This is the first in a series of two articles that I've put together for fellow North Carolina writer, Mike Manley, to share among his audience. Mike can be found here at www.michaelmanleywriter.com. This is my take on how to get started with writing. I hope readers will find it helpful.
So you have an idea for a story and you’ve made a decision to try your hand at writing. Now what? How do I get started? What tools do I need? What if I get stuck? Where do I go for help? These are some of the many questions you will have, in addition to a number of others, as you embark on this adventure. This article will attempt to answer these questions while guiding a new writer through the process of getting started with writing.
When it comes to writing, I have good new and bad news. The good news is that if you know how to read and know how to write, you can be a writer. It doesn’t take any special knowledge or skills. It just requires being fluent in grammar, which all of us who know how to communicate, are. It may seem like a daunting task at first. We’ve all read books, periodicals, newspapers, web articles, and blogs. But behind each and every one of those resources is a writer who has brought a story to life on the page in the form of the written word—a writer that also started in the same place you are right now.
It’s that simple. Anyone can write. However, not all of us are good writers right from the jump, and this is the bad news. It takes practice to become a good writer. Many of us have a natural aptitude towards some specific endeavor, such as a particular sport, art, music, science, and yes, even writing. But irrespective of natural talent, it takes a lot of work, patience, blood, sweat, and tears to get good at your chosen endeavor. It’s the same with writing. To be a good writer requires spending time knee-deep in it. There’s nothing scientific about it. Good writing is an art form, and the way we get good is by writing, reading, critiquing, learning from our mistakes, and more writing. But fear not, there are things you can do to improve your writing as you begin on your journey as a writer.
With that being said, we can now go back to the beginning, and start digging into how we get started with writing.
This first thing you need to do is determine how comfortable you feel with actually sitting down and doing some writing. What is your background with writing? How much experience do you have? Do you enjoy putting the pen to paper (or clicking the keys on the keyboard)? Writing and responding to email and posting thoughts over social media are one thing; proving substantial content is another, and that really what we’re talking about here—content.
Providing content requires lots of time at the keyboard. If you think back to your high school days, try to recall writing that essay for a composition class, or a poem or short story for a creative writing class. How easy or difficult was it when you had to sit down and do the actual writing? Did it feel right? Did it feel wrong? Was it enjoyable? Was it boring? Did your thoughts flow from your brain to the page, or was it a struggle? It’s possible you will revisit some of these issues as you sit down to write your content, and as a new writer, there will always be a new struggle. But don’t get discourage as you think about this. Writing isn’t easy for any of us. But as we keep on it, we get better with it. Keeping an eye on the end goal will give you that boost you’ll need to keep you motivated as you work through these challenges.
So now you have your idea and are ready to get typing. But how do you get your story started? What are your next steps? Lots of times, a story, particularly one that is complex, delves deep into many characters and situations. How do you keep the story straight in your head? It’s rare to be able to crank out a draft of a story from beginning to end without making some additional notes or using some additional tools to assist you from one chapter to the next. Two particular tools you can use to help come to mind. These are the outline, and the storyboard.
Outlines are great because they allow you to sequence and order your story. In addition, they provide a means to be able to break a story down into chapters, plots, and scenarios while giving you the ability to keep track of how the story is structured. I used detailed outlines, sometimes even narrative based outlines to describe how my story will develop, where my plot twists will be placed, and where I will dive deep into my characters. Once I have an outline together, I can transition from point A to point B easily, because I know what I need to write next.
Storyboarding is a graphic organizer in the form of illustrations, images or notes displayed in sequence for the purpose of pre-visualizing your media. For those of you who like to visualize a story and capture some of those images with sticky notes, photos, etc., this is a good tool to use organize and keep track of your story, especially if you are a visual person.
For a detailed explanation of storyboarding, see the Wikipedia link provided here:
Now that you’ve got some tools at your disposal and are read to sit down and get your masterpiece started, you need to understand the basic components of a story. All written works contain narrative, dialog, or both. You’re job as the writer is to decide if the story is straight narration, or narration with dialog, and successfully separate the two. For straight narration, it’s easy because there is no dialog. You’re just telling the story. When dialog is interspersed with narration, it becomes a little more difficult. Be certain to keep the dialog separate. In short, this means then when a character is speaking, just let him or her speak. Don’t dump loads of narration between an active conversation. Let the characters have at it. Transition back to narration and vice versa. Keeping this in mind while writing your story will give it more flow and allow the reader to easily follow it as it develops.
