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My problem is that I basically suck at writing. Especially prose.

Part of it is basically because I don't practice as much as I could.

Part of it is because I'm just not talented in that way.

However (seemingly) brilliant ideas for stories keep invading my head bugging me to write them and develop them. I hope you understand the brutal strength of the need of self-expression.

My question is, is it a viable approach to write in a freeform, style-less way to get the basic ideas and plot down and then try to go trough it again and try to force some style (and essentially Beauty) upon it? Is this nuts? Do you have experience with such a way to produce literature? Success stories?

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I just want to add that I don't think there's anyone that just can't write. Writing is a learned skill, not a magical gift bestowed from on high. –  JSBձոգչ Nov 29 '10 at 17:32
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But surely you'd agree that some are more talented then others? –  Jakub Hampl Nov 29 '10 at 18:13
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I don't think we're going to settle the talent-vs-craft argument here. At least not in the comments... –  Neil Fein Nov 29 '10 at 20:05
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If you'd be interested I can start a Community wiki on that topic. –  Jakub Hampl Nov 29 '10 at 21:08
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Did someone tell you you can't write? Your question is on the verge of being beautifully written. "the brutal strength of the need of self-expression" (I would have written "for" instead of the second "of", but that's a nit.) "stories keep invading my head", nice strong image (weakened by the word "bugging", which is not what invaders do). I think you do have the talent and just need someone to point out a few mechanical flaw. –  Malvolio Apr 15 '11 at 2:44
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20 Answers 20

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Writing is one of the areas in which it is the most dubious that there exists such a thing as latent talent.

There are a few important pieces of evidence for this:

  • Writers frequently get better and better as they mature into middle age in contrast to disciplines traditionally considered talent-based, like sports or mathematics.
  • There are no child prodigies in writing. There are children who are very good for their age, but there are no children producing good literary works by the criteria used to judge adults. Even good literary work by somone in their late teens or early twenties is unusual (again in contrast to talent-based disciplines).
  • Writers do not always start at a young age. Many excellent writers began as adults.

Check out this article on expert performance if you believe you do not have the innate talent to write well. You almost certainly do, but it may take years of concentrated effort.

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Interesting. I'm not sure that I completely agree. For example I've known people who after (more or less) the same amount of practice were at very different levels. But the evidence you present sure is compelling. –  Jakub Hampl Nov 29 '10 at 18:16
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@Jakub Yes, definitely! It's very difficult to distinguish the quality of practice, though. The linked article talks a lot about the criteria for good practice, albeit in more objective contexts like music. –  Mark Eichenlaub Nov 29 '10 at 20:30
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Writing is just like any other field as far as talent goes. "Writers frequently get better and better as they mature" They do? Who says? How do you measure "better?" And what does that have to do with innate talent? "There are no child prodigies in writing..." that you know about. Actually, there are many. "Many excellent writers began as adults." True. But how does it follow logically that writing doesn't require natural talent? –  Ethan Dec 19 '10 at 3:25
    
Interesting point! –  geoffc Feb 4 '11 at 16:57
    
Well, Lorrie Moore got Self Help published at age 22, and one of my teachers who it seemed could like nothing less than the most esoteric of all literary works, eulogized that like it was a gem of the ages. So, point is, we can't be sure. –  M.A Aug 17 '11 at 6:47
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There are two people in your head as you write.

One of you is writing. The other one is reading what you write and trying to make it better.

Lock this second person in the deepest darkest depths of your brain as you write. Gag his mouth, forget he exists, lock him in a cage, and don't let him out. When you are writing, just write. Let the words flow out from you. Get everything on paper. Don't let anything interrupt your train of thought; just keep going.

After you finish, either your session, your entire work, or however much is a comfortable amount for you, then you can let this second person speak up and do what he says. Only once you're finished... never while you're writing.

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+1: A lot of good writers say that the rewrite is where it gets good. Stephen King says that after he writes a first draft and goes back to read it over, it always looks like an alien artifact discovered at a garage sale. Then he revises it something like 8 times. And then it becomes a best seller. :) –  Brian MacKay Nov 29 '10 at 22:02
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the second person is angry –  abel Dec 3 '10 at 14:01
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@StrixVaria - I do not agree with this. I do not suppress the second person ever. I take his opinion while I write. And most of the time both of them agree, ... well I hardly remember they ever disagreed. Generally the second person appreciates what the first person writes and I am sure within myseld I have written something nice. –  Sandeepan Nath Dec 18 '10 at 16:36
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I don't know about you guys but there are at least three people in my head. –  Ethan Dec 19 '10 at 3:30
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@Ethan Wait-- is 3 a lot? Shit... –  Aerovistae Oct 21 '12 at 9:20
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I've written this before, but I like to emphasize it, because it is really important. So here we go again:

Your first draft is always (no matter if your name is Stephen King or Jakub Hampl) a big pile of shit! Yes, it is. Writing means re-writing. Again and again and again. Your approach is exactly how writing works. Plot down and loop through your refinement process.

