Learning From the Best

I’ve come across many a person who believes that writing cannot be taught. It’s a belief I find odd from the outset, because if writing cannot be taught, what does anybody learn in English lessons, from Primary School, through to GCSE? The three fundamental strands of English lessons are Reading, Writing, and Speaking and Listening.

But okay, stringing a sentence together can be taught – perhaps what these people mean is writing creatively?

Again, I don’t understand this belief.

Like learning a musical instrument, there will be some people who have a natural aptitude – those who hear the rhythms and sense the tune without any input or guidance – and there will be those who are completely hopeless. But with enough tuition and practice, even the most hopeless can reach a level of aptitude. They may never advance as quickly as the naturally gifted, or reach the same heights of skill, but they can still excel at their chosen craft.

The same applies for writing. Practice makes perfect. A total lie, of course, because despite 22 years of developing my writing skills, I still have no clue in which instance it’s correct to use ‘practice’ or ‘practise’. But the sentiment stands, and practice (or practise) can get you pretty close to perfect.

Any good writer will tell you (and if I had a penny for every time I heard this piece of advice during my course, I’d have made enough for a celebratory pint) that learning to write is equal parts writing and reading. Writing to hone the voice, writing skill and the craft of story construction; reading to see how someone else has done it successfully.

But reading alone isn’t enough. It’s good, but to really develop you have to read critically. Analyse your favourite writers – why are they so good? What do they do that hooks you from the first page?

The next stage is to emulate.

There are few writers, I imagine, who haven’t gone through a phase of trying to be their favourite author. For me it happened quite early – I was fifteen and I wanted to be JK Rowling. I wrote probably the equivalent of a Harry Potter novel over a year or so. It was terrible. I would do the electronic equivalent of burning it, only it serves a (very ego boosting) purpose. It shows me how far I’ve come.

The opening chapters of the novel are so reminiscent of Rowling’s style I imagine I was probably reading her books as I wrote it. But then, as I hit my stride with the characters and events, a funny sort of transformation happens. I stop being a JK Rowling clone and start being myself. It’s clumsy and badly written, but there’s a voice emerging. And that voice sounds like me.

I sometimes read over it, if I’m having a bad day and think my latest chapter on my work in progress is shockingly bad. Any developing self-pity soon dissolves into giggles as I think, ‘Dear God, I wrote this?’ And I feel better. Because I’m really nowhere near that bad any more.

But imitating was part of the process that got me where I am today. I would never have found my emerging voice if I hadn’t tried to be someone else.

Once the voice starts emerging it’s a case of practicing and practicing and practicing. Then, enduring the humiliation of showing your work to someone else, someone better than you, and having them tear its inconsistencies and purple prose to shreds. When you get over the shame and the hurt, you edit. And you get better.

All the time, you are always reading. But you learn to read critically almost subconsciously, to analyse as you enjoy the narrative. Why am I in love with this character? Why does this place feel so alive and real to me? Why did the plot twist surprise me so much, and yet still make perfect sense in hindsight? Asking questions, analysing and consuming as much of the written word as possible – these things help us to learn and develop as writers.

But above all you have to read the best. Now the ‘best’ may not be the greatest writer ever, but someone who is particularly good at a certain element of writing or a certain genre. The blogosphere is as good a place as any to go out and find these writers who will become your mentors. You may not be able to speak to them directly, but you can learn from their words all the same.

It’s not an easy craft to learn, like most arts – there are no clear definitions of skill and everything hinges on how well somebody else responds to your work. But you can learn, and will. It just takes a little elbow grease and perseverance.

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