Just like ice skating, sturgeon spearing, and “walking the dog” with a yoyo, the only way you will become better at it is to practice. My students do a lot of free-writing. This is where you don’t think; you just write. Much like trying to hold your breath under water, you don’t stop until you run out of air, while free-writing, you don’t stop until you run out of words. Free-writing exercises are great warmups. Every athlete needs to stretch before a big game, well, so do writers.
4.Read What You Like and What You Don’t Like
At a very young age, we decide what we like to eat and what we don’t. Chocolate—Yes! Mushrooms—Yes! Liver—No! Mayonnaise—No! What we enjoy to read is no different. When I assign my students reading assignments, during the next class period, I ask them, “Did you love it or hate it?” But, I always follow that question with another: “Why?” Great writers are active readers: They don’t just push the plate, or in this case the book or essay, away and say, “Gross, no.” They look further and question why their taste buds did not agree with the writing. Writers need to read what other writers are doing, so they can see what they do and don’t want to do in their own writing. Writers need to do a lot of taste-testing.
3.Edit, then Abandon
A question I was asked constantly throughout school and a question I pose to my own students is “When is your writing done?” The usual response, “When I hand it in to you.” But, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Writing is never truly done; it is abandoned. Writers, like painters can always find another spot to swipe a bit of green, turquoise, or orange. But, we all work around time. We have deadlines. Editing and revising is important, but when time is up, you just have to hand it over to someone else (in most cases the teacher) and abandon it. When Lee Gutkind, the “godfather of creative nonfiction” came to speak at Wichita State University when I was there, he said after you think you are done, “Pretend you’re reading it over the shoulder of the reader. . . . After you think it is a finished product, pray and play with it” (Gutkind, 2009).
2.Don’t Rely On Grammar/Spell Check
“If the reader can’t read it, it doesn’t matter what is on the page.” This quote comes directly from the rubric for my creative writing students’ creative nonfiction/fiction assignment. There are a lot of rules, I know. But, writers have to follow them so readers can follow their writing. If you leave out a period, it can be the equivalent to leaving out a major step in a process. Step #7: Don’t forget to stand back after you throw the match into the grill. Leaving this out may cause your reader to also leave behind their eyebrows. Permanently scarring your reader will not bring them back for more and neither will miss-spellings, wrong words, fragments, run-ons, or comma splices.
In graduate school every time Dr. Brooks assigned us an essay, he never assigned a topic. His only criteria—“Make your reader stop and say, ‘I never thought about it like that before.’” Great writers put themselves out there. Vladimir Nabokov’s book, Lolita was at first banned because of its strong and indecent sexual content where a middle-aged man falls in love with 12-year-old girl. Nabokov took a chance and created one of the most memorable antagonists of the time. I remind my students constantly to “take a chance.” Great writers are the brave ones that put on the page what others would have never even said aloud.
Gutkind, L. (2009). Creative Nonfiction Lecture, Wichita State University, Wichita, KS.
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