Writing is helping me get to know myself better than I used to. Criticism, doubly so. My favorite thing about writing on the Internet is that commenters critique my work for free. If I’ve written a piece that resonates with them, they’ll tell me and I’ll be happy. If they tell me my proud observations of the human condition are nothing but a gross generalization of billions of people I’ll also be happy, because then I’ll know what to change. But different people react differently to what they read, so I just try to write sincerely.
Here’s my take on some of the advice you’ve already heard:
1. Know Your Audience
Try to pin it down in one sentence. Mine is outsiders who want to be someone. I think most writers are their own audience. I’m not sure if that goes for satire though. I think even satirical authors can be effective at bringing self-awareness to the people they’re making fun of.
“Write what you know” isn’t always the best advice because it does to creative people what they hate most: it puts them in a box. I just heard Zadie Smith speak, and she said that one of the best things about writing is that you get to be anyone you want.
But then again if you’re writing about people growing up in, say, North Philadelphia next to two burned-out houses and you’ve never actually been friends with anyone whose parents make less than $130,000 a year, then please make an effort to spend time with less fortunate people so you don’t write something condescending. It’s a balancing act: you can write well from any perspective as long as you’re aware of the kinds of things that person is likely to be thinking.
Also, your audience doesn’t have to be a genius. He isn’t a scholar. He’s the guy you drink with on Wednesday nights after he beats you at poker. The best writing advice I’ve ever heard is that your reader is a friend.
2. Know Your Genre
The things I like to read always do one of these five things:
1. They reflect how I feel about something. (personal essays, like some of the ones on this site)
2. They make a good argument with enough well-reasoned points that I want to further develop my own opinion. (political writing, philosophy)
3. They show truths about the psychology or sociology of a group or people in general. (Shows like Girls do this. It’s basically a mix of #1 and #2.)
4. They speculate about what would happen if a movement was brought to its extreme conclusion. (science fiction, satire, and other fantastical genres)
5. They’re passionately written escapism. (fantasy and erotica)
I’m trying to relate to my readers first. That’s the stepping stone to be able to write the other four types of pieces in a way that makes people want to keep reading.
3. Write What You See
I had a drawing teacher who told us to draw what we see. To prove his point, he drew a perfectly round, lidless eye with five long lashes jutting up like porcupine spikes. He said children draw eyes like that because that’s how they see other children drawing eyes. But they know eyes aren’t supposed to look like that in real life. If they saw somebody with eyes like that, they’d run screaming.
The media relentlessly tells us what to think, so much so that eventually we start to think everything it tells us is real. We think the good guy always wins, bad guys have no good traits, and old people don’t have sex.
Pay attention to everything you see real people doing, especially people you know well. Pay attention to what you do and why you do it. Keep a diary if you have to. I don’t want to like alpha males, but I like them anyway. I wrote an essay about it without the tidy little hopeful conclusion because I have no idea how to solve that problem. Speak your truth, because it’s probably someone else’s truth too. There are 7 billion people on this earth. You are probably not an anomaly. This is a good thing if you want someone else to connect to your work.
4. Know Which Details Are Important
My problem (and I think it’s a common one) is that I end up expressing myself either too vaguely or too specifically. It’s one hell of a balancing act to put in enough personal lessons to show that you know what you’re talking about, without putting in so many melodramatic details that your readers think you’re just airing your grievances. No one cares about the chip on your shoulder.
Basically you have to come up with detailed, often fake characters who think real thoughts and feel real feelings. Then you have to make the reader care about these characters. Then you have to make things happen to them that will make the reader look more closely at the world for further evidence of the philosophy you’ve told them about. You don’t get out of this formula if you’re only writing personal essays. You are your art.
It’s really ironic: writing is such a solitary activity, but the purpose of literature is to make you feel like you’re not alone.
5. Write How You Talk
When I was a kid, I wrote stories using phrases like “exemplar of energy and paragon of life.” Don’t write like that. People won’t like your character, and frankly they won’t like you either. Shakespeare took slang to a new low. He actually made up words in his time. I know how tempted you are to expel your Victorian haberdashery all over the Internet, but the people don’t want it.
6. “Why?” Is the Most Important Question
Ask yourself: why are you writing this piece? What are you trying to say? How does this piece add a new perspective to the topic?
These are pretty rudimentary things, but also question every detail. When I was 16, I wrote a short story about a girl slaying a dragon. I showed it to my friend and he said “WHY is she slaying this dragon? It looks like he was just slithering around minding his own business! You call this person a hero?”
He was right. I’d just read a few outlines of fantasy books and thought dragon = bad, hero must slay it. That story would have been rejected. Which brings me to my last point:
7. Don’t Fear Failure
I’m more afraid of being a hack than I am of most things, but if you live your entire life being too scared to try then you’re never going to do anything. Plus you’ll just be lame. Being earnest is not lame, even though it feels a little bit embarrassing sometimes. I’m not sure why.
You will get rejected. And there’s few things more painful than publishers not caring about the deepest thoughts you’ve ever had in your life. But if you don’t write and submit, you’re not a writer.
Lastly, be yourself. Really. There’s always people who don’t see their perspective in the media at all. You might be the fresh voice they’re waiting for.