Another thing to think about when getting started on your draft is which point of view will you write it? Is it first person, second, or third? Once you make that decision, stick with it throughout. This is where many new writers get tripped up. When inadvertently shifting between all three points of view, the story becomes cluttered and readers lose focus. And the last thing you want is for your readers to get frustrated because of confusion. When they do, they are more apt to put the story down and never pick it back up again.
At this point, we’ve covered a lot of ground with respect to writing your draft. Let’s now go ahead and cover some tools and resources that will be invaluable to you as you work through the writing process.
The first tool I’d recommend is picking up a copy of a book titled, “The Elements Of Style,” by Strunk and White. This short little reference book contains tons of great tips on how to properly make use of the English language, and put words together in a coherent manner. I keep mine in my laptop bag at all times, so when I’m writing, it’s always there at my fingertips.
Another set of tools I recommend are the online language resources such as dictionary.com, thesaurus.com, etc. Nowadays, everything can be found on line, including the language resources. Whenever you get stuck fishing for a word or phrase, make use of them. When I tried my hand at poetry, I found a great site named rhymezone.com that provided lists of similar sounding words and phrases for the word I was researching. Don’t be afraid to use the Internet to research anything you need to regarding language. It’s a wonderful resource.
In addition to the online references discussed above, you can also link to language blogs, writer’s groups, and other online forums to get answers to questions. Goodreads and Google+ have a number of great groups that you can join to gain access to writing communities. Members in these groups are always very helpful so don’t be afraid to join the community and ask questions. You’ll find that most writers really enjoy helping other writers.
With all these resource at your fingertips, now it’s time to get started writing your draft. There is no easy, tried and true method to get the writing started, so you’ll just have to take the plunge. Sometimes the hardest part of writing a story is putting the first few words on the page. My best advice is to picture how you’d like your story to start and pick it up right then and there. Maybe your main character is walking in a field and is thinking about a dilemma? Put his thoughts into words as he walks. Maybe a young group of children are on a field playing a game of ball? Write some of the action out on the page. Or maybe this is a journal entry and requires an “I remember feeling this way a long time ago,” statement to get the writing started. Each story is different and it’s up to you to figure out where it begins. These are just a few ideas to allow you to easily make the transition from thought to opening sentence.
Once you have completed the long process of finishing your draft, now it’s time to look at what comes next. The draft is only step one. The idea of creating a draft copy is to ensure that you are focusing on getting your story down on the page. It’s complete and contains all the elements you want it to contain. Now, you’ll need to proof it. This is the point where you’ll read through it, adjust anything that seems out of place, make changes to it, and correct glaring grammatical errors. Also during this read through, you’ll check your story for flow, ensuring that sentences and paragraph read easily and aren’t causing pacing issues. When you are happy with this draft, you will move on to the next phase in the process—editing.
Unless you are schooled in language, I wouldn’t recommend editing your story yourself or having a friend do it for you. My recommendation is to find an editor and have him/her take up this task for you. Editors are great at spotting language errors, correcting flow, and making a story more cohesive. They aren’t just a human spellchecker. For my works, I use one specific editor. I joined a writer’s organization that also provided editing and critiquing services. Those on staff are masters with the English language and are formally trained in it. I selected from about a dozen editors based on background and professional affiliation and he did not disappoint. I now use this same editor for each work I publish. I’d recommend you do the same. Editors are invaluable and will ensure that your work is of the best quality, regardless of whether or not you decide to publish it.
Once your work has been edited and you’ve made all the corrections recommended, it may need to be resubmitted for another round of editing. This is solely up to you and your editor. It may or may not need a second edit but if your editor recommends it, I would go ahead and take that step. Rarely do editors recommend a second edit unless they honestly believe your draft would benefit from it. I needed to go through that process myself for the first fictional piece I’d written, after making his recommended changes. He wanted to see how I’d gone about making those fixes one more time before giving it his blessing. It was a worthwhile exercise.
In the next post, I will discuss what options are available to you after your story has been edited and your manuscript is considered complete.