The Makings of a Great Writer

September 13, 2012 4:23 pm

C.S. Lewis

Some say that all you need to become a great writer is a healthy imagination and a way with words. I believe this idea to be both true and false, in equal measures. I don’t dispute that imagination is needed; if writers such as C.S. Lewis, Douglas Adams and J.K. Rowling had lacked considerably in that department, then the words would be a far less amusing and magical place to live. Then again, it is not just authors that need an active mind. The world as a whole needs imagination to keep pulling it forward.

To me, writing is about putting a part of yourself onto paper; whether it be in fiction, memoir, or a research paper. You have to be interested in what you are writing, and you have to enjoy writing it. With fiction especially, you should write for yourself and hope that others read it, rather than write for others and lose the enjoyment.

Many people have set down rules about the way you should and shouldn’t write, and I don’t agree with it. The basics, such as grammar and punctuation and so on are okay, but any further than that and I see no point. Strunk and White’s Elements of Style in particular is a book which I hate with every fibre of my being. Setting down incredible rules which even they themselves don’t always follow, this book takes the fun out of writing.

“Omit needless words.”

That is the phrase that comes to mind when I think of Strunk and White. Omit needless words? Where is the fun in that?! I am a writer who loves to describe, and to go on and on about certain subjects; spinning tales about them and writing what I like to think are fun ramblings with a point. If I went by Strunk and White’s rules, I would have to change my style of writing completely.

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

This quote, to me, seems pointless. Who dares to define unnecessary when it comes down to fiction? After all, if your style of writing is like mine and requires extra words to make it work, then you will see those extra words as necessary. If Mr Strunk and Mr White were to look through this piece of work, then they would probably manage to cut it down to half of the word count and turn it into a boring piece of drivel. It would lack the passion of the writer, and there is no worse piece of writing than that which lacks passion.

“Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colourless, hesitating, non-committal language.”

This one I agree with more than others, because it is more of an encouragement than a reprimand. When you write, you must be strong. You can’t write thinking that some people won’t like what you are saying. If you have a point you want to put across, do it. Tell your readers what you think, don’t put if forward as a suggestion and let them decide for you whether or not you are right. The mystery in your fiction should come down to the characters and the plot, not your point of view.

There are many authors who have written popular and influential books, who did not always follow the rules. An obvious example are the women that wrote when it was seen as ‘improper’ to do so, such as the Brontë sisters. Charlotte Brontë‘s Jane Eyre especially is an incredibly influential book. If she had followed the rules, then this novel would never have existed. First published in 1987, she used the pseudonym Currer Bell in order to get published. The book discuses morality, social class, religion, and love and gender relations amongst many other topics, and is included in the curriculum of many schools.

A fine example of writing what you believe and not being afraid to put across your opinions, is that of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. These twelve short stories were banned by the then Soviet Union between 1979 and 1986. A statue of Holmes and Dr Watson can also now be seen near the British Embassy.

A more modern example of writing for yourself is Eragon by Christopher Paolini. Paolini wrote the first draft of Eragon when he was just 15 years of age. He was home schooled and would not have had such strict rules of writing forced upon him, since he was writing for his own amusement rather than to get published.

“Christopher’s love for the magic of stories led him to craft a novel that he would enjoy reading. The project began as a hobby, a personal challenge; he never intended it to be published.”

Paolini’s parents decided to self-publish Eragon, and it was only when author Carl Hiaasen brought it to the attention of his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf Books For Young Readers (part of Random House Children’s Books) that it entered mainstream publishing.

There are so many dos and don’t of writing that it can all get quite confusing. The way I see it, the main thing to remember is that you should write from the heart. Write what you want to write, in a way you are comfortable with. If you always write to please everyone else, you will lose pleasure in it yourself. Look at writers such as Stephen Fry – he doesn’t follow such strict rules, and pulls it off! He even says in the fry chronicles:

“In ever particular I fail Strunk’s Elements of Style or any other manual of ‘good writing’”

“I like words – strike that, I love words – and while I am fond of  the condensed and economical use of them in poetry, in song lyrics, in Twitter, in good journalism and smart advertising, I love the luxuriant profusion and mad scatter of them too.”

So I would say the main rule of writing is to have fun. If the readers can tell you haven’t enjoyed writing your novel, they are unlikely to enjoy reading it.

Being given a set of rules about writing is the easiest way to being to doubt your capabilities. What started out as a fantastic idea turns into something almost impossible because you can’t make it fit the rules. The way I see it, your writing is a piece of you. If you want rules for it, set them yourself. Pick and choose which rules you want to work with, and even make up your own! For in the words of Sylvia Plath:

“Everything in life is writeable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”

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  • The Gipper

    I always heed the advice of a former presidential speechwriter – ‘Devote more time to the poetry than the substance; the substance will take care of itself.’
    It’s also a shame they don’t teach the art of rhetoric in schools anymore, something that was required learning back in Roman times, when the power of effective communication was fully understood.

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