How to write

I was pretty tempted to echo that old thing about, “You know how to whistle, dont you? You just pucker up and….”  but I thought better of it. The subject is a lot more complicated than that.

I’ve read and heard an awful lot about writing and especially how to write and I figured it was time to add my pennyworth. Anything said here is purely my opinion and I offer no facts and figures and statistics. It also needs to be said that I have as much right(or as little) as anyone to offer my opinion on this subject.

I’ve heard a lot about shoulds and gifts and discipline and planning and intuition and inspiration. I’ve heard that if you consider yourself a writer you should write every day even if you don’t want to. I’ve heard that you should plan every detail of your plot before you ever pen the opening lines. I’ve heard that you must honour your gift. I’ve heard of people who determine how many words they produce every day and those who write as much or as little as they feel is right. You can compare and contrast Anthony Trollope who wrote exactly a thousand words every day before his work as a postmaster began with William Golding, whose masterpiece Lord of the Flies was written in a frenzy of creativity in a space of about three days.



Got it?

There are as many ways and methods of writing as there are writers. We are each unique. In the course of a writing lifetime, you may try out many ways and be trying new methods till the day you die, or you may try a few, settle on what feels best and stick with it. I’ve tried a lot of things over my long writing career so far and I know that what works best for me can and will change. I generally write fiction in the third person but I have written one novel and a number of short stories in the first.  I do write almost every day, but there are days when all I write are a few emails, and maybe a shopping list. I know that if I make a rule for myself (a thousand words a day, two poems before breakfast..) I will almost immediately sabotage myself and find it impossible to do. It’s the same reason why the only exercise routines that have ever worked for me require me to not make it a matter of rule and why having a dog is the only reason I get fresh air almost every day in winter….

We are complex beings and when it comes to writing, there are no rules. Oh, and if you worry about grammar and spelling, don’t. Your grammar is probably better by far that you imagine; just because you can’t name tenses or tell me what a parenthesis is doesn’t mean you don’t have grammar. You grew up learning grammar as naturally as breathing. If your spelling is rubbish, invest in a good spellchecker or get a friend to look it over. Grammar and spelling are the bricks and mortar of writing and not, to be honest, terribly interesting in themselves or even very useful in writing well. If it really worries you, do a course in English language or buy a few books on grammar so you can check your grammar if you have uncertainties.

To write well is a nebulous thing that is almost impossible to quantify but good writing is often unobtrusive writing. You notice the story and not the elegance of the sentence construction or the choice of adjectives. Like the cut of a good suit, it should draw attention to the body inside it and not the outward appearance that clothes it.

I’m not a fan of experimental writing, because it does seem to be drawing attention to itself and not what it is trying to express. It can be terribly clever but it’s not something I want to read because I read generally for the story. Story is the animal that drives fiction. In simple terms, to write fiction you have to have something to say, and that something is a story. Even if your purpose is ideological (Animal Farm anyone?) the story is the meat of the thing. If you have nothing to say, then say nothing, or wait until you have something to say.

I’m also not a fan of creative writing courses. This is partly an irrational dislike that is linked to my resistance to rules but it’s more than that. I do wonder how many naturally talented people have had their talent warped or crushed by such courses. I’ve heard a few accounts of courses that made me shudder, ones led by people with huge egos and a massive need to put others down. Such people want to make people write like them or the favourite writer of the moment; the students are asked to write in the style of X, Y or Z and are marked on that. For me, a course needs to help people find their own style, by trial and error and not by mimicking others. Of course, one does this to some extent, especially as a teenager, but ultimately every writer needs to find their own voice. So many of the courses seem to do just the opposite. In addition to this, I don’t believe you can teach anyone to write who lacks the basic talents. There are plenty of people who like the thought of being a writer but have no heartfelt understanding of what this actually means;  for those, it means maybe playing with words in an entertaining way.  

Write your way, whatever that is. If that means blank verse only or haikus, or short stories or whatever, fine. If you write best at night, don’t listen to anyone who tells you that the best writing is done in the morning when the day is fresh. If it helps you to have a daily goal of so many words, great, stick with it. If you can only write on a Sunday, then write on a Sunday. If you can’t plan but you can splurge and write ten thousand words at a go and then work out where you go from there, then do that. If you can only begin when you’ve got every freckle and line on your heroine’s face mapped out in triplicate, then go for it.

