What New Writers Need

Posted on 09 January 2017

The question asked was, “What mistakes do new writers often make in their writing?” The answers given to the young writer almost universally had to do with spelling and grammar. I have to admit, I was appalled. What a small-minded approach to art. Were those answering this question nurturing the talents of a young writer or simply teaching them to become literary accountants?

It’s certainly important to gain skills with our tools. However if we get too wound up in the tools and not the art, then we are going to become afraid of making mistakes. That sort of inhibition squelches creativity and innovation. In the ambition to do things “correctly” we lose sight of the beauty to be found in the sounds and rhythms of life. We may not dig into the wisdom of adaptation, variation, and diversification such as that which has been developed in creoles.

Take for example the below:

“April 6—Today, I learned, the comma, this is, a, comma (,) a period, with, a tail, Miss Kinnian, says its, importent, because, it makes writing, better, she said, somebody, could lose, a lot, of money, if a comma, isnt in, the right, place, I got, some money, that I, saved from, my job, and what, the foundation, pays me, but not, much and, I dont see how, a comma, keeps, you from, losing it,
But, she says, everybody, uses commas, so Ill, use them, too,,,,”

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Women and men(both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain

“Anyone Living in a Pretty How Town” by E. E. Cummings

In the Flowers for Algernon quote we see the world from the character Charlie’s viewpoint. Both the novel and short story versions are written this way. And even though the character goes through personal changes where he can write with greater then lesser grammatical skill, being that up close to Charlie is emotionally affecting. In fact because of the poor English our hearts break for Charlie, due to the empathetic bond the author has created through pages and pages of this sort of writing.

In the poem “Anyone Living in a Pretty How Town” E. E. Cummings is also tossing out grammatical rules in order to get at a more richly emotional palette. Readers have to set aside a rulebound mindset. Instead they are meant to ride a wave of imaginative meaning with better access to sensual feelings.

Nevertheless, both authors are in full command of their communication skills. Words are carefully selected and placed. Even punctuation and lack of punctuation has the polish of deep consideration. That takes time and practice. Why discourage a new writer with dotted “i”s and crossed “t”s when what they need is the inspiration to desire full flight. Wanting to feel the wind beneath their wings will do more for an artist than teaching them aerodynamics. The other will come as their joy gives them the strength to take on more knowledge.

So what do new writers need? This was my answer:

Faith in themselves and their personal creative vision.

Many new writers try to be like someone else, either because they want the status of another author or they have a deep love of that author and wish to emulate them. Emulation is actually a good place to start. It will teach you many things. Just broaden your base of authors you are emulating, so that you can eventually find yourself. Your vision is just as worthy as anyone else’s.

Access to their own feelings and experiences.

This is where the advice “write what you know” comes into effect. You may not know what it is like to fly on the back of a winged unicorn. However, you may remember how thrilling it was the first time you were on the back of a horse. You will remember the sense of elation, the smell of the horse’s body, the sense of so much power beneath your legs as the horse’s chest moves in and out with each breath. That experience is enough to give you believable and engaging details you can mine for creating a similar experience with your unicorn. You will bring reality to each scene you write if you are willing to explore these senses and practice empathy for others.

Committment to being truthful.

Clichés happen when you are relying on other people’s experiences and vision of the world rather than speaking from your own truth. We all know what our culture perceives as a “good family”. Nevertheless, if you are truthful about your family, they will often deviate widely from that expectation. If you are completely honest with yourself, you will recognise that your family has good bits and bad bits, and neither of these may line up with cultural expectations. Truth is complex: it’s not an easy black and white matter. The more you delve into that the more interesting your writing will become.

Humility and patience.

Your first version of a story is unlikely to be great. Your first novel is unlikely to be great. To be honest your third, fourth, and fifth versions may not be great either. You must be willing to set aside your ego, listen, and make the changes that are needed to tell a good story well. This may mean it will take you a lifetime to finally get it right, and you need to be okay with that. Harper Lee really only had To Kill a Mockingbird to her name for most of her life, but was that novel a corker!

Solid motives for becoming a writer.

Do you want to become a writer in order to become rich, famous, or to validate your importance? Then very likely you are going to be miserable. None of us can know when lightning will strike and a work of ours will propel us to fame: it could happen early in our career, late in our career, after our death, or not at all. Do you write because it nurtures you, because you love creating something new and of depth or beauty? Do you have something you feel compelled to say?

I have been a writer, an editor, and a literary judge. Honestly, the grammar issues can be dealt with: those aren’t going to make or break you. What you need is a heart full of story and the will to serve the needs of that full heart. THIS is what will create compelling writing people want to read.

Peace and kindness,


Medieval image of man at writing desk.

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