Monday, May 04, 2009

A Writer's Four Most Basic Tools

Okay, let's have a frank discussion about what you, the writer, must have in order to be successful.

Before anything--before a great story or vivid characters or a knockout plot or an original voice--a writer must have the basic subset of tools that permit you to practice this craft adequately. You cannot be a good writer until you have mastered this list. Period. Before you even think about hitting 'send' on that next submission, step back, take a good, hard look at your work and make certain that you meet this criteria.

1. Correct spelling. I cannot emphasize this enough. Writers use words. You will lose all credibility right from the get-go if you don't spell those words correctly. If spelling is an issue for you, you need to work on it. The basic rules of spelling like "i before except after c" or knowing the difference between homonyms need to be second nature for you. If you get hung up on they're/there/their, then work on the rule until you memorize it. I'm not talking about typos--typos happen to everyone and should be found when you edit your story--but good, old-fashioned spelling. Learn it. Love it.

2. Basic grammar. Sure, everyone is going to get hung up on some aspects of grammar. I'm an editor and I still have to look things up occasionally. However, there's no excuse for any writer not to make the effort to follow the rules of grammar. Here again--words are your tools. You can't use those tools effectively unless you know how to use them correctly. It doesn't matter what experience you have as a writer, it is necessary for you to have a good, current grammatical stylebook or manual--I use the Chicago Manual of Style, personally--and refer to it frequently.

3. The ability to take criticism. This is so important and so often overlooked. Let me pass on a bit of advice that will serve you as you write: artistic license is no excuse for a poor, sloppy story. *editor's hat on* I don't care how artistic you think you are, if you bore me I'm going to red ink the section. Editors, publishers, agents and beta readers don't criticize your work because they hate you/are jealous/think you need criticism whether it's warranted or not--we criticize your work because something isn't effective. Park your artistic sensibilities at the door. Creating a storyline is art. Telling the story is a craft--and as such, you need to be prepared to hear what works, what doesn't and what flat-out fails without whining or getting angry about it.

4. The ability to edit. You need to be your own harshest critic. You need to be prepared to writer your manuscript four, five, ten times if necessary to make it the best it can be. There is no such thing as a perfect first draft. Or second. Or third. There's always room to improve and just because you've typed "The End" doesn't mean the process is over.

Okay, got it? Print this list out. hang it over your desk. Every day when you sit down to write, read this list again. If you don't have these four basic tools, then your manuscript is doomed to fail. There are thousands of writers out there submitting materials and a healthy proportion of them have mastered these basic elements of their tool box. In the end, it doesn't matter how great your story is or how original it has to be spelled correctly, have correct grammar, have been edited stringently before anyone will consider it. And then? Then, you'll have to submit to the publication process and criticism is inherently a part of that. If you can't take criticism with good grace and implement those changes then you're doomed to failure on a bigger and more hurtful level.

And just remember--as with any craft, the more you practice the better you'll get. Writing is a developed skill, one that takes years of work to perfect. Once you've got these four tools in your back pocket, writing itself becomes much easier.