You are you and I am I. What works for me may not work for you and vice versa. By all means try other things; it’s good for you to experiment and explore but above all, be true to yourself and listen to your own inner voice. If that voice tells you that you can write a novel when you’ve only ever written short stories, listen to it.

Be the writer you want to be and not what other people tell you you should be. Just as your DNA is unique, so too is your writing voice.



36 thoughts on “How to write

  1. re …”Be the writer you want to be and not what other people tell you you should be. Just as your DNA is unique, so too is your writing voice.” ….
    hello Viv 🙂 Your above ending lines are a very apt summary.

    There’s not a lot more I can add to what you’ve said but I’m pasting in quotes (addressed to a friend on my “About Me” page) as a follow-up support of your excellent comprehensive and very helpful dissertation.

    ” ….I take the view that one should read widely, study the subject, practice the art and be true to one’s self. We are all fallible but we gain experience as we go along with our writing.”….
    ….. ” my ending advice to you is to enjoy what you do and the rest will fall into place as time goes on if you love (and have a deep feeling for) what you are doing” ….

    Thanks for your great post, Viv, very lucid in narrative and helpful in subject matter. Well done indeed!


    • Hi John,
      thanks for the addition; very well put!
      I had a very severe falling out with someone about two years ago now over this very matter; the now ex friend maintained there was only one way to write, that you HAD to do a course on it and that grammar and spelling were vital and that typos should be punishable by death(ok, so I exagerrate this a bit). All this after she had picked my brains on all I knew about the publishing industry and getting an agent etc. We ended up with a budding friendship in utter ruins and a professional relationship in jeopardy, because I wouldn’t concede that I knew nothing about writing or that her ways were best. I came away bruised, humiliated and distrustful and with my writing ability seriously compromised by the almost total destruction of my self confidence. I’m still trying to rebuild. I know how silly it is for someone like me, who has written for over 40 years, written dozens of novels, a solid body of poetic work, short stories, articles (indeed, some in very prestigious magazines) to be so discombobulated by someone whose experience was greatly limited both in writing and in life; but self belief is a fragile thing, a soap bubble blown by a playful child and easily popped.
      Thanks for your kind words and support!


  2. Beautifully and rightly said Viv. I agree that creative writing courses are a sure fire way to end all personal creativity. The work springs from a deep personal well of experiences, perceptions and associations and then we send it out on its way. first and foremost, we write for ourselves.

    Once it “flaps its wings” and leaves the nest then its all about how others project onto it. Some will love it, others will like it, and others will judge it according to their own styles and preferences. The story is ours briefly and then, like children , are off on their own.

    The best way I know to write is to do it, re-read it a few times to make it clear and true in the telling and then send it off and wish it well.


    • I don’t know that EVERY creative writing course is death to creativity but it does seem to be a feature of many I have heard about. And, while I have no stats to back this up, most seem to be taught by people who have no been “successful” writers themselves. My former arch nemesis, The Goblin Queen(it’s a long story and was written about here oveer the summer) herself commented that many of her tutors when she did her course were bitter that they had not reached the success they felt they deserved. My motto? Never trust a thin cook!
      I also don’t do the whole write-rewrite-rewrite thing either. Once something is written, it is born, good or bad and apart from a little editorial tinkering should be left well alone. Obviously after a long time writing, you find yourself revisiting themes and ideas and even plots and you can always improve with a new piece. But rewrite? No. Something else I found myself at odds with the Goblin Queen about: she cited James Joyce who rewrote every line umpteen times. I cited William Golding who finished a book and then didn’t look at it again. I know who I as a reader prefer!
      I wrote a poem on the theme of letting go of our work; must post it soon!


  3. Hi Viv,

    This is a fantastic post! I loved each word of it, and I echo every sentiment you expressed in it. I’ll have to drag Mercury to your blog, and make her read this:) She worries when she doesn’t write for a couple of days – I tell her that she shouldn’t – but does she ever listen to me – No…never! She thinks of me as a dumb dog (I think – though she’s never voiced this opinion in front of me.)

