More than a few people have asked how one learns to write well. (I flatter myself in imagining myself competent to offer advice on the matter.) The glib answer – for this and most other things – is merely “practice”. After all, writing, like any other skill, requires patience and work; over time, excellence becomes habit. But while becoming a proficient writer takes years, the converse is obviously false: a person can spend years churning out dreck, without ever gaining an understanding of how to improve. I submit that one cause is that aspiring writers do not have a good philosophy of the craft. They lack a proper vision of the significance and meaning underlying each task associated with writing, and so lack the discipline to properly employ the techniques of the craft.
One approach is to view writing along the lines of architecture: drawing up detailed plans and implementing them precisely and methodically. It is exceedingly common for people to begin writing with an expectation that every sentence be perfectly formed as it is written. They begin with a blank page, and end…with a blank page. Nothing good, save perhaps some members of the Greek Pantheon, ever emerged fully formed.
Here is my view: writing is analogous to ice sculpture.
One begins with something amorphous: mass without form, weight without substance. For ice sculpture, this is water; for a writer, ideas. Without these, no writing has any value whatsoever. This is the first major failure mode: attempting to write when one has nothing to say.
To write well, one must first read well – to be voracious, yet discriminating (see Sturgeon’s Law). Read only the best literature, science, and news. Be interested, and take notes on everything, from musings in the shower to novel concepts and arguments. Do not merely play video games or passively watch films, but study them: think about dialogues, tropes, scenarios, dilemmas, stories. Most importantly, think – about the meaning of everything, and how it fits into life. After a while, one will have a substantial collection of thoughts on a given topic, and it is here that the work of writing begins.
Much like sculpture, this mass must be given a physical form to be workable; just as water must be frozen into ice, ideas need to be written and expanded. One should not expect to write well – only to write. Mathematicians and physicists famously call this process “thinking with a pencil” – throwing new ideas and approaches onto paper for subsequent review. The fact that hardly any of it will ever be printed is irrelevant. Its purpose is merely to provide a starting point.
No one (excepting perhaps the postmodernists) would classify a mere hunk of ice or effluent of words as art. The art itself – the sculpting – is editing, not writing as such. And this is probably what throws people off most, since editing is a fundamentally subtractive process. When a person views the art as an additive process, the natural inclination is to try to write well from the outset. But this is, at its core, an attempt to put something amorphous into a perfect, formed shape. And this is possible only with a mold, which necessarily precludes originality in substance and style.* The ironic secret of good writing is that it has very little to do with writing at all: good writing is good editing – subtraction, not addition. While it is certainly true that material can be added as necessary and appropriate, the additions do not themselves contribute to the artistry: the art lies in expressing an idea fully, simply, and beautifully.
In terms of the actual practice of writing and how to learn, here are a few concrete recommendations:
First, identify good writers and emulate them. No individual ever created language out of whole cloth; writing should be no different. It’s perfectly appropriate to draw from an established writer’s style as one begins to develop a unique voice.
Second, become familiar with editing techniques. One of the most important among them is “swirling” – the movement of mass to improve flow and coherence. Inevitably, some ideas will associate more naturally than others; swirling is the process of cultivating those associations to more effectively convey ideas. “Staging” and “distillation” are important as part of this process. “Staging” refers to separating and setting aside incomplete thoughts. Many people review their initial output by saying, “eh, that’s not very compelling,” and deleting it outright, whereas it ought to be preserved temporarily as the untapped potential it is. It is simple to expand a thought, and trivial to erase one, but it is difficult to create one. As words get moved around, they should be set aside, fleshed out, and recombined; staging helps perform these tasks by isolating the parts that need development from the parts that need reorganization or distillation. “Distillation” is the ultimate form of editing: rephrasing each sentence so that its meaning is direct and plain, purging any superfluous content, and finally, discarding anything that succumbs to scrutiny.
Third, find an outlet. Try submitting op-eds to a newspaper, writing short stories, or starting up a blog. Much like anything physical, writing ability atrophies when left unused.
Finally, cultivate empathy for readers. The best editing is done with a mindset that someone will be reading. Good writing respects its audience.
* Molds have definite, useful purposes. Their chief merit is their effectiveness as instructional aides. Molds can be used to great effect as one begins learning the craft. Through a mold, one can gain some appreciation for the medium and perhaps some representative contours and nuances. But a mold does not produce artistic skill. That staple of American curriculum, the five-paragraph essay, is in this respect both brilliant and blighted: it is in principle a blessing, because it allows very young people to begin learning the art of rhetoric, yet too often a curse, because schools so rarely seem to teach beyond this mealy formula, thereby stunting children’s intellectual development to a primary-school level.