James Frey wrote an anecdote in the first or second book of his "How to Write a Damn Good Novel" series. Year after year a woman came to his writing class, who showed that she was totally untalented. He was asking himself, why she didn't give up. But she was stubborn. And she got better every year. Lastly she published a novel which was a success. In opposite to many more talented participants, who knew they were good, but didn't turn that benefit into any real outcome.

Hard work always beats talent!

Or as Eric Sink put it: Focus on the first derivative!

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I'm not sure I completely agree, but you can definitely get better at your craft with practice, and revision. –  way0utwest Nov 29 '10 at 16:29
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Of course, all generalizations are wrong. Always. ;-P –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 13 '10 at 19:17
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Practice practice practice practice and, as much as practice, you must READ. Read other peoples writing, not just to enjoy the story, but to envy their phrasing, to lust for their characterization, to weep for their descriptive imagery.

I know people who work, who practice. Prolific writers. Yet their work is flawed because they don't read. You must read. To paraphrase King, you must be a glutton for words. You must want to read, to roll around in other people thoughts like a cat in a field of nip.

Even if you're not a natural genius (and only 1 in a billion is), practice, and read. Practice and read.

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YES Finally something I adore. Read other stuff. And it doesn't even have to be literature (this is "writers" of anything, right?). Same goes for music. There's music I adore for the composition, music I envy for the lyrics, and... music I love because it makes me want to write/perform myself. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 13 '10 at 19:22
    
Some things can not be improved through practice. No amount of practice can make a person more imaginative. There's no way to practice having ideas. You can improve your craft, but writing stories people actually want to read requires a lot more than craft, and not everybody possesses that "a lot more." All the wishful thinking in the world won't change that. Most successful writers are known to have "practiced" a lot (so to speak -- actually they just called it "writing.") But it does NOT logically follow that if you practice you will be successful. You also have to have talent. –  Ethan Dec 19 '10 at 3:13
    
+ for you must read before you start writing. Read a lot –  pramodc84 Dec 22 '10 at 6:58
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Best question ever.

No one else on here or on any writing forum or critique circle that I've ever seen has had the humility to ask the fundamental question: what if I just suck.

Any person who is considering tormenting and embarrassing their friends and relatives with their dull, poorly-conceived, unimaginative drivel must ask this question.

By having the insight and the courage to ask it, you have just leapt a hundred miles ahead of every half-assed writer's group jackoff on the planet. Way to go!

The only way to find out the answer is to write your stories and see if people like them. When I say people, I don't mean other writers who are reading your story in exchange for a critique of their own story. I mean real, everyday people. People who have kids. People who are tired, busy, and distracted.

Screw writers. If you can get a real person to read your story and ask you when the next part will be finished so they can read it, then you may be on to something.

As for the talent/no talent debate, don't be absurd. Of course writing requires talent and of course some people have it and some don't. Come on. What area of life isn't like that?

But if what you say about having ideas is true, then you may very well have a knack.

My question is, is it a viable approach to write in a freeform, style-less way to get the basic ideas and plot down and then try to go trough it again and try to force some style (and essentially Beauty) upon it?

Absolutely yes.

And you know what's even more viable? Write down your story in your "style-less" way and just skip the "Beauty" part.

Because no one has a story. No one.

So if you happen to actually have one, for God's sake don't fuck it up with style or beauty.

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Freeform is the best way to write the first draft. If you can't edit, but you are great at coming up with ideas, then hire a ghost writer. How do you think Sarah Palin keeps writing published books?

Of course this only works if you can afford a professional writer.

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Yeah that may be a problem... –  Jakub Hampl Nov 29 '10 at 18:18
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+1 for Palin's ghost writer! –  abel Dec 3 '10 at 14:02
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You may want to find a partner to write with. The sad truth is that some people with great ideas don't have the discipline to become good writers, and some people with the discipline to write everyday can't come up with great plots.

Writing, like all art forms, has two parts: the creative part and the technical part. Sometimes they don't always live in one person, but can thrive synergistically in a partnership. This is fairly common is songwriting, where on person will write music and the other lyrics. But it is also not rare in writers.