    You are absolutely right when you say that there isn’t a right or wrong way to go about writing – and I agree that grammar and spelling are bricks and mortar – the writer’s skill lies in telling the story:)


    Licks n wags,



    • No thank you, Oorvi for reading it!
      I felt and feel very strongly about it, as I explained to Poetraveler John in a comment below, because of a run-in with someone who wouldn’t allow me to hold the opinion that there were many different ways to write and none were intrinsically right or wrong but it was what was right for you that mattered. She rode me for weeks; I offered to simply let us agree to differ. It wasn’t enough, I had to roll over and agree with her entirely; and for once I stood my ground to the very bitter end and began the hardest 18 months of my life so far(well professionally anyway). I think I wrote it as much for myself as for anyone else!
      Tell Mercury not to worry; writing has a way of finding its way out when its ready. I believe that STORY is a kind of psychically based life form that is eager to be born in our flesh and blood world!


  4. Thank you so much for this blog! I came across it quite by accident! I was always wondering why I suddenly started to lose comments, not followers, and that hardly anyone was calling by anymore. You see, I was widowed 4 years ago, at the age of 26, and then last Christmas, I lost my parents, my brother and sister. So, then I thought that maybe my posts were too depressing for some people, even though I did an awful lot of work on them and the pictures, it all just seemed wasted.
    I also wondered a lot about how people can leave just one comment, and you never hear from them again!
    When I started Blogging, I was told to put myself onto as many sites as I could, but again this brought no results. I do still have a few faithful followers, but I’m really thing of getting rid of them all and just becoming a follower instead of waiting for a couple of comments a day. All of this has become so disheartening that I don’t know what to do.
    I totally agree with you that there is no right or wrong way to write, but I was always taught to write about what you know.
    I really need some advice, or someone to tell me where I am going wrong. I do all of my own work, I don’t just put a song on from YouTube and leave it at that, I actually just write what I’m feeling. All of this is getting me so depressed that I feel like just giving it all up. I used to write every night without fail, but lately I’ve just been writing a couple of times a week.
    Could you please tell me where it is that I’m going wrong?
    Wishing you a very Happy New Year.


    • Hello Alice,
      my goodness, you have had a hard time of it. I am impressed with your strength; I’d be a gibbering wreck if that had happened to me. I’ve had my share of sadness, though, and to be honest, I rarely write when I am feeling really bad. At least, I might write but not post. I’ve made some wonderful freinds through blogging, some I now know outside of cyberspace, and some who have become very dear to me.
      I had no idea of what I was doing when I started blogging. I’ve not done many of the things you are “supposed” to do, simply because either it didn’t occur to me, or I couldn’t figure out the technology….I am sometimes a real dim blonde!
      I’m taking a break right now from my New Year’s Eve with family and an old friend, and I shall comment more and also visit your blog over the next couple of days too. But I wanted to say hello and that you are not alone. Nor are you probably doing anything wrong. Write what you know is one of the best pieces of advice going. Maybe write what you know in a different way, a different setting….maybe if you’ve always done romance, try romantic sci fi. I’m gabbling…but I will have a good think about it.
      Tonight is not just New Year’s Eve, and it’s not just a full moon but a blue moon too. I believe in the magic of such conjunctions and it’s said that wishes made at a time like this have power. So tonight, wish well and have assurance of my prayers and good thoughts of everyone who reads this blog.
      bless you,


    • Hello again Alice,
      I’m hoping you have come back to read my comments, so here goes.
      I’ve been and had a scout round your blog and some thing spring to mind. first of all, you are getting more than just a few comments a day. All the posts I have read through have a substantial number of comments; more than I usually get anyway. So maybe your perception that no one is reading and no one is commenting is perhaps a bit skewed. Your overall stats are pretty good for a writing based blog. Poetry and such doesn’t have a huge audience generally.
      Also, who are you writing for? Are you writing primarily for yourself or for an audience? If it’s for an audience, who or what make up the demographic of that audience and are you meeting the requirements for that audience. If it’s for yourself, then why does it worry/depress you that you feel no one is reading? Things to think about.
      I really do not know a lot about blogging; you seem much more au fait with the technicalities than I do. I don’t know how to set up a fraction of the things you have on your blog.
      Do you seek a dialogue with your readers? You answer most if not all the comments, so I suspect you do. Personally I find blogger a real pain to comment on; you have to jump through a lot of hoops. One of my blogging friends uses blogger(well actually several do) and one in particular frequently will not let me post a comment even after I have jumped through the required hoops. It’s offputting and as far as I can see, there isn’t a facility where you can be told when another comment has been added to a thread, so people who post comments can’t easily continue the dialogue. WordPress is an easier format to use for both commenters and blogger alike.
      Anyway, well done on all you’ve achieved. I can’t really comment on the content, because it’s quite different in scope to my own, but you put in a lot of work and you should be proud of it.
      hoping you do get to read this, and every blessing for 2010!


