Writing FAQs

Extract from: The Writing Experiment by Hazel Smith

The process of writing has traditionally been subject to extreme mystification. Secrecy has often been perpetuated by writers themselves, since published authors can be reluctant to reveal how they work—they may see this as giving away ‘trade secrets’—and are often inarticulate about their writing methods. Many writers probably do not really know how they arrive at their texts, and mental events which occur during the creative process may be difficult to remember or describe. In addition, writers have historically had an ideological investment in the mystification of the creative process because it sustained a myth which was appealing to the public: that of the genius who is divinely inspired and individually endowed. However, this myth can be crippling to aspirant writers who feel helpless if they do not seem to have special talent, and cannot immediately match the work of their published peers.

In fact, writing does not arise out of a vacuum: there is always a process involved. Creative writers, at all stages of their careers, need to ask themselves questions about this process and the role of the author: some of these questions often initially include:

1. Do I have to have special qualities to be a writer?
2. Are there any rules or regulations which I must abide by when I am writing?
3. Will my writing be better if based on my personal experience?

These questions are all highly significant ones which are central to this book, and I will discuss them in turn.

1. Do I have to have special qualities to be a writer?
The popular belief is that writers have a special talent is innate, that good writing is something that ‘just happens’, and that most aspects of the writing process are inaccessible both to the writer and to outsiders. However, this belief is fundamentally flawed, since talent partly arises out of the learning of particular skills, and awareness about the choices available in the process of writing. The main special qualities writers must have are perseverance, motivation, the willingness to search for methods which suit them, energy to push themselves out of their own comfort zones, and avid reading habits. Failure to produce creative work is often due more to lack of stamina, or insufficient commitment to the process, than a paucity of talent.

Self-awareness about the writing process is therefore crucial. Writers who develop this awareness will be able to intervene more effectively to develop their work, or change direction. It is important to try a wide range of different techniques, since a writer who achieves average results with one technique may obtain excellent results with another.

2. Are there any rules I must abide by in writing?
There are no rules and regulations for creative writing, and no blueprints for a good piece of writing. Anyone who is looking for a formula for exciting work will not find it, and writers who rely on formulae usually produce dull results. However, strategies and techniques can be learnt: these are different from rules in that they set writing in motion rather than delineating correct methods. They are explorative and dynamic, and demonstrate a variety of means for generating and structuring material ...

3. Will my writing be better if based on my personal experience?
Many people are motivated to write because they want to speak about their own experiences, and many writers use autobiographical experience as material, either directly or indirectly. But writing does not have to be based on personal experience, and frequently is not. To write is always to construct something, to create a fiction. There is a considerable difference between ‘real life’ and ‘text life’ though the two may be interconnected. Even where personal experience is used it is always mediated by language and sometimes transformed out of all recognition. Furthermore, it is arguable that success as a creative writer depends more on the ability to explore ideas and feelings through language, than on personal characteristics or experience. In fact, writing only autobiographically can be limiting, because it keeps us within the confines of our own particular world ...