This title is slightly misleading. How many times have you followed similar links, wanting to gain further insight on what you need to improve with your own writing? To me, it’s total clickbait. For some, articles headed “pictures the celebs didn’t want you to see” may have the same impact. If that’s you, shame on you. But I absolutely lap all of this stuff up. And where does it get me? (That article on not starting sentences with conjunctions obviously didn’t have much of an impact.) Endless variations on similar themes, or even conflicting advice.
The straw that broke this camel’s back was an article that someone had posted by Eve Bunting. I don’t want this to be taken the wrong way – I’m sure her advice was genuine and well-meant, and based on her long experience in the field of writing picture books. It’s just that looking through the headings, I can think of obvious examples for all of them where that hasn’t been the case.
Some examples. 1) Think visually. Sounds straightforward enough, right… but have you see that video of BJ Novak’s story that’s been doing the rounds, of The Book With No Pictures https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cREyQJO9EPs . I absolutely love this! And although the typefaces are formatted in different colours and font sizes, it relies entirely on the words (and the person “selling it” to their audience).
2) Think short. Okay, again this sounds sensible… but have you read How The Grinch Stole Christmas? We do, every year. It’s over 1300 words!
3) Think deep. Why? If I’m reading a story to a 5 year old, I want to entertain them. That is the first, and main, intention. If it can include environmental messages, as in the Snail and the Whale (Julia Donaldson’s finest, IMHO), then great, but that is not the primary intent. How deep is We’re Going On a Bear Hunt? But how entertaining?
I’m not going to criticise further, as I don’t want to be snarky about someone who I’ve never met. (Her last point – Think Proud – strikes a chord: “Be proud that you are starting children on a lifelong habit of reading.” Can’t, and won’t quibble with a word of that.)
So apologies to Eve Bunting, but this was just the latest article in many that have dispensed advice to the next generation of writers. I’m a firm believer in learning by doing. I will make mistakes. I will learn from them. (Hopefully the first time, but I can be a little slow… ask my wife…) So here is my take on the 5-point plan, the 5 essential pieces of advice that all writers need to improve their writing. (Yes, it comes from an unpublished writer just starting out in their writing career, but I bet you a milkshake these won’t change much in the coming years.)
1) Stop reading any article that gives you all of the answers in a click-friendly, manageable bundle. MAKE THIS YOUR LAST! (The irony is obvious, but unavoidable.) I know we’re writers and we need to write about something or our fingers would just start fiddling with something else, but let’s make the advice more tailored, less generic, and ultimately more useful.
2) Read loads. Read for pleasure. Read to be entertained. Read with a critical eye. Read to your children or grandchildren. Borrow a neighbour’s, if needs be. (Ask permission first.) What worked in that story? Did your kids laugh? Did they lose interest? Did the story flow?
3) Write loads. Write for pleasure. Write to entertain. Write with a critical eye. Share at appropriate times with an appropriate critique group, whatever that may be for you. If you are fitting your writing around a full-time job and family commitments, make the most of “your time” (commuting to work, lunch breaks, in the toilet…) to keep it up. That time you’ve freed up by not reading every advice piece will help!
4) Edit, heavily and judiciously.
5) Keep at it, and keep smiling! Like Dory in Finding Nemo, “just keep swimming, just keep swimming”. Whether your goal is to be published, or to self-publish, or simply to write to share with your own children, keep at it, and the “rewards” (artistic, spiritual, maybe even financial for a few) will come.