  5. Hi Viv …. re: “Tonight is not just New Year’s Eve, and it’s not just a full moon but a blue moon too. I believe in the magic of such conjunctions and it’s said that wishes made at a time like this have power. So tonight, wish well and have assurance of my prayers and good thoughts of everyone who reads this blog.
    bless you,
    Viv ”

    Well said, Viv! You have all my support and encouragement, as do all who love expressing their thoughts and feelings and sentiments, ideas, observations, and all that is good and vibrant and long lasting, through the power of Writing, whether it is in poetic form or in the body of a wonderful story, or in both, created in the wonderland of narrative and verse.

    Blessings on you dear Viv, and all who pursue the dream.
    May you and yours and those others have a joyful New Year… and if anyone lacks such joy may they find it and share it through pages such as yours. 🙂

    Happy New Year! Viv 🙂

    John…. poettraveler … Writer & Poet, weaver of dreams 🙂


  6. I take the “thief in the night” approach. Steal ideas, styles, unique phrases. Then re-work them into my lingo, my frame of reference which is like none other than my own.

    Not plagerism. But “copy-catting” until it is blended into a new shape that can tantalyze, as well as bring tears to the eyes.

    Write on!

    michael j


    • I think this is something we all do to a greater or lesser extent, but usually unconsciously, Michael. Mind you, I’ve never quite understood the attraction of fan fiction, either to write or to read!


  7. Being influenced by some one else’s style or method, or narrative is, I think, a part of any ‘learning curve’, or research, that goes towards discovery and, following on from this, new creativity.

    When I was a teen ager I was influenced by Rupert Brooke.
    A little later on I ‘discovered’ Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Frost, and as I progressed my literary education began, in my studies, to read widely, and have done so ever since.

    In terms of finding one’s own ‘style’ – it is probably a general truth that we are all, to some extent, touched by other poets, other writers. Speaking for myself (and from the fact that I have been writing poetry for many years) I tend to write about almost everything that I observe, see, experience.

    Over a long period, my ‘poetic voice’ has evolved into a varied style of expression, influenced by observation(s),topic, mood, sentiments, emotions, philosophy-of-thought and inspiration being the key, I believe, to almost every thing that arises in creative expression. Often when I am setting down the ‘clay’ of a poem I have a rhythm, almost a song, so to say, running in my mind and this goes toward the meter, flow, and ‘feel’ of what I am trying to say. I am perhaps fortunate in that I don’t have to ‘sweat out’ my poems. Most times they arise easily because of inspiration. I’m grateful for what ever it is that enables this to be so. But there are a few occasions when I am working on a lengthy piece that, because of the structure I am trying to build , require me to carry out more research into the subject matter and then build up my poem around the results and construct a rhyming-shell (I am essentially a rhyming poet, although I do occasionally compose free-verse/blank verse poetry) an example of such a construction can be seen at my link:

    I have enjoyed your post here . It gives food for thought and results in delightful and informative discussion with you and others here.

    John – 🙂


    • Hi John,
      this is very interesting. It’s good to hear how different people work.
      I don’t often use rhyme, but sometimes it just happens and that’s that; it can be no other way, for that poem at that moment. I sometimes get stuck in a rhyming moment and it drives me mad because it will often degenerate into doggerel!!


  8. I’ve been meaning to tell you how much I like this post. I’ve been caught up before in the “write a certain amount” each day. That “show up” philosophy. Never worked for me, and I always felt undisciplined.


