Every writer, whether he’s having his say in prose or poetry, needs to follow the most important rule of successful writing: BE TRUE TO YOURSELF. If you spend your writing energy trying to be like some other author or poet – or trying to please people who do not see life the way you do – you will come to the place where your writing is drudgery, and even worse – you will be a total failure as a writer.
Now, that is not to say that you will never sell a piece of your work. In fact, you just might sell a few things to people who can’t distinguish great work from mediocre or poor work. But you will never reach those readers of the world who are waiting for another voice – a unique voice – YOUR VOICE — to speak to them in forms, words, images, and rhythms that they feel inside and can relate to at the highest level. You want to reach those people. And unless you are the REAL YOU in what you write, they will never find you.
Author Khaled Hosseini said this recently in an interview for TheAtlantic.com: “It seems miraculous, doesn’t it? That somebody can articulate something clearly and beautifully that exists inside you, something shrouded in impenetrable fog. Great art reaches through the fog, towards this secret heart—and it shows it to you, holds it before you. It’s a revelatory, incredibly moving experience when this happens. You feel understood. You feel heard. That’s why we come to art—we feel less alone. We are less alone. You see, through art, that others have felt the way you have—and you feel better.” (“How To Write: A Year In Advice From Franzen, King, Hosseini, and More,” Ed Fassler, TheAtlantic.com, December 17, 2013.)
So be true to yourself and let who you really are come through. Now, that does not mean you should never try new things. Certainly, every writer needs to give himself to some degree of experimentation. That’s how we learn what we have inside and what constitutes our strengths and weaknesses in our craft. Be brave and reach for fresh summits in your writing all your life, but always do so from the truth of your own heart.
In that light, let’s look at a few directives that fall under the heading of being true to yourself:
1. Use vocabulary that is your own and that your reader can follow without losing the real point of what he’s reading. Some writers strain for vocabulary that they believe will impress their readers by causing the author to look particularly intelligent or sophisticated. But the vast majority of the time, their readers become so frustrated with the need to stop and look up words in the dictionary in order to understand the text that they often give up. And if they push themselves to finish the book – or the poem – just because they like to finish what they start, they never pick up anything else by that same writer.
Use words that convey exactly what you mean and what you feel, but make sure the audience who reads it is going to be able to understand it without running for a dictionary. If you live your life in an academic world that communicates only through a sophisticated academic level of vocabulary, then – unless you are writing for an academic publication – you may need to re-evaluate your word choices as you write. Still be yourself, but be the self that carries on conversations with the clerks in the stores or with your kids.
2. Do not become an imitation. Most writers go through a period, early in their attempt to express themselves in their own work, where they unconsciously imitate their own favorite writers. The main cause of that problem is that they read so much by those authors, and, naturally, their thinking is influenced by them. One of the best solutions for the situation is for new writers to make an effort to read a lot – by a lot of different authors. Read within the genres you enjoy, but read outside those genres as well. Sometimes the influence of a writer in a totally different genre from you own can have just enough effect on your own writing that it makes it fresh and unique. In general, most writers come through those phases of imitation pretty quickly, and the more you expose yourself to different voices and styles, the more you will find yourself free of any one particular influence.
3. Write what you believe. Regardless of your topic, write what you believe in your own heart. It’s one thing to play “devil’s advocate” for a specific purpose, but to write from a point of view that is not your own on a regular basis is being false to yourself and to your reader. Even when you are writing on an assignment about a topic that you have no interest in and for which you feel no emotional response, if you force yourself to look in depth, you will undoubtedly find some aspect about which you can write with conviction and even emotion.
4. Be Succinct. You want to say as much as you can – as accurately and colorfully as you can – in as few words as possible. Although we cover this concern in the chapter on using language effectively, it bears repeating here. Work hard at choosing exactly the right word for the right place. Use words that are direct, colorful, active, emphatic, and fresh. When you can say what you mean with one or two words, DO NOT use four or five. Avoid passive verbs except where you want to bring special attention to the receiver of an action.
In light of this effort, you want to make it a habit to avoid adjectives and adverbs whenever possible. Make your nouns and verbs do the real work of saying what you want to say. You also want to avoid too many exclamation marks. Once in a while, they are very effective, but if you have an article, a story, or a poem full of them, the reader stops feeling their effect.
In poetry especially, emphasis can be added to words simply by where they are placed in the poem. The first and last words in a line – and the first and last lines themselves – automatically give emphasis to what’s being said. Sometimes the rhythm chosen will put added stresses on just the right words, and even using inverted sentence order can bring certain words added attention and emphasis. Once in a while repeating a word or phrase is the most powerful way to give it emphasis, but you must be sure not to overuse this tool. Don’t repeat words just because you haven’t spent time looking for a better substitute.
5. If you’re writing poetry, choose a poetic form, meter, and rhyme scheme that match your topic, your tone, and your purpose. Experiment with a number of different poetic forms, meters, and rhyme schemes so that you are comfortable with more than just one or two. That way, when you have an idea for a brand new poem, you can look through your mental file and pick and choose the tools that will make your new piece say EXACTLY what you want.
(Excerpted from Releasing the Creative Writer in You, © 2013 by Sandra Conner)