It was Ghalib who wrote “they descend from the heavens, these ideas” referring to his exquisite verses. He was pointing to the popular notion that writing, especially creative writing, is a pursuit that connects one to the gods. In the ancient world of course, writing was the purview of heavenly deities or their counterparts in purgatory but this was more because ordinary people, for a variety of reasons, did not know how to read or write. So anything written was considered sacred, a tradition that still persists in many cultures. In short, writing has always been considered mysterious, unknowable, enigmatic.
But in today’s wired, networked world where all of us write, text and message all the time, is all of that still true?
In fact, the notion that writing is a strange, secretive skill is part and parcel of a popular myth: that of being a ‘born’ writer or teacher, musician, artist etc. As with all myths, this one does not stand up to rigorous scrutiny. And even to entertain the idea of writing being some kind of magical skill seems preposterous. After all, in this modern age, all of us are taught the basics of writing, beginning at a very young age. We learn to write in school, continue to do so in college and pretty much every occupation nowadays except for manual labour, requires at least a basic familiarity with writing.
So why this mystery? If writing is a skill, like any others, we should be able to learn, practise and perfect it over time. The debate over ‘nature vs nurture’ i.e. how much of a person’s talents are inborn and how much can be developed is pretty much settled by now. We are all born with certain genetic traits that predispose us towards certain interests and activities. We gravitate towards those and by virtue of doing them over and over again — because we like them. We like them because we have an inborn talent for them and they are easier than other activities — we get good at them. The better we get at doing those things, the more we want to do them and the more our skills improve.
Writing is no different. Perhaps one reason it appears mysterious to those who admire good writing and wish they could write but have never done so is because they have never attempted to write, at least on an ongoing basis. In the age of the internet, there is no shortage of guidance. A random google search (search words “writing tips”) yields 134 million results. So where should one begin?
It may appear flippant to tell aspiring writers that if they want to learn to write well, they should begin by writing: something, anything. That’s how the best writers started and that’s how all of us continue to write. But perhaps to make it simpler, one might start with some basic ideas:
Write what you know: This seems self-explanatory but seems to elude a lot of people. This does not mean that you can only write about things, places, people or events that you have studied first hand (if that were true, most fiction would not exist). It does mean that you need to have more than a rudimentary knowledge of your subject. It’s not an accident that successful first-time authors start out writing about their own cities, communities or even families.
Avoid ‘autobiographical’ writing. This is another common pitfall that first time authors fall into. The temptation to write the story of your own life is strong. Avoid it. Your life may appear fascinating and interesting to you but unless you are Fidel Castro or John Kennedy, it’s doubtful it will appear as interesting to others.
A writer’s early writings (especially fiction) will naturally lean towards being self-referential but to make it exclusively about yourself is an invitation to disaster. The desire to write one’s own life story recedes as one becomes more experienced as a writer and after a while it no longer holds any fascination. There are so many more interesting things to write about!
Just write. The only way to write is to sit down with a pen and paper (or a computer) and start writing. If you decide to wait till inspiration strikes, you will be in for a long wait. As soon as you think of an idea that you might want to write about, sit down and start writing. Even if you write a few lines at a time, it will build over time into a paragraph, then a page, then an article or a chapter.
In writing, as in speaking, less is more. When you are editing —which should be immediately after you finish the writing for one session and again at least a day or more after you finished it — look over the piece with a critical eye and cut, cut, cut. Edit out anything that looks or feels extraneous. Then go over it again and cut some more. Your finished piece should be pithy and to the point. The ideas should be tightly connected and should read fluently.
When the reader finishes reading it, they should feel slightly disappointed that it ended so soon rather than praying for it to end half way through. Many publications have word limits that need to be strictly abided by: usually no more than 1,000 or 1,500 words. Magazine articles and online publications allow a slightly higher word count.
One could write a book about writing (see Stephen King’s excellent On Writing : A Memoir of the Craft) but suffice to say that writing, like any skill, requires time, practice and patience. Writers nowadays have a host of publishing options: newspapers, magazines, online blogs and website and many others. Self-publishing is also becoming a good option. If you enjoy reading, you will probably enjoy writing. So pick up that pen or turn on that computer and start. Who knows what might descend from the heavens?