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That sounds really interesting. Though I must admit I have no idea where to find a partner like that. –  Jakub Hampl Nov 30 '10 at 14:44
    
@Jakub - ask a question on this list! "Are there disciplined writers out there who needs someone with a million ideas to collaborate on a book?" –  bev Dec 1 '10 at 5:24
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Write a lot. By a lot I mean a few hundred thousand words, over a couple years. The o ly way to become better is to write, and keep writing. Every sucks at it at first, it's just how it is. It takes time and practice to become a really good writer.

Writing is like any other skill, if you don't use it regularly it will waste away. Getter better means doing it more often and streching yourself regularly. The more you do the better you'll get.

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I agree with practice and read. One thing that sort of intersects those two is Malcolm Gladwell's book "outliers" - http://tinyurl.com/22rn2fc. In outliers, Gladwell claims that developing world-class expertise in a subject area takes around 10,000 hours. That's 20 hours a week, every week, for about ten years. (Gladwell is also an incredibly strong popular writer who writes for "The New Yorker" magazine.)

If you want to write one place to start is a blog. My friend John Bruce has been blogging for years and it's been a pleasure watching his writing improve - http://mthollywood.blogspot.com/

Lately his writing as been political and analysis of his publishing adventures, but go back to 2004-2007 and you'll see piles of writing - thousands and thousands of words:

http://mthollywood.blogspot.com/2004_12_01_archive.html

The problem is that your early writing might not get you very far. You might not feel progress. It probably won't take ten years, but it might take a lot, lot of time to get something published.

So don't make it about the publishing. Make it about the writing. So let me borrow one more idea from Jerry Weinberg, who has written forty-odd books (including "Weinberg on Writing"; great read - http://tinyurl.com/2eddcl8 ).

Jerry's suggestion is to get a glass jar, and count the words you write. Every so many words (1,000? 5,000?) you take a penny and put it in the jar. Make a little ritual of it. Celebrate.

And watch your jar grow.

There's no certainty, but if you read, and study (final suggestion "On Writing", Steven King - http://tinyurl.com/34co7e), and practice consciously, and revise, and seek feedback, by the time that jar is full -- I bet this post no longer applies.

I could be wrong, but "I've got a feelin'..."

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I've been writing since I was very young. Honestly, its true what they say. Just as we grow as individuals as we age and experience life, so too does our craft as writers mature as we work at it. Most writers have to work at or massage the text to make it the way they want it to be.

I once came across some prose I wrote back before I was even in High School. It was utter crap. Later found some writing from nearly 14 years ago, it was crap too. What does that mean? It means we learn as we do as writers. There is no substitute for writing.

So you get an idea what do you do? First carry a note book and pen with you at all times. I have a little pocket size compositions book I carry with me and try to jot ideas down in for writing. That helps a ton. Write till you've got the ideas out of your head. Then later pick them up, revise, expand or ignore if you decide they aren't worth continuing.

Then when you find time, write, write about whatever comes in your head. I once saw a guy who wrote fifteen hundred words just on the grooming routine of this one character. It was crazy! But at least he was writing.

I've been writing, for quite some time now, and while I've not had anything yet I want to publish, I've found that I have grown as I've written. I've mentored other young writers, and I always tell them to write as often as they can. The more time you spend writing, the better it becomes.

As for how to improve your writing? Get a grammar handbook. Review the rules of the English language. Then read! Read a lot of different genres and styles. There are so many ways to express an idea. Relish it, experiment, and then don't be afraid to try new ideas of constructing your writing when you have the time.

Ultimately there is no substitute for sitting down and doing it. One more thing, sometimes it helps to find a muse, a focus. Maybe its cooking, maybe its science fiction, or history, whatever it is find a subject and start writing. Look online for others who are interested in writing similar things. I for one am part of several groups that write collaborative fiction and we learn a lot from each other too.

I hope this advice helps.

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The first step to learning how to write is to read. Read as much as you can. Read as often as you can. Think about what you're reading. Pay attention to author style, tone, rhythm. Understand point of view, character development (assuming fiction), plot, theme. Read quality work; not junk. Read work similar to what you want to write.

Then, as others here have said, practice writing. Write those stories to the best of your ability. Put each one aside and then, a week or month or year later, write them again. Experiment. Practice.

You can't get good at anything without practicing, so practice writing. And since you can't know how to practice without learning, read to learn.

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Only minor (very minor) quibble: what is "junk"? Who says what's junk? And today's junk is (sometimes) tomorrows classic. Take detective novels. They were considered junk back in the day. Hammett and Chandler are now considered great writers. So... how do you know it's junk? Other than that, I fully agree. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 16 '10 at 22:39
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Peter Elbow, in his book Being a Writer, recommends something like: "First make a mess. Then clean up the mess."

