“Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.”
Recently I read Stephen King’s On Writing, a must-read for every writer no matter where you are in your career. A master of storytelling, King tells about his life, how he came to writing, and what he has learned about it.
He offers some great points about the craft, and I’d like to discuss a few here. His first main point is that good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals, such as vocabulary, grammar, style. His second main point is, well, lemme quote it for you:
“While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”
Phew, that’s a lot. Let’s look at the first point first.
I think we can all agree on King’s first point, that good writing means mastering the fundamentals. I think this is pretty self-explanatory. In order to write well you must understand the language in which you are writing and how it works. The whole in-order-to-break-the-rules-you-must-first-know-them bit.
And this goes beyond language fluency. I’m fluent in Hungarian but would have a damn hard time writing a novel in Hungarian. I simply can’t express myself the same way. I’m sure if I practiced, I could improve, but it’ll never be the same level of comfort and ease as writing in English. Though I don’t want to discount the beautiful things that could happen while writing in another language. Indeed, a quick Google search will reveal just how many writers have enjoyed writing in a second language (and how grateful they are to their editors).
Needless to say, no matter what language you’re writing in, you must understand the fundamentals in order to write well. This is just a truism.
King’s second point is a bit more controversial. Or maybe it just feels more controversial. I haven’t asked any seasoned writers what they think of it, but maybe I should. I’d be curious about their answers. At first glance, it seems awfully cold. Impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad one? Really? I’m sure King is speaking from his experience here, but it’s still a tough pill to swallow. And how can you know what level you are at anyway? My writing teachers have always been encouraging. Does that really mean I’m an okay writer, or were they just being nice? How could a writing teacher possibly let their student know that they are a bad writer? And if I was objectively a bad writer, would I even be able to accept that truth?
I obviously don’t have nearly the writing and life experience that King has, but I’d hazard a guess that perhaps it is possible to make a competent writer out of a bad one, as long as that writer is willing to take direction, criticism, etc. I believe in life-long learning, and if your mind is open to feedback, then naturally you will improve by taking into consideration all that you’ve learned.
If, however, you cannot take criticism and feedback, then you most certainly will get stuck in your skills and never improve. Just like everything else in life.
I wish I could ask King what he means by a bad writer. Is he counting skill alone? Or overall attitude as well? I’m sure he’s given feedback to writers who just wouldn’t have any of it. To me that certainly seems like a bad writer.
So I think I mostly agree with his statement as long as we include the caveat of attitude.
I don’t know what kind of writer I am, but I do know it’s important to develop that thick skin to criticism and, hard as it may be, not take it too personally. If you approach your work from a position of learning and openness to improvement, then I think it’s possible that you’ll be just fine.
This reminds me of another good point King makes in his book:
“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”
Quotations: King, Stephen. On Writing. New York: Scribner, 2010.