Are writing skills essential?

A virtual library of good books is available to help you develop writing skills, and it's supplemented by a plethora of writing groups, writing courses and websites on writing. There is something to fit every genre and every aspiration, but a couple of basic essentials define the starting point:

1. A personal voice and style that generally develops from writing often and regularly.
2. Good basic communication has to happen in good writing, which means paying attention to grammar, organization, and clear, concise language.

Your writing skills as voice and style

Although basic grammar is important in the process of good communication, “writing skills” are actually more about developing a personal style, a unique voice as a writer. As an editor, my first challenge is to discern and then to continue to be sensitive to a writer’s personal writing idiosyncrasies: his or her style and unique writing skills and voice.

For example, in one of my early drafts of this page, I had written: “There are writing groups and writing courses of every genre to be taken advantage of.”

That sentence doesn’t sound too bad but it ends with a preposition and should correctly have been written: “There are writing groups and writing courses of every genre of which to be taken advantage.” But this grammatically correct version is more cumbersome. Being “correct” is not about writing skill so much as it is being correct.

Perhaps that is an over-simplified example of writing skills because ignoring rules of grammar in and of itself, is also not “style” nor good writing. The point is that as a writer, you must develop an ear for what sounds good to you and successfully expresses what you want to express within the context of the piece you are currently working on. Do that often enough and your style will emerge. And while the rules are not all iron clad, be aware of the ones you are bending and how that might either grate on your reader's ear, or be worth the risk.

Bottom line: don’t ignore good grammar, but don’t get hung up on it either. Let your editor fix the really unacceptable while also preserving the personal style and writing skills you’ve worked so hard to develop.

A lot of very good books and other resources address the elements of style more comprehensively. However, while not using your research as an excuse not to get to work on the writing itself, do check out enough writing resources to understand and assimilate the concept of style and how important it is to give your reader something more than a mere collection of words strung together in a grammatically correct fashion. “Style” cannot be forced. It must be nurtured as you write, and write and write.

The practice of writing and what to write

Now, having said all that, writing skill is irrelevant until you actually have something to write. With a lot of new writers, the challenges are as much about the practice of writing and what to write about as anything else. Julia Cameron’s book, The Right to Write, addresses both of these concerns wonderfully.

In fact, the entire book is full of tools that address a whole bunch of writing issues, but the most valuable one is the concept of Morning Pages. It not only speaks to the practice of writing, but can also be useful in zeroing in on what to write and will, undoubtedly, improve your writing skills.

From the book:
“Take three sheets of 8.5 by 11 paper. Start at the top of page one and for three pages describe how and what you are feeling right now. Begin where you are… physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Write about anything and everything that crosses your mind.

“This is a free-form exercise. You cannot do it wrong. Be petty, critical, whining, scared. Be excited, adventurous, worried, happy. Be whatever and however you are at this moment. Get current. Feel the current of your own thoughts and emotions. Keep your hand moving and simply hang out on the page.”

Cameron says that when you get to the end of three pages you should stop, but I have found that by that time I am “into it” and don’t want to stop. As I’m writing, I often think of experiences from the past, what happened, how I felt about what happened, and what I think I learned from it all. I find myself back there when such and such was happening... and able to put down all kinds of thoughts, feelings, and facts, which can all become memoir material.

This may not happen nicely and neatly every time you engage in the practice of writing morning pages, nor should it necessarily, but the practice can certainly get the creative juices flowing and give you direction and motivation to write.

At the end of writing morning papers, if I think I have something worth keeping, I index it at the back of my journal and return later to massage it into a chapter, an anecdote, or at least the gem of an idea to be kept for later consideration, perhaps as part of a different project.

Get it down and move on. It’s on later drafts that you will want to take Mark Twain’s quote more seriously:

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Communication

Being able to write so that the reader can clearly understand the intended communication is a minimum writing-skill requirement... Daaaaah! That should be self evident, but you’d be surprised at how convoluted and downright awful some writing can be, and often penned by educated and intelligent people.

“Communication” does not mean using a lot of fancy words or expressions with which you are not familiar. Often, what we think is a particularly clever or unique turn of phrase or effective use of words is exactly what’s getting in the way of the overall message or flow of a piece.

When you think you’ve written something good, look for the reaction of readers. Get a friend or relative to take a look at your work. If the reaction is one of confusion, or worse, there’s no reaction at all, be a little concerned, but not disheartened. If someone who knows you can’t clearly understand what you’re trying to say... well, you have some work to do.

Clarity in communication, particularly if you’re writing a first book, will come more easily if you also pay attention to overall structure early on. Have a plan and follow it, if even loosely. Have a beginning, a middle and an end built around a central theme or question that your work is going to resolve. Keep that theme in the back of your mind as you write; it will keep you from straying too far off track.

As an editor, if I see that the beginning, middle and end are muddled, that the writer apparently had no plan and hence, not much structure to build his or her story on, then I create one so that I can help the writer create order out of his or her confusion before it becomes chaos, or goes public.

On the other hand, if a reader is touched by what you’ve written and says so, that suggests a much higher level of success as a writer. If he says he felt like he was right there in the story, or that “it” was actually happening to him as he read, that’s a sign of even greater writing skill. You have to capture your reader’s attention, and hold it.

Ultimately, the connection between writer and reader is what it’s all about, so the best test of your writing-skills collection comes when someone buys your book, reads it, loves it, and then recommends it to others.

For some, this skill comes quickly; the learning curve is a mere bump in the road. To others, it is a little harder; the journey is longer, but that does not necessarily mean it is not a journey worth taking. The rewards can be just as great, or even greater, for tortoises as they are for hares.


More help with writing

Grammar skills

Canadian, British, and American spellings

Writing memoirs

Journaling skills

Ghost writing