Your way seems to fit that nicely. Trust your process.

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That's absolutely normal. It's called editing.

Your first draft is not going to be a masterpiece. Even professional authors use editors to read and reread their work, to make it better and tighter writing.

This will all get better and easier as you write more.

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I'd also add in addition to some other great advice, is that you need to get feedback. Ask people you trust, a few of them, to regularly look over your stories. A short blog is a great way to do this. Drop scenes up there, let a few friends subscribe, and tell you if the story doesn't make sense, the characters shallow, etc.

Then look at what you might be doing wrong, re-read your work with their comments in mind, think about how other writers build their stories up, and see if you can learn to avoid making mistakes and improve the way you tell your story.

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If a story wants to get out, you can't stop it. Also note: It doesn't matter if you suck at writing now. First of all, you will get better with every word you write (but at the same time, this progress will seem so slow that you'll only notice when you take a text that is a year old).

Next, you don't have to publish. Writing in itself is fun and rewarding. There is no rule you have to become a famous/rich/whatever writer. Just write for yourself. Eventually, you may rethink your decision but again, no pressure.

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And also eventually, you may become famous, right and whatever. Though fame can also be bestowed posthumously ;-P –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 16 '10 at 22:41
    
Make that "rich", not "right". Beats me why I wrote "right", and why I didn't spot it. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 18 '10 at 12:54
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A missing point here is superstructure. Whereas you can make a mess on a short distance, you better put a bit more thought and structure in where you're going and where you come from.

In general, a story (or even, perhaps more, a scientific argument) consists of a story line as well as the words that fill this in. If you don't know the storyline at all you are at high risk of going nowhere, or at least not where you want to go. So setting out your storyline (for example by creating an outline) is really helpful.

The storyline drives which paragraphs and sections you have. The sections themselves can be more freeform. Just remember that paragraphs make only one point, and that paragraphs consist of more than one sentence. Bad paragraphing is a sure way to make whatever you write unreadable, a trait often seen in student's work (esp. when the topic is technical).

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Have you tried other mediums beside writing?

If you feel your story is good, but your writing is bad, maybe you should try to express yourself differently.

Making movies, drawing graphic novels, building video games are all different ways to tell your story. You could even try storytelling, which is much less formal than writing.

Of course, all of those still require a lot of work, but they might be more suited to your personnality and existing skills.

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"The need for self-expression". That is the important bit. If you have that need, and that is what marks the great writers (honestly, and I'm not the first to say so, if you want to become a writer to become rich and famous, forget it and looks for another job), it will find its way.

Now... when an idea for a plot enters (forces its way into) your mind... do you just see plot ("X does Y in such a way and this leads to Z and the butler is the murderer") or do you also see scenes. If you see them before your mind's eye, then... write them down. Then rewrite them until they match what you see. I'd say (and I'll get flamed for this) if you see a scene, in detail, then writing that down is all that's needed. No editing, in some cases. Yes, sometimes the first draft is the final version (compare to film: some directors use the very first take of a scene, some do few takes, some shot a scene umpteen times before they're still unsatisfied)

I'm not saying that editing is unneeded. Not for a whole novel, at any rate. But some scenes are just... perfect at first attempt. Trust me on this. Or don't.

I do see someone else suggested looking for a partner who does the actual "putting the idea into words" bit. That could be a good idea. If you really only see the plot, and no details. But if you do see details... even if you only see your characters (cf Rowling who's on record that the first time she thought of Harry Potter, he was there, fully formed, in her mind)

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My question is, is it a viable approach to write in a freeform, style-less way to get the basic ideas and plot down and then try to go trough it again and try to force some style (and essentially Beauty) upon it?

Yes, absolutely. Your first draft is the block of marble, not the finished statue. A big part of your art is knowing how to chip away at the block until all that's left is the statue.

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@Jakub: You have received some excellent advice: Read much, both about writing and books/stories in the genre you hope to enter. Write much, about anything and everything. Seek feedback from writers as well as non-writers. Ethan is right that ideas are the exceptional part of stories--so be encouraged! But careful writing and editing are still necessary to convey your ideas effectively.

You can easily find ghostwriters and writing mentors online. Find out as much as possible about anyone you are considering hiring: contact others who have worked with them and ask if they profited--figuratively and literally--from their collaboration. I would love to offer my services, but my area of expertise is non-fiction; fiction writing and editing are, in my opinion, much harder! Bon courage!

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