How do you learn to write?

fear and loathingYou may have heard the story about Hunter S. Thompson: how he sat down and retyped the whole of The Great Gatsby on a borrowed typewriter, hoping that it would unlock the secret of Fitzgerald’s style.

I scoffed when I first heard this – the methods people come up with to waste time! Someone give the man some filing to do! –  but actually I’m in no position to judge. When I was seventeen, I read Beloved four times and made detailed notes in a special book – bought for the purpose – on Toni Morrison’s stylistic quirks. I was hoping to absorb enough to be able to write as well as she did. This wasn’t a total waste of time (though it was an unusual activity to engage in, and I have judiciously opted to keep it to myself until now). If nothing else, it helps to be aware of what some writers can make words do, of the possibilities out there, whether or not you can pull them off yourself. It fosters ambition. So hats off to you, Hunter S. Thompson, you total weirdo.

I’ve never been on a creative writing course, and I sometimes think it might have been helpful. But there’s a peculiar kind of fun in attempting to work it all out on your own. I decided when I was fairly young that the only way you can learn to write is by copying other people. That, coupled with some kind of weird intuition that tells you how the sentences should sound. Even putting aside the Toni Morrison debacle, I have spent a lot of time trying to crack the code of good writing through a careful process of theft and emulation. This has led to some strange phases in the past (not least among them my Hunter S. Thompson phase, which I was in no way equipped for; when others were out experimenting with drugs, I was making colour-coded notes in my special Toni Morrison notebook).

Another odd phase: I briefly took to carrying around with me a ‘writing handbook’ (I can’t remember what it was called, but it had a white cover and red and gold lettering; my mum picked it up for 99p in a discount store, which should have been a tip-off). I slogged through about half of it, telling myself I was learning the tools of the trade, before finally acknowledging that my new awareness of the importance of ‘The Quest’, ‘The Twist’ and ‘The Resolution’ was not actually helping.

The Good DoctorI chucked the handbook away and returned to real books. Better to read other writers – good writers – and study what they do well. I was especially drawn to what I thought of as ‘cold’ writers, by which I mainly mean ‘restrained’: sparse sentences and laconic dialogue. Damon Galgut was a particular revelation, as was J.G. Ballard. I thought I could learn to write like them, but, as it turned out, I couldn’t. They did teach me, however, the importance of holding back, that what’s going on under the surface is more potent than what’s made explicit.

Reading English at university was probably useful, too. As with my painstaking study of Beloved, reading as widely as you can gives you an idea of what’s possible. Which is everything.

Beyond that, I still have no idea what I’m doing. Emulation only gets you so far. The bad news is that however much you try to imitate Damon Galgut, you can only ever write like yourself.[1]

[1] Some people may say this is also the good news. But those people are probably Damon Galgut.


About Rebecca Wait

27-year-old writer based in London. Author of 'The View on the Way Down'.
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6 Responses to How do you learn to write?

  1. danholloway says:

    Fascinating. I absolutely agree books are the best way to learn to write but that we can also only ever emulate – what really studying the style of those we admire can do is help us to understand what it is we admire about them, what exactly of all their idiosyncracies is it that appeals to us so much. Interesting you’ve managed to identify so clearly what it is you’re drawn to. I’m not sure I can do the same – there’s an ability to present deep truth through a world that is ever so slightly off kilter I love in Murakami or Kundera; an ability to shatter a reader with a single sentence that’s there in Josephine Hart or Elfriede Jelinek and happens through some kind of expressive distillation. But by and large I think I’m still looking, and too distracted by sentencecraft and the love of rhythm (which is something I found fascinating in Hanif Kureishi’s comments on this topic the other day – that writing classes teach you how to write sentences but not tell stories)

  2. Aamir Aziz says:

    Great post . I don’t know much about “learning to write (well)” – my skills in this area never seemed to progress past average at best – but I am very interested in the process of learning a skill (whatever that may be) to an “expert” level. I think the process of going from beginner to master is fundamentally the same in any endeavor – be it writing , playing an instrument, sports or business.

    According to Malcolm Gladwell it takes approximately 10,000 hours of purposeful practice – unusual activities like taking notes of an authors “stylistic quirks” – usually acquired over many years, to become a world class master at any given skill .

    Walking in the shoes of current and past masters as you discuss is indeed a very useful way in which to further our skills. By emulating those beyond our abilities we force to operate at a higher level as we attempt to understand, reason and do as they do.

    However, this is but one of the many strategies that we can use to develop expertise and while I understand your decision “(chuck) the handbook away” – in most cases having a grasp of at least some of the theory is important – I’m sure you had more that enough of what you needed by that point anyway, which is why it wasn’t much use.

    Ultimately, I think the only true strategy for learning to be great at anything, is that which you only illustrated above – it takes passion. A desire – the aspiration to be great and the willingness to work hard and travel the road (filled with constant failure and the occasional small success) between where we are and how good we want to be … in some ways it never ends.

    • Rebecca Wait says:

      That’s really interesting! I agree that writing, like everything else, is a skill that needs to be learned. But I suppose methods may differ. I think for me it’s not so much about ‘chucking handbook away’ as about using other writers as a handbook – learning through reading and thinking about what other people do well and what they don’t. And then practising yourself. Loads. And from that you begin to construct your own ‘theory’, which hopefully isn’t quite the same as anyone else’s. On the other hand, someone like David Foster Wallace might argue that it’s insane to write fiction – or anything – without having read theorists like Derrida or Foucault, for instance. But personally they bring me out in a rash…

  3. Absolutely agree that you must read, read, read. May I add that it is also essential to write relentlessly and rewrite fearlessly as often as possible. I can also say that a good editor is worth their weight in gold. Thanks for the tips Rebecca. Here are the people who I think (hope) have settled into my unconscious and maybe (hopefuly) shaped my thinking and (maybe, eventually, my writing): Carson McCullers; James Joyce; Will Self; Ernest Hemingway; Colm Toibin; Hannah Kent; Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict (the last two are anthropologists but write with such heart that I keep going back to their work, even though it’s dated). Thanks and happy writing, Roberta 🙂

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