can be, among other things, true, funny, beautiful, illuminating, cautionary, diverting, helpful, meaningful, or, conversely, any one of an innumerable different kinds of crap. Writing is both the attempt to find a felicitous way to express something and the struggle to figure out what’s worth saying to begin with.
But that latter part is quite a trick, of course. You can’t make something good by wanting it to be good – this talent would have been noticed, or rather not noticed, as there would be nothing to notice, everything being consequently equally good. That’s where the bricklaying comes in again – often the best way to figure out what’s worth saying is through practices that can seem incongruous or unintuitive, but are in fact vital and effective. Here’s a few of them.
- Get up and walk around. There’s all that stuff about how sitting isn’t good for your spine, rising obesity rates, sedentary something something, everybody’s read about it. Even without meticulously sourced backing on the posture science, though, it’s the staying still in one place part that’ll drag on your mind and make you antsy and grumpy. Moving around and getting a change of scenery can stimulate a flow of ideas and reflection without any of the mental straining that sitting at a desk can lock you into.
- On the other hand, if you’re at your desk, don’t be afraid to stare into space and do (what looks like) nothing. Thinking of the best things to say and how to say them involves, yes, thinking. There’s always a certain guiltiness and embarrassment that comes from having a part of your work process that’s totally invisible and internal, even if you’re working in private. Ignore this. Keep concentrating.
- Don’t be afraid to bother people with your thoughts. Framing the conversation as a request for feedback on a set thought is rarely as productive as finding someone willing to listen to you ramble and think out loud. The responses and questions you’ll get are often equal in value to the clarifying power of simply having to phrase your ideas colloquially and on the fly.
- Don’t be afraid to start typing, no matter what. Even typing long strings of obscenities and non sequiturs can get you into the rhythm of listening to your thoughts and transcribing them, in addition to being intrinsically pleasing in its own right, not unlike cleaning out your bellybutton lint.
None of these methods are guaranteed to help you out, of course. But incorporating them into the rhythm of your work can serve to remind you of two complementary things: first, that writing is an effortful, deliberate practice; and second, that that same practice is only and finally animated by the ideas that fly into, around, and near your head.
-Peter Odom, Creative Director at Minicore Studios