Monday, October 13, 2014

like breathing into bones: writing for non-writers

Several of my friends who aren’t writers by vocation want to write something. I wholly approve, because I believe they have something to say. (Doesn’t everybody?) They already have strong voices and compelling stories and ideas. But when we talk about starting, they wonder how to actually go about writing. Understandably, they feel a little overwhelmed or unsure. Is there a book I should read? they’ve asked.

A few of my favorite books on writing usually pop into my head, but I resist recommending them. This is because I know that my friends aren’t necessarily interested in the nitty gritty of the craft of writing, and I don’t know if reading a whole book is really worth their time. Because I know from experience how reading can become a form of procrastination, I tell them to get to the writing. Also, selfishly, I want to read the stories they have pulsing inside them.

So from those conversations came the idea for this little list of tips on writing for non-writers. These are some of the most basic and important things I’ve learned (and re-learned, and learned again) about writing. Mostly, I’ve learned that writing is like breathing into bones: messy, futile, and then, miraculously, alive.

To start, write like your door is closed. One friend admitted that since she tends to be such a perfectionist, she expects that what she writes will come out perfect. In other words, she’ll obsess about how it comes out instead of allowing herself and others to go back and edit. My advice to her was something I read in Stephen King’s memoir On Writing that has helped me tremendously. He shares that he writes his first draft as if behind a closed door. No one can see him do it, no one is able to peer over his shoulder and spy and snicker. Just let it come out, in whatever order or shape it comes out, and then you will have something to shape.

Allow yourself to cut. In the process of just letting the stories and ideas come out, some ideas or stories will pour out that don’t actually belong in what you’re writing. This is often the case with the first few paragraphs you write – in so many of my writing classes, and in my own writing, too, the first two or three paragraphs will sometimes be the warm-up. And though in our minds it tells some sort of background that seems needful, it often isn’t. Know that writing those paragraphs is what it took for you to get to the real meat (this will help you to not regard the writing as a waste), and let them go. If you really need to, copy and past them into another word document and save them for some other essay or story.

Ask your writer/editor friends to help you. These friends will geek out over structure and grammar and images. And I promise they won’t judge your writing, because they themselves are always sharing their own writing and learning how to take critical feedback. Their gentle feedback will strengthen your writing.

Let pen marks be like kind advice from a friend. Feedback can be scary, especially when the marks or comments make it look like your whole manuscript was a mess. What’s really happening when (if) your friend writes all over your copy is they are thinking out loud and offering suggestions and questions that will help you think more dynamically about your story and the way you’re telling it. And just as with advice, you are not bound to take any of their feedback. Ultimately, this is your story to tell.

If it sounds like writing, re-write it.* This is probably my most important piece of writerly advice for non-writers, and it sounds a lot easier than it is. Big words, extra words, making verbs into nouns – all of these things make us think we’re writing formally, but that’s not always a good thing. Make your writing simple, your verbs active, your ideas to the point.

Ok, so maybe writing has whetted your appetite, or maybe this short post isn’t quite enough. In that case, here are a few books that would be worth your time.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. This would be for the geeks out there.

On Writing Well by William Zissner. I’d recommend earlier editions just because the later ones have sections that are probably not that important to you. This is one where you could pick and choose chapters depending on what you’re interested in, or struggling with.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lammott. I think most people would enjoy reading this one, even if you’re not particularly interested in learning about writing. Some sections speak more specifically to writers of fiction, but her style and voice are entertaining enough to make you want to keep going with her.

Any book you like and might want to emulate. Take note of what you like, what tricks you think you could steal, what’s helpful about the structure or voice. Discuss this with your writer friends and you will impress and please them immensely.

*I think someone famous said this, but I’m not sure who.


  1. Betsy, thank you for sharing this! I feel like I have been looking for something just like this. I am yearning to write more, and I AM interested in the nitty gritty of the craft. It would be awesome if you could look at a couple things I’ve written recently (as in the last year—things have been so busy these days, but I know that’s no excuse!) I’ll send you some links. I use for my writing. Ive also been looking at writing classes and/or groups but I have no idea where to begin.

    Here is another book I recently learned about that goes along with your list:

    I have also been getting into the short stories in the New Yorker. I have been reading them with much more of an eye toward my own voice, the craft, and how I might make my own stories come alive. There are a few authors that have really been inspiring me recently. Also, this book was incredible (but not very uplifting)

    Anyway, lets keep in touch and get together soon!

    1. I've never heard of medium but I clicked on it last night and am afraid to go back (might be a rabbit hole I won't return from). Thanks for telling me about it. Would LOVE to read your writing... And yes, that book, I read it a long time ago, before I was really writing all that much, I should go back to it again now.