This is SB’s 150th post since its launch in February. Some of you are no doubt asking, “Lane, how the hell did you write 150 original posts in such a short time?”
“And is it your ‘sesqui-crap-tennial’?”
Image credit: Idaho State Historical Society
Well, it’s worth noting that SB isn’t my first writing gig by a long shot. I’ve been published in several places over the past 20 years or so. I worked as an acquisitions editor for a small publishing house in Philadelphia. While there a few years ago I helped produce a biography called From Bordello to Ballot Box. I think it’s safe to say I know what I’m doing.
So wanna write like me? The following is by no means an exhaustive how-to, but it should get you started.
Respect the Basics
One needs basic skills to perform any job reasonably well. Writing is no exception. Because of the myriad of subtle nuances best learned throughout years of everyday speech, if you aim to write seriously you should focus on your native language. That’s especially true when it comes to a language like English, which is notoriously full of exceptions to basic grammatical rules. For this reason, professional translators almost always translate to their native language, never from it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s absolutely possible to become a good writer in English if it’s not your first language. It’s just a hell of a lot harder.
Either way, it’s terribly important to take basic spelling and grammar rules seriously. To put it bluntly, if you think “alot” is a word you should find something else to do with your time.
That said, by all accounts English is an extremely difficult language to master. I haven’t mastered it. Not even close. We all have some fear of error. Don’t let that stunt your creativity.
For example, there are easily over 150,000 words commonly used in the English language. It’s not necessary to know how to spell them all. That’s what spell check is for. Use it. Both Microsoft Office and OpenOffice have decent spell check features. The difference is you’ll pay several hundred dollars for the former and nothing for the latter.
If you’re blogging, I strongly recommend a browser like Firefox or Chrome. Both have had built-in spell check for years. If you’re using Internet Explorer make sure you upgrade to version 10, which is the very first MSIE version with spell check.
Way to keep up, you guys.
Bear in mind spell check isn’t all-knowing. I challenge mine constantly, using a dictionary if need be. I’m usually right.
Write Like Yourself
Ever wonder why no one writes quite like Hunter S. Thompson? It’s because no one else is Hunter S. Thompson. Duh, right?
Still, people sometimes seem to be under the assumption that if they copy the style of their favorite author that they’ll assume said author’s gravitas. It doesn’t work that way. At best, you’re just parodying literature doing that. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with influences, it’s paramount that you develop your own style right away. Hell, even Weird Al Yankovic understands that.
Contrary to popular belief, the large majority of Yankovic’s songs are completely original works.
Image credit: Kyle Cassidy
So how does one accomplish this? I think it’s pretty simple, actually. Write like you speak, since chances are you’ve already honed a well-established and distinctive conversational style just by getting out of bed for the last few years. Why re-invent the wheel?
And that brings us to writing aids. If you take nothing else away from this, just remember thesauruses are for wusses. If you’re truly writing like yourself, you don’t need one. Writers who rely on thesauruses read like, well, like they’ve been using a damn thesaurus. That is, cheesy as all hell. If you don’t use the word “vouchsafe” in conversation on a regular basis it’s best not to write with it.
But if you do, you may want to consider sticking with the steampunk genre.
Image credit: ChiefRanger
Conversely, occasional dictionary use is a good idea. Sometimes a word comes to mind which sounds right but I’m not 100 percent sure about. That’s when I go to the dictionary. Usually I find I’m using the word correctly, but not always. I’d rather check now than be embarrassed later.
The only time I even think about using a thesaurus is when I’m trying something cute like alliteration when writing a title. That’s a VERY seldom occurrence though.
Fear Not the Editor
No one, and I mean NO ONE, dashes off genre-defining literature on the first draft. Once you’ve written something, you should have it edited and proofread by someone with good grammatical skills. I don’t care how good you are or how long you’ve been writing. Spelling, grammar and usage mistakes will be found. Not taking this personally is the mark of a good writer.
If there’s one constant I’ve seen in my two decades of doing this, it’s that you are your own worst editor. Even big-name authors use editors. However if you don’t have anyone available to edit or proofread, or if you’re like me and your editor is an uppity orange tabby cat, there are workarounds. Author and fellow 2T native Travis Hill lets his work “rest” for a few days before he tries to edit anything. This is definitely better than trying to edit immediately, or worse not editing at all.
Moral: never hire cats.
Editing also means leaving a lot of stuff out. This is not a big deal when dealing with 500-word blog entries, but when it comes to 100,000-word manuscripts, it becomes a huge issue. In the case of From Bordello to Ballot Box, for a variety of reasons well over half of the original manuscript was cut from the finished book. Once again, this is not something to be taken personally. Besides it’s much easier to cut than to haphazardly add, so overwriting does have its advantages.
Because SB is a solo effort published daily I’m forced to sacrifice a bit of quality for prolificacy here. I’m quite certain you’ll find at least one mistake in every single post if you wanted to. However, if I’m working on a longer article or a book you’d better believe I’m taking my editing seriously.
I could go on, but this post is already too long. I try to stay under 800 words here. Today I failed miserably. So I may come back to this subject in a future post. In the meantime, feel free to contact me if you have any questions.