By Margot Kinberg
I saw an interesting interview with Billy Joel (come on, if you know me at all, you’ll know I had to include something about Billy Joel here!). In it, he was asked why he has such ‘staying power’ – such a lasting influence. His response has stayed with me. He said, ‘I’m competent.’
By that, he didn’t mean a false-modesty sort of answer. Rather, he meant that he’s honed the basics you need to create music. Whether you’re a fan of his music or not, I think most people would agree that he’s got a lot of talent. His point was that it’s not just natural talent; it’s also working on and developing the skills that go into writing and performing music.
That part of the interview has stayed with me, because, at least for me, quality writing is very similar. It’s not just a matter of having a brilliant idea, committing it to words, sending it out, and becoming a best-selling novelist. It’s the regular discipline of putting words together.
All of those basic writing skills do matter. In each language, each dialect, there are standard ways in which nouns, verbs and so on are put together. There’s standard punctuation. There are tools such as alliteration and metaphor that can help make one’s writing that much more powerful. There’s also the matter of matching one’s writing to one’s audience. After all, writing is communication.
Think of the last book you read that really drew you in. Of course a strong plot and well-developed characters probably made that book memorable. But I’d also suspect that the author used those behind-the-scenes tools that make writing flow. My guess is that the paragraphs all had topic sentences and each paragraph led logically to the next. The writing transitions were probably smooth, and the author likely varied the length of sentences. Spelling, punctuation and the like were probably on target as well. You might not have noticed those things; in fact, if they were done effectively, you probably didn’t. But they were likely there.
Sound boring? Working on those basics isn’t, admittedly, the most exciting part of being a writer. But honing those tools puts the writer in a good position for a few reasons. First, the more the writer pays attention to those elements, the more automatic they become. That frees one up to focus on crafting plots, developing characters, and putting together a story that will engage readers. What’s more, the end product – the story – is more satisfying. It’s more professional, too. Editors everywhere will appreciate that, and so will readers.
But, Margot, I can hear you asking, what about creativity? What about innovation? Working on the writing equivalent of scales and arpeggios doesn’t mean you can’t innovate. The fact is, once you truly know and understand those conventions (spelling, punctuation, dialogue, audience, paragraph structure and so on), you can use them much more strategically. You can even bend those rules here and there as necessary. It’s a bit like using dissonance in music. You can’t use it effectively if you don’t have a thorough understanding of harmony. So, in a real sense, having a grounding in those conventions helps you innovate.
You may also be thinking, what about dialect? Being really competent with those conventions isn’t going to help me if my characters speak in a non-standard dialect. Dialect can be a powerful tool in conveying character and a sense of place. So go ahead and use it if it’s appropriate. But you’ll be much more skilled at knowing when it’s appropriate, choosing it carefully, and getting it accurate if you really understand its conventions. Every dialect has conventions, including standard speech. The better you know those conventions, and the more automatically you can use them, the more authentic your writing will be.
So how does one hone those basics of writing? For me, anyway, it’s a matter of putting words together every day. That daily discipline, even if it’s just a few sentences, helps keep the focus on what writing looks like and feels like, and what makes it (not) work. There are lots of options for doing that, too. For instance, my blog has been very helpful to me in that way. Since I post every day, I get plenty of opportunity to put words together, see how they sound and fit, revise, edit and publish. In short, I go through the writing process every day. Even if you don’t post daily, keeping a blog is very helpful as a writing activity. A regular blog may not work for everyone (although I do recommend it for writers who want to develop a readership). But I think that daily writing is vital.
It’s also worth the time to re-read and revise what you’ve written with an editor’s eye. Go over each paragraph to make sure it’s cohesive. Check for spelling and grammar conventions (should that really be ‘your’ or ‘you’re?’ ‘They’re’ or ‘there?’). Read your work aloud to yourself or to someone you trust. Believe it or not, doing that can help you spot overuse of words, run-on sentences, abrupt transitions, and those other small details that can weaken your writing. Sound blatantly obvious? Perhaps it is. But those basic aspects of writing are the underpinnings of an absorbing story that keeps readers wanting more.
It’s true that working on those very basic elements of writing isn’t particularly thrilling for most of us. But understanding them, using them and honing them help to support your story. And your readers will be grateful to you, whether they’re aware of the effort you’ve put into them or not. You’ll make mistakes along the way (I make embarrassing ones on a painfully regular basis). But your writing will be better. It’s why I work on those things as frequently as I do. I’m hoping to be competent.
Thanks very much for hosting me!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Do-Re-Mi.
Margot Kinberg is a mystery novelist (she writes the Joel Williams series) and Associate Professor. She has also been blogging about crime fiction since 2009. She has written three Joel Williams novels (Publish or Perish, B – Very Flat, and Past Tense) and is currently revising the fourth. She is also the editor of the charity anthology In a Word: Murder. Margot blogs at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist.
Coming soon! A long-buried set of remains…a decades-old mystery.
Past and present meet on the quiet campus of Tilton University when construction workers unearth a set of unidentified bones.
For former police detective-turned-professor Joel Williams, it’s a typical Final Exams week – until a set of bones is discovered on a construction site…
When the remains are linked to a missing person case from 1974, Williams and the Tilton, Pennsylvania police go back to the past. And they uncover some truths that have been kept hidden for a long time.
How much do people really need to know?
It’s 1974, and twenty-year-old Bryan Roades is swept up in the excitement of the decade. He’s a reporter for the Tilton University newspaper, The Real Story, and is determined to have a career as an investigative journalist, just like his idols, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. He plans to start with an exposé article about life on the campus of Tilton University. But does everything need to be exposed? And what are the consequences for people whose lives could be turned upside down if their stories are printed? As it turns out, Bryan’s ambition carries a very high price. And someone is determined not to let the truth out.