Is There a Right Way to Write?

I was astounded recently when a former student, a woman whose work I admire, who has gone on to become a successful prize-winning writer, confessed she didn’t like to read, that she didn’t read.

Until I heard this I believed that a writer who didn’t read was like a surgeon who had learned completely by practicing on patients and had never studied. I believed you’d be so handicapped it would be extremely difficult to become a good writer.

Yet here was someone I knew who was a successful writer AND she didn’t read.

Yesterday a friend lent me William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. In Chapter 1 he talks about being invited to appear on a panel at a school to discuss writing as a vocation. His fellow panellist was a successful part-time writer who was also a surgeon.

The different answers the two writers gave to the same questions were astonishing.
1. What is it like to be a writer?
Dr B: Fun, easy, words just flow.
Zinsser: Hard, lonely, not fun, words seldom flow.

2. Is it important to rewrite?
Dr B: Absolutely not. The free form reflects the writer at his most natural.
Zinsser: Rewriting is the essence of writing.

3. What do you do on days it’s not going well?
Dr B: Put it aside, go fishing.
Zinsser: A professional sticks to a daily schedule, he’ll go broke if he waits to be inspired.

The way these writers thought was diametrically opposed. As I read through more answers I found I sometimes agreed with one and sometimes the other. It became apparent that neither author was ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ They were simply relating their personal experience of writing.

My former student and I couldn’t be more different in the way we see reading.

She doesn’t view her lack of reading as a barrier to her writing. And it hasn’t been.

I’ve learn incredibly valuable things about writing from reading other writers: how Marion Halligan can immerse me completely in place, how Virginia Woolf can split open a moment in time, how Peter Carey uses metaphor seamlessly, how Jonathon Safran Foer experiments with words and form in original and truly effective ways, etc, etc.

And it made me think about other writers I know and how different we all are when it comes to how we write.

One friend writes everything in her head before one word goes on the page.
I write to find out what I want to write.

Another friend writes from a state she calls wonderland. She wanders, trusting the process and when she comes back to earth finds her work has formed itself. I often bleed words onto the page.

Another writer talks into a voice recorder. Some write straight onto the computer. I write longhand into large notebooks.
Some writers don’t give a hoot about symbolism or metaphor. Others work them in painstakingly and consciously. I trust they’ll be there and search for them in my 2nd draft to bring them out.

Someone I know gets up at 5am to work when the house is sleeping because she needs complete silence to write. I saw a writer I know in a crowded and noisy café working on the novel which would later be shortlisted for the Vogel Award. I can write anywhere, just not late at night.

Some write their first draft in one burst. Others can’t write the next paragraph until the one before is perfect. I write in scenes and fiddle with one before I can move onto the next.

Some write to an outline, start at the beginning and move steadily to the conclusion. I write where the energy and excitement is and can write the ending first.

It’s easy to worry that you’re doing it all wrong when another writer finds writing easy and fun and you find it like walking over broken glass. My supervisor at university couldn’t understand why I didn’t write beautiful polished prose straight off in the first draft like he does.

‘Think of all the time and effort you’d be saving yourself if you did,’ he said exasperated.

I didn’t write like he did, because I couldn’t. I have to write my ‘pig swill’ because that’s where I discover what I want to write about, what it means to me, who my characters are, what makes them do the things they end up doing, what’s important to them. I think on the page. And because I often don’t know what I think until I write it down how can I arrange it in its clearest form, in language that expresses it most effectively.

You don’t have to be writing for long to realise there aren’t any clear-cut rules. There are all types of writing, many kinds of writers and as many kinds of methods. There are guidelines that may or may not work for you.

But we should try everything. By trying them we can adopt and adapt those methods that help us say what we want to say, that feel ‘right’ for us.

Keep in mind that what may work best for us is a way of writing that no one else practises. It may be something we came up with ourselves.

And that might include not reading.

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20 Responses to Is There a Right Way to Write?

  1. anne says:

    Karen, thank you for such an inspirational piece about writing. It’s interesting how everyone is so different. Whatever your process I love the result!

    • Hi Anne. It’s amazing how differently everyone writes. I hope you don’t mind that I used you as an example of one way of writing. Your process is such a great inspiration and one well worth trying.

  2. Hello Karen, Its a fascinating discussion how its all done. I think its a different as people are. Those who write beautiful first drafts are rare I think, I’m with you in playing with ideas, seeing which ones work and then working on them. I recall you saying often the way you begin often has to be rewritten to fit in with where the story may have taken you. Its an exciting process and I love the exploration aspect of seeing where you can take an idea. Great post, best wishes.

