I’ve been teaching college English composition and literature since 1998 and have been a part of writers’ groups during that time. Over that period, I’ve seen a lot of first or early drafts. It’s shown me what writers are going to be easy to edit and which ones will be work. Here are my observations:
1. Good writers are good readers.
The more you read, the more times you see how other writers have solved the problem of writing. You’ve heard the idea before, I hope, that poor writers invent, while great writers steal. That gets attributed to a variety of sources, but the point is that rather than having to reinvent at every step, there are tricks of writing and techniques of writing and flourishes of writing that others have come up with. You can adapt those to your own needs.
Besides, the more you read, the more ideas and knowledge you have in your head. This leads me to my next point:
2. Good writers research.
You need to know the journalist’s questions–who, what, where, when, how, and why–about your story well enough to write a book. In fact, that’s what you’re doing. I’ve pointed out one example over at a personal blog, English 301: Reading and Writing, but that’s just one of infinitely many. You won’t dump piles of this information into long expository passages–unless you have a time machine that will take you back to the nineteenth century–but all of this knowledge will color the actions, settings, speech patterns, and so forth to be found in your story.
Take a look at Patrick O’Brian’s work. He’s the author of Master and Commander and the books that followed in that series. He absorbed the period of the Napoleonic Wars and then was the authority of his own writing. Ever notice, by the way, how authority and author have the same root? This is what you must become. Unless you’re inventing everything about your story, you have to do the digging to be the authority. The value is that your writing will be much more vibrant. Another benefit is that your knowledgeable readers will keep your book in their hands, instead of chucking it across the room.
But knowledge isn’t the only thing you need. English teachers and language mavens will unite to cover your book in red ink if you make basic errors in grammar and spelling. Thus my third desideratum:
3. Grammar and spelling matter.
Do you know this book? Stephen King himself recommends it in his guide, On Writing. But that’s not the only worthy volume to show you the basic rules. Are those rules hard? Yes. Cry me a river, build a bridge, and get over it. Grammar and spelling are the vehicles by which ideas are conveyed from the writer to the reader. This doesn’t mean that you have to sound like an English professor (but I’ll love you if you do), nor does it mean that your characters have to speak the King’s (or Queen’s or whatever current version of a monarch that we revolted against is on the throne) English. But if you violate a rule, you need to know that you’re doing it and know why you’re doing it.
Beyond those, it’s a good idea if you study the elements of storytelling:
4. Technique matters.
Here I’m talking about dialogue, descriptive writing, internalization, and, as we see in the picture, point of view. Those are the framework of writing good stories, just as the other things I’ve discussed are the foundation. They are not the story. But without them, your story won’t be something that readers want to devote hours of their time to plowing through, and that means that they won’t spend the money to buy your book.
Now, once you’ve accounted for all of this, is the book done? Oh, no. Not even close. But doing these things will save you time and money during the editing and publishing process and will draw in devoted readers to you, the author of good books. We’ll talk about that editing process in detail soon. Until then, keep reading, keep writing, and keep submitting.