    • Bless you Alice, and thank you.
      There are plenty of people for whom a rule becomes a burning need to break it; I am one. Rules that need testing I mean, not the rules that keep things flowing in society. I’m the sort who will automatically refuse to do something because a certain person has asked me to do it or told me to; and the person I refuse most is…you guessed it, myself!
      When I’m fired up to write, when a novel is in full flow, I don’t need to be told to write every day. I just do it, as much as needs to come out.
      If we regulated our body needs in such a rigid way, we’d be a poor species by now. Eat when you are hungry and stop when you’re not is the best way to stay slim(or so I am told)
      happy New year to you; new computer?


  9. I am always amazed, viv, that women continue to argue for my way or the highway in all aspects of their lives: parenting, childbirth, discipline, teaching, writing.
    You wrote: “I’m also not a fan of creative writing courses.” and yet I am going to be facilitating one. This is for newbies. Men incarcerated in a minimum security institution. We shall see what happens.

    I believe that spel is a 4-letter word, and that God invented editors for a purpose. But this is my plan for day one and I am most excited.

    Good post.


    • I’m sure your course is one that is aimed at drawing out the creativity that thse guys never imagined they had!
      I know there are courses out there that I would approve of, just that so many I hear of (from victims!) are not ones I’d consider valuable to me or many.
      And I applied to teach one myself, a while back, too, so I can’t be totally against them per se!
      best of luck with it too, Jenn. Do let us know how it goes. You have what may be either a massive advantage or a huge drawback in that you have (ahem! pun warning!) a captive audience. I’d be very interested to know how it pans out!
      thanks for stopping by!


  10. “There are as many ways and methods of writing as there are writers.”
    I’m so glad you stressed that point Viv 🙂
    for the past 2 years I’ve been reading the volumes of The Paris Review Interviews. And although I love reading and learning about different ways each and every writer works, I actually remember panicking for most of their methods and ways were different than mine.
    I remember thinking “I don’t have the spirit of a writer” 🙂
    It took me some time to realize that there are no methods, systems or formulas for writing, but “There are as many ways and methods of writing as there are writers.” 🙂


    • I’ve had run-ins with various people who tell me their way is the only way and it makes me both sad and mad to hear it. I write one way…but I have written other ways and will write in many different ways before I die. Setting yourself in stone is all very well if you are a gargoyle…..
      As I probably suggested, it can be a by-product of having done creative writing courses, to get stuck on how one writes. In the end, as long as you write, it’s ok.
      I know of at least one person who does all his writing sitting in a cafe; I know of others who can only write if the house is empty. Some can only write longhand, some with a special pen. I used to prefer longhand but now I find I think better with a keyboard and screen, even for poetry.
      For me the difficulty is the incubation period between a dream, a ghost of a story emerging, and the time when I am ready to write it, because that’s when my own spirit is most vulnerable to criticism and the acid of doubt. That’s when I need the most nurturing and understanding, because it can seem as if I am sunk in deep depression (which I am) and when I seem the least like a writer.
      I have a colleague who is currently at the University of Kent doing her pgce; are you still in Kent now?


      • Sorry Michael!
        Yes, you’re close. Post Graduate Certificate in Education. I have resisted doing one because then it locks me into teaching, something I am ambivalent about in English state schools. But the pay is a hell of a lot bettere than what i get teaching English as a foreign language and I get a salary(not a wage) and even a pension….
        Nice to hear from you again. Everything ok with you??


  11. No, I’ll be on my way to Kent probably end of August, my MA programme starts at the 25th of September. I am truly excited about that, I hope I won’t be disappointed 🙂
    I am in Istanbul right now, trying to finish my first novel…:)


    • A close pal of mine went to Istabul in the autumn and loved it; brought me back some frankincense from the spice market…but saffron for another friend made me wish I’d asked for some as well!
      Let me know when you’re in England and I can try and meet you in London if you like!


  12. Comink from plannet Splarg, I am writink in tota yoonik vay. Fust, I must do exeyeses. Small bit like your yoghurt. I am streeeetching, I am bend. Then I am sit on sittink parttts. I am not moov. I am tell self ‘so, you vant vaste your tiem – sokay! I hev the tiem.!’ then I’m writ, or I’m not writ. But I’m not do nuthink othervise. Kay? Angella Scintilla Haloumni


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