Wanna Learn to Write? Read!

BowersThumbby John Bowers

It seems that more and more people are taking up writing every day. Many of these new would-be authors are people with careers who haven’t attended an English class in decades. What they learned about grammar in high school, if anything, has long since faded from their memory.  Yet some of them are pretty good story tellers, and as such deserve a decent chance at publication.

Unfortunately, for most of them it will never happen, simply because they don’t possess the mechanical skills to get their work reviewed. Visit the workshops or read the slush piles and you’ll be amazed at some of the mistakes new authors (and even some published authors) make. While the stories are sometimes pretty good, the nuts and bolts of grammar and punctuation are missing. There seems to be a lot of confusion about exactly how to format a story.

The Problem

Writing can be hard work. Just keeping a story straight in your head while you write it down can be taxing, especially when you still have no idea how to end it, or what’s going to happen next. I sympathize with anyone who has the added burden of not knowing exactly how to put it down so something readable is the result.

Several solutions are available, not all of them desirable. You could go back to school at night; you could buy some books on writing and study them; you could find a friend who’s really good at this stuff and get pointers; you could join a workshop.

The workshop is the best option. In a workshop you’re going to rub shoulders with people who are familiar with your situation and want to help. Unfortunately, unless they have been published, it can sometimes be like the blind leading the blind-everyone may be in the same boat, and people have varying opinions about how to do things.

Books on writing are the next best option, but no book can really teach you how to write. They can help, if you are diligent, but books alone won’t solve your problem.

A Better Solution

The solution is simpler than you may think. You can join a workshop, read books on writing, get help from friends, and devour the blogs for writers, and all of that will help. But the single biggest asset in learning how to write is…read!

It’s that simple. If you want to be a writer, you probably became a reader first. A love of books is what usually inspires people to write, so you are already surrounded with professional advice on the subject of writing. Pick up your favorite book and read it…only, don’t worry about the content; instead, look closely at the writing itself. Study the book for the secrets it holds in plain sight. Everything from punctuation to paragraph formatting is there. If it’s fiction, you will find every example you need on how to write dialog, how to show the reader what goes on in the character’s head, how to write action scenes. You will notice that, except in nonfiction, colons are almost never used, but are replaced by the em-dash (—) instead. You’ll find how to use ellipses (…) properly, and the difference between an ellipsis or em-dash used as a trailing-off of conversation and that used to replace missing text (almost never done in fiction).

When you study a published novel (preferably by one of the bigger houses who knows what they’re doing), you’ll discover that fiction authors break lots of rules that would drive an English teacher to suicide, which means you can toss the Chicago Manual of Style into the ashcan where it belongs, because nobody ever looks at it anyway…and readers don’t care. Fiction writers take lots of literary license, but always with a purpose-never break the rules just for the sake of doing so.

Learning to Write

Reading won’t teach you quite everything you need to know, but it will give you a rocket boost when you start to submit. One of the difficulties of critiquing new authors in a workshop is having to take the time to point out grammar and spelling errors. That siphons valuable time from the critique process, and extends the new author’s learning curve. The more of that sort of thing you can solve on your own, the faster you will advance in a workshop or critique class.

Learning to write actually comes in two phases: the mechanics of writing, and telling a story. Learn the mechanics through reading, and then the real fun begins.

John Bowers began his first “novel” at age 13. It took him nine months and was only 30,000 words, but he finished it.

John Bowers is now a very prolific science fiction author. His first published science fiction novel, A Vow to Sophia, became a 5-story series called The Fighter Queen Saga. He then published the 3-book Nick Walker, UF Marshal series followed by the 5-part Starport series.

He’s also published a mid-grade novel, Joseph Lexxus and the Drug Runners of Altair.

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