The Five Pillars of Healthful Writing
Writing has incredible benefits, but like any activity your individual involvement depends on your interest. Some writers are happy with the hobby, writing for their own fulfillment with a pleasant dream of being published someday. Others have a goal they’re working toward, and some writers want to make a living at writing what they love.
If writing is more than a hobby, here are a few strong pillars of behavior that will enrich your involvement and set the stage for future successes.
Do your research. This is one kind of reading that directly influences the accuracy of your writing. “Write what you know” is a common piece of writing advice, but with it should also be an encouragement to read about what you want to know. If you want to write about a motorcycle mechanic and don’t know the first thing about motorcycles or engines, read up on the subject. If you want to write a story set in a place you’ve never visited, read up on it (and read work about it written by people who live there). If that’s not enough, and it often isn’t, find someone knowledgeable who’s willing to talk.
Reading within your genre also helps develop some knowledge of your market. You’ll find out what does well, what’s been overdone, and what fundamental elements define the genre. These are wonderful guidelines for structuring material for a popular genre market, or for getting a feel for a niche market eager for fresh voices.
Most importantly, never forget what it is to be a reader. Look for the books that make you feel like you’ve discovered a treasure between the pages. Soak up the wonder that you hope to bring to others through your stories. If you’re a nonfiction writer, look for what sparks your interest and inspires you to research new angles. There will always be someone with strengths in your areas of weakness, and it’s a real shame not to appreciate what others do well.
Research reading is great for raw material, but studying the craft of writing is essential to improvement. This doesn’t have to mean reading books about writing (though it doesn’t hurt). Study, as we’re using it here, means dedicating time and energy to developing new skills, or improving where you’re weak.
It’s uncomfortable, humbling, and frustrating when done right. This is putting in precious writing time to try things that are difficult. Take writing exercises without reservation. Some authors have meticulously hand-copied the work of authors they admire in order to get a feel for how those particular arrangements of words go on the page. Others imitate examples of others’ styles in an effort to take on some of their fellow writers’ strengths. This takes work, and it pays off.
Even though it’s difficult, study is the way writers indulge their curiosity. Pay attention to what questions come up when you feel impressed with something. What makes this so great? Where did that scene get real? What did you love so much about those details? Then try things out and see if you can make that happen.
Isolation doesn’t make healthy writing. Even the writer most famous for glorifying nature and isolation, Henry David Thoreau and his existentialist work Walden, didn’t write that famous work in an uninterrupted sojourn without human contact. Other writers visited him, he went to town for supplies, and he had dinners with companions before returning to his over-glorified little cabin. He lived by a pond; he wasn’t cloistered there.
These days, writing and creating is becoming increasingly social. No, this isn’t a sermon about social media, branding, and marketing. That comes after the writing, preferably a long time after the actual get-it-on-the-page writing. No, this kind of connection is about meeting and learning from other writers. Some may shun the idea of writing groups and critique partners, but the grief involved in searching out good ones is well worth the effort. If anything, there will be someone else who knows how difficult it is to put one word next to another. Helpers become advocates.
You become their advocate too. This is so necessary, it’s appalling how little this is discussed. Young writers, growing up in an increasingly self-centered culture, hear “support system” and believe that means only the people who are supporting them. It also means fellow writers and creatives that you support. There’s something powerfully fulfilling about being the voice of encouragement to someone hitting a disappointing low. If a fellow writer calls to say they’ve received a cutting rejection letter, the quality of what they’ve written doesn’t matter in that moment. Everyone can improve with work and support. What matters then is that they don’t give up, if this is something they love. That encouragement is your responsibility as a member of that support system. How would you feel if you reached out only to have someone give you a brush off?
Apart from supporting individuals, the industry needs support too. In your reading, seek out good work. Read the work of your companion writers. Know what reviews mean, not just to fellow writers but to readers and to the sales figures of a book. Share this information and help others be conscientious and contributing readers. If you find a great read, share that title with the people you know who enjoy that genre or who the work would appeal to. Just blindly sharing work doesn’t mean much; individual recommendations are the most meaningful kind of publicity in reading.
This is the most important pillar, and often goes without saying. We’re saying it here. Projects don’t progress without words getting down. Planning is fine, preparation and inspiration are great, but the project has to progress. This is the single, most important pillar of lifelong writing. Figure out when, get words down as often as possible, be forgiving of days you lapse, and get right back on that word count. Don’t stop till you’re done, and – for your own sake – finish something!
Editing and revision are crucial to the process. They’re not a separate option in writing; they’re 90% of writing. If writing, for you, is about self-care, therapy, meditation, or any other kind of personal self-writing with no intended audience but you, write what you need and feel comfortable putting down the pen. For everyone else, embrace all parts of the writing process, especially when it comes to revisions and edits. There’s always so much more to a story than what you get down the first time.