I recently attended a writer’s circle meeting one of the attendees, a first time writer, stated her reason for coming as “to find out if I have the skills necessary to write” and “to learn new skills”. Basic English is merely the starting point. The question of having the necessary skills to write is one I have heard asked many times before. People know they have a story to tell, but are uncertain as to whether they have the ability do it in such a way that allows them to be understood by anyone else. More people are looking to write, at the current time, than at any time in the past.
Where they go from there is entirely upto the individual writer, but they also need the will to improve their linguistic abilities. Does the mere act of writing cause the writer to improve, or is something else required?
Obtaining critical feedback, in my view, is essential to gaining success as a writer and this needs to be handled privately and should come from multiple people and those helping need to be experienced writers or editors. Two people will each have different views on what your piece represents, the elements they like and those parts they disliked, thus feedback is very personal and should include:
- The good, the bad and what truly shone.
- Things you could read to aid your writing.
- Grammar pointers
- Style pointers.
- Basic editing tips.
- Tips on how to tell a story.
First Exercise for the New Writer
The aim here is to aid improvement. For your first writing exercise you should complete a short essay of 200 to 250 words about a subject you are passionate about, ensure you have an introductory paragraph, tell your story, and conclude with a paragraph summing it all up. The reason for setting a word limit is to ensure you don’t write a massive tome while you should be getting used to the process of writing.
Here it is best to write a non-fictional piece or a personal real-life story even if your major career goal in writing is to tell fictional stories or write the next great novel, leave your main goal for the future, not part of this exercise. You need to explore the skills that you already have and the best way to do that is by writing about a subject you are familiar with, it may be embellished in order to enhance the story but generally it should be something you have either witnessed or been a part of.
Time, Space, Structure
Sit down, give yourself the time and space to write. It doesn’t matter whether you write on computer, typewriter, or even by hand what is important is that you have a place to write from and dedicate adequate time for the exercise, I suggest an hour — you may be finished sooner but it could also take longer. As a guideline, when using a word processor, like Microsoft Word, it will take about three-quarters of a page (although you can use software functions to see the actual word count), when writing by hand it is likely to take two pages.
Think a little about the structure, what is needed in the introduction, how to conclude it, the points to be covered in the main story — you may write these down somewhere as a reminder.
Once you start writing don’t worry about outside influences. Let the words come from your mind straight to the page, don’t worry at this stage if you don’t know how to spell a particular word, or even know its real meaning or whether it is the right word to use, just put it down and keep moving with your story. Your mind should drive the story. Periodically it is good to look at the notes about the subjects you intended to cover just to see if you have missed something, or perhaps need to change direction.
Editing your Words
Writing is different from speaking as the words, once they come out of your mind and are placed on the page, can either be rearranged or edited so you can add in crucial pieces of information you missed out on the first cut. For the sake of this exercise try to avoid editing on the fly (other than to correct an obvious spelling error) because your goal is to finish the writing exercise. Create a story.
Get used to reading through your work, spend time looking for:
- Spelling errors.
- Grammatical or syntax errors.
- Sense check your sentences.
- Add in missing parts.
- Opportunities for improvement.
During editing I find many opportunities for improvement. For example those occasions where the words used are fine, they tell the basic story, but they didn’t make a special situation sound exceptional, providing an opportunity to add more detail, provide a deeper explanation, add more depth, provide reasoning, prior choices, the logic or reason why.
Difficulty Writing the Words?
I have had people tell me that they have difficulty writing 200 to 250 words on any subject, they know what they wish to write about, but the words will simply not come when facing that proverbial blank page. This is not an uncommon problem, even for experienced writers, they start writing then come to an abrupt halt. Sometimes this is a good point to start asking if you should be writing about a different topic at this time, perhaps something else troubles you right now and is getting in the way of writing about your original topic.
One way to get around this blockage is to think about the subject of your story and ask yourself why this is a good or a bad situation and what you might suggest in order to improve it. This is one tactic for getting the writing juices flowing again.
I rarely have a mental block, although there may be times I have no interest in a particular topic. I use an electronic notebook to record all of my notes and ideas, in here I will have noted thoughts at certain times and some notes, which can add to the topic I am writing at any given time. If today is one of those days when you’re having trouble focusing your attention and getting words flowing maybe you should try again another day.
Having your Work Evaluated
Remember, this exercise is about critical feedback, it is essential to your success as a first time writer and it starts here. It is important that you don’t simply ask anyone you know to give you feedback, the best feedback will come from those who have experience writing and are willing to help you.
The person giving feedback to the first time writer should be a experienced writer, or editor, who is actively involved in publishing material and preferably someone you know and is aware of your aspirations in writing. If you feel that you don’t know anyone who writes then you should ask a few of your friends and you will be surprised to find that someone you know has a blog or has some writing skills. Don’t simply send your piece to them, call or email them and ask if they would be willing to assist — tell them what your aims are and tell them about this writing exercise and ask if they are able to help by evaluating a small segment of your work.
I have done this many times in the past, however today if I evaluate the work of someone I do not know then I charge a small fee of $10 to give feedback.
One Final Point
The idea behind this exercise is not about publishing the resulting work, it is about learning and the first time writer need a lot of encouragement. My suggestion is that you keep the resulting piece (including all the feedback) in a safe place, but do not publish it. You may repeat the exercise a couple of times with different subjects if you wish, if so please find different people to evaluate your work.