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How To Be A Good Writer, by Sarah Alderson

Write for as many hours a day as you can. Write emails, blog posts and bucket lists. Write letters to lovers, to friends, to your grandmother. Write a letter to the person you admire most in the world and a letter to the person you most regret hurting. Write a complaint letter, a condolence letter and a congratulations letter. Write copy for websites, write tweets and write job applications. Write stories and essays. Finish your homework.

If you practised piano two hours a day for five years imagine how good you would be. If you write for five hours a day for five years imagine at the end of that time how accomplished you would be at crafting words.

In the times you are not writing, read. Read incessantly. Read books, magazines, blogs, websites, reviews, scripts, newspapers, political journals, Facebook status updates, interviews with writers, celebrities, politicians and the everyman on the street. Read fiction and non-fiction. Read the greats. Read the truly awfuls. Read poetry. Read the signs in public toilets and on the subway. Read advertising. Read flyers. Read comic strips and newspaper headlines and Wikipedia.

Don’t be a snob. Read everything. Learn how other people speak and write. Absorb beautiful words and turns of phrase. Jot them down. Flinch at bad writing and figure out why you’re flinching. Learn how a journalist’s words differ from a poet’s and how they are the same. Learn the art of an advertising tag line and the craft of a politician’s buzzwords. Read what you’ve written. Out loud. Don’t scrunch it up and throw it away. Work on it. Improve it. Keep going.

Listen. Watch the news, watch comedy, watch drama, watch movies and, whatever you do, watch every HBO series made. Watch Hollywood blockbusters and independent art house films. Watch children’s television and go to the theatre. Watch chat shows and YouTube videos.

This is how you will learn the art of great dialogue, the conventions behind the genres, the archetypes and the power of great storytelling. You might not realise it but you’ll be absorbing the conventions of three act story building, of character development and imagery. You’ll figure out how and when to incite incidents.

Listen on the subway and on buses. Listen to your friends. Listen to your parents and teachers. Listen to strangers at the table next to you and to the person spouting nonsense on the street corner through a megaphone.

Listen and learn the cadence and rhythm of speech. Study accents, slang and etymology. Revel in every new word and expression you come across. Listen and collect stories and names and the funny turns of phrase you overhear. One day that person you walked past in the street, that story you overheard waiting in line for your coffee, that piece of scandalous gossip at the water cooler, might lead to your Pulitzer.

Do all these things and always keep challenging yourself. Don’t just write one genre. Experiment, play, enjoy. Try writing a movie, a kid’s book, a young adult novel, a poem, a short story, a thriller, a horror, a romance, a TV Pilot, an episode of your favourite show. Try writing a haiku or a book blurb or a film poster. Figure out what you’re good at through trial and error.

The blank page is not something to be frightened of. It’s a new adventure waiting to happen. And there’s always the delete button.

Words. Make them your best friends.


Sarah Alderson bio page

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One Comment Post a comment
  1. chrissabrown #

    Excellent and very practical advice on writing. Thanks for sharing these tips!

    July 29, 2012

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