The power of all languages is the ability to generate an infinite variety of unique, meaningful messages that communicate.
The fact that those strings of words can range from nonsensical to brilliant plagues writers who hover over every syllable searching for the only word that will do. Not all messages are of equal value.
The perfect sentence and phrase remain elusive for writers, and what frustrates us most is that the skill of writing is so difficult to improve. One often feels as if there is no method and that you are either a good or bad writer. For every piece of advice out there, you can find the exact opposite, and the study of usage and grammar will only get you so far. Pull open an average book on how to improve your writing, and it's mind numbing.
As far as formal study of the language goes, The Elements of Style (1918), by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White, remains the best tutorial by most standards, but simply memorizing the book will not make you a great writer, a better writer certainly.
But the sense and sound of language in writing only comes through two routes: reading and writing. The real arena for practice is intense reading combined with intent writing.
An example here will show the elegance and beauty of the greatest writer of our time, Toni Morrison in Beloved, speaking of two distinct kinds of loneliness:
There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up, holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship's, smooths and contains the rocker. It's an inside kind--wrapped tight like skin. Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive. On its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one's own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.
Toni Morrison, Beloved
This knowledge of how to hone writing skills is intuitive, but we often look for an easier route. Wouldn't it be nice if we could just listen to an audio book that tells us how to write beautifully.
Research, however, reinforces the nature of true learning, pointing to the cognitive connections between the two processes, reading and writing.
Reading involves the cognitive processes of parsing and interpreting language and writing requires production. However, in the mind they are closely related, says Vicki A. Jacobs:
The cognitive processes involved in the stages of comprehension (prereading, guided reading, and postreading) are virtually the same as the cognitive processes involved in the three inquiry stages that promote effective composition. Both reading-to-learn and writing-to-learn are meaning-making activities that result in understanding—a central goal of content-based instruction.
Vicki A. Jacobs
Jacob's truths correspond with my own experience when I discovered the power of reading in high school with Orwell's The Animal Farm. After reading little for four years, suddenly my mind and writing took off as I began to read voraciously. I didn't notice until later, but my grades in college increased sharply as well, just by reading good books, starting with the classics. My grades went up because my writing and thinking had improved.
Writers greater than I affirm this truth. William Faulkner, with his complex gothic style and power, tells writers that to be successful:
Read, read, read. Read everything -- trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it.
Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out of the window.
One of the most prolific writer's of our times, Stephen King counsels the same: “If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” Lack of reading robs writers of the tools of the craft, leading to poor, average, and just plain boring writing.
The two most essential tips for improving your writing:
- Voracious Reading
- Prolific Writing
There is just no way around the work, and in this case the work is enjoyable. If you don't know where to start, go with the classics. Or, if that isn't your style, services like Goodreads are a lot of fun. You share your favorite books and get ideas from others on what to read next. It is a readers paradise.
Also, share ideas with friends and family, ask librarians, read prize winners (The Pulitzer and Booker Prize winners are my favorite).
These tips are guaranteed to help, and they do not only apply to creative writers, but to anyone who writes ... that means you.
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