    • Thanks for reading, Michael. We all love to hear how other writers write. I find it fascinating. I’ve thought more about the common elements we all share but not so much about just how diverse and even opposing our methods of producing work can be. I’m definitely one of those writers who write the beginning last. Like you, I love to be free to follow the idea and see where I end up. Thanks for commenting. All the best.

  3. Maree Gallop says:

    A very interesting post Karen, I would have naturally thought that reading and writing went hand in hand, but here you have shown otherwise. It’s fascinating to read about the different writing styles of others. We are all unique I guess, therefore it should follow that our styles will be different. We all learn differently, look at the world differently and have different interests. Personally, I like to think a lot first then write automatically with whatever flows. From there I find connections, themes, metaphors and finally a meaningful story (well, most of the time)!
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks, Maree. It’s fascinating to see just how different we all are. I’m trying to walk and think more now before I sit and write, but it’s a physical consideration not a process decision. The less time I spend hunched over a computer the better my body likes it. Glad you stopped by to read and comment.

  4. Marg jackson says:

    A great post Karen and so encouraging for we writers to see some of the varied ways others approach writing. It helps me to be more accepting and comfortable about my own style. it also gives us a few other styles to think about.

    • Hi Marg. That’s what’s so fascinating about hearing other writers’ views on writing and their processes – we get to try new ways of writing and we also learn we’re not alone in the way we think and work. I’m glad you found something to encourage you. You have a distinct and engaging voice and should be proud to accept it.

  5. storydivamg says:

    Great blog post with many wonderful insights, Karen. The truth is that although I used to love to read, I don’t care much for it anymore. I read a little when my muse isn’t working to pound something into a form that I’ll eventually put onto paper or a computer screen, but I often find it difficult to both read and write at the same time. It’s usually one or the other for me.

    It’s great to learn that successful writers have such different habits and techniques. I’ve often been suspect of writing classes that claim to teach “the” key to success. You’ve provided good evidence that there is no single such key.

    All my best,
    Marie Gail

    • Hi Marie Gail.
      It’s surprising how often people think there are a set of rules to follow and ‘voila’ you have a brilliant masterpiece. The equivalent of paint by numbers, I guess.
      I was interested to read that you can’t work on some piece of writing in your head and read at the same time. Do they take up the same dreaming space? Or is it that you need to immerse yourself completely in YOUR created world and the other world gets in the way? Or another reason completely?
      Thanks for coming by. I appreciate your insight. regards, Karen

      • storydivamg says:

        Actually, it’s because they both take up the language center of the brain. Bizarrely, there are a few people born with language centers on both sides of the brain. I happen to be one of those people, and I drive people crazy because I can read and talk or read and watch TV or listen to two different conversations at the same time. The only major problem with this condition is that information overload can happen at times. 🙂

        Marie Gail

      • Wow, that’s a fascinating attribute, Marie Gail! I can see it could create overload but there are times it must be wonderful?!

  6. What a really interesting post Karen and thank you for your kind words about my writing. I’m honoured that my post inspired you to write this one. And you’ll be pleased to know I’m up to page 141 of the Hitchhikers Guide… book number one of my reading challenge.

  7. Aidan Walsh says:

    Fantastic post, Karen. I couldn’t agree with you more. Experiment until you find a method that suits you, there isn’t much more to it that that.

    I think mothers must be the only people in the world who are bombarded with more dubious and prescriptive advice than writers.

    • Oh yes, I agree with you on both accounts, Aidan. I like the quote from a writer (I can’t remember who at this moment) who said there is only one rule about writing, and that is there are no rules.

  8. This is wonderful! Thank you for writing a piece which celebrates how each person is unique, just as their writing is. As for “wonderland”, I guess that best describes my own approach (to anything longer than Friday Fictioneers, anyway!)

    I think what you’ve done here is to offer anyone who feels ‘stuck’ or ‘afraid to begin’ a way out. Or, perhaps, a way *in*. Fabulous. 🙂

    • I agree completely with your observations, Joanna. I’d urge every writer to write the way it comes out without the fear of not conforming, and to trust their intuitive self. I have to remind myself of that from time to time, too. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  9. johnlmalone says:

    a thought provoking post, Karen. Yes there are many pathways to writing. I guess the important thing is to arrive at a destination, which is a finished product, though ‘finished’ is a provisional term as we all know that a work is never really finished, it just reaches a point where for the time being we are satisfied with it

    • John, that is so true that work reaches a point where for the time being we are satisfied with it. It’s eye-opening, and also a bit embarrassing, to go back to earlier pieces you thought were ‘finished’ and see just how much more you’ve learn about writing since you wrote it. I don’t usually rewrite them – I’m interested in doing and saying other things at that stage.

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