I recently got a question asking about writing tips in general, and especially related to editing. For privacy reasons, as usual, I won’t name the person–but I’m writing a post here instead of replying directly because 1) I always ramble like fuuuuuuuck and 2) maybe someone else out there is curious about the same thing from my perspective.
First, as always, I’m obviously not a professional. You’ll definitely want to go with what professionals say, if anything goes against my thoughts. But for what it’s worth, I helped a family member edit her book and a professional who worked with her on the book was really impressed with my feedback. Which I am not saying to pat myself on the back; I say only to mention that maybe, hopefully, some of this is useful and not totally leading people down the wrong path lol
I have some posts on writing advice here: http://ais-n.tumblr.com/tagged/writing-advice — and there should be some that Santino and/or I wrote under “writing questions” here: https://aisness.wordpress.com/2016/05/01/icos-master-list-feb-2016-edition (Note that there may be some overlap between the two links, also I’m not sure if all those links still work–if you see any specifically that don’t, let me know).
I have lots of thoughts on writing, but they’re all pretty informed by my personal writing style which is very much aimed toward writing what makes sense for that story and those characters, and “rules” be damned. I don’t like the idea of confining oneself to expectations if it interferes with the natural, organic progression of a story. That does mean I tend to go pretty hardcore into stuff I write because if I’m writing a dark story, I’m not going to pull punches; and I tend to add a fair amount of darkness into my stories because it doesn’t feel realistic to me otherwise. But this also means my style doesn’t work for people who want to feel like they always know what’s coming or at least know the limits to which the story will go. After all, as we’ve seen, you cannot trust me to not totally fuck up a character because it feels like the right progression for me. And that’s not fun for some people to read, you know? But it’s super hard for me to write a more chill story because it’s not the kind of story I tend to read. I try to do it and then I get bored, but other people can do that same concept and story in a fantastically beautiful way and really excel at it.
What I mean by this aside is that I have maybe a bit odd of a viewpoint on writing stories compared to some more traditional or mainstream views, so that may make me a terrible person to ask for thoughts for you, or it may make me someone who vibes better with your personal style. I think it’s most important we’re all genuine to ourselves so whatever writing style works for you is the perfect style for your stories. There’s a story out there for every occasion, every voice, every idea, every feeling.
There is no right or wrong way to write; in my opinion, the only way you can do anything “wrong” is by not believing in your own personal voice, your own personal style; by silencing your individuality if it doesn’t fit the stronger, louder voice. If it does fit, that’s perfect and you should run with it. If it doesn’t, don’t change yourself or your world or characters or story into something it isn’t. That feeling of dissonance will be what is taken away from your story instead of the story itself, at least to readers like me. Because I do believe what Maya Angelou said is true: people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. In my personal opinion both as a reader and a writer, I think that applies to stories as well.
I also think research is really important but I guess that’s a whole other thing. I’m getting too much into writing tips right now so I’ll leave it at this and the linked posts above — but if anyone is curious about anything in particular, let me know. If you’d be curious about my personal thoughts on anything, I’m happy to answer 🙂
Editing is a pain, but also kind of fun. I have a few thoughts on it– most of what I’m first talking about below is you editing your own work. I touch a little on editing someone else’s work afterward.
**Read or edit for the overall flow as much (or IMO more) than you do the specific grammatical nitpicking. I know that’s going to go against what a lot of people feel about editing, but here’s the thing: stories are translations of the heart, whether it’s the heart of the overall story, the heart of the writer, the heart of the characters, the heart of the reader, the heart of whatever it represents. To me, a story is poetry on a larger scale, or it’s a song, or it’s whatever artistic endeavor that represents something that, to you, feels moving or meaningful.
Yes, it’s important that we understand what you’re trying to say. For that, yes, having someone check the grammar is definitely useful.
But the rules of grammar are not the rules of language. That may sound like an odd thing to say because, yeah, technically it is– but think about when you’re learning a new language. If it’s anything like when I’ve taken classes in the multiple languages I’ve taken classes in, the teacher tells you all the specific grammatical rules so you’re speaking properly, politely, in complete sentences with all the correct intonation and all the right tenses. You can definitely get your thoughts across if you learn a language that way, in that people will understand the concept of what you’re saying because you are literally speaking textbook to them.
But then think about your native language. Do you speak or type grammatically correct all the time? Do you avoid contractions, run-on sentences, do you not indulge in hyperbole, do you not have fun dropping an Oxford comma or two? If you’re feeling an intense emotion, aren’t you even more likely to play the strings of the language you know best? Changing vocabulary to emphasize meaning or form, adding intensity in your tone or your chosen verbal attack, throwing in swear words or cutting your sentences in half then in half again and again until it’s just partial words because you’re too upset or excited or something else to properly form a complete sentence?
There may be people out there who don’t do this, I don’t know. But for me, this is how I function, and it seems to me how a lot of people around me function. We rarely speak perfectly politely, perfectly properly, in our native tongue 100% of the time. Even languages built very much on the concept of polite and proper, even cultures with a clear sense of in group vs out group, have variations set in place in their language to indicate intimacy, friendship, a sense of understanding. Those levels are there so we can share that connection with others in something as simple as the word we choose when we call them, or the name we use when they come close.
To me, stories are like levels of language. There are different ways of telling the stories based on the story that’s being told. If it’s a character who’s distant or cold, or a setting that requires a sense of detachment, writing in very proper, polite, grammatically perfect sentences makes sense because it provides that sense of out group you would get in your native tongue. If it’s a story that should feel visceral, cloying, catastrophically vulnerable, then it’s meaningful to write in an ebb and flow of emotion dependent on the feeling of the character or the feeling the writer wants to create within the reader. Words breathe life into the story they relay, so the chosen words matter. Most of the time, I think stories benefit from a variation in the telling of them; perfect in some places, very imperfect in others, a constant reflection of the tapestry of emotions and motion in the world or story itself, or a view into the mind of the character displayed.
So, although it’s important to have someone who can help with any egregious and unhelpful grammatical mistakes, or spelling errors or the like, I also don’t think that should be the primary focus. It’s the sort of thing that’s important to take into account so that no poor wording accidentally jolts the reader from the story, but it shouldn’t be the be all and end all because that could result in losing the more emotional flow needed for what the story is trying to get across.
I think of it like this: writers are the translators for a character’s life. How would the characters feel at different points in the story, and therefore how best can that be worded to make the reader feel the same way reading it? How can you make the reader feel like they are experiencing that same emotion the character is feeling? That’s the best way to bring alive a world or plot or character, in my mind: by making it real.