Whether you’re a copywriter, a journalist, a press release peddler, a social media guru or a ‘content producer’, it’s worth paying a visit to departing Metro editor Simon Wilson’s school for people who can’t write good. Here’s what he’s learned about the mysterious art of writing over the years.
1. THERE IS NO WRITE CLUB
It’s a solitary occupation.
“A writer is someone for whom writing is harder than it is for others.” – Thomas Mann.
Write all the time.
“A writer is someone who writes, as opposed to someone who is going to write in the very near future.” – Louis Menand.
Keep a notebook with you.
Finish, leave it alone and come back to it later.
Read every day.
Write every day.
Don’t give up when nothing happens.
2. BE ENTERTAINING
Be funny, and clever, and insightful.
Tell a story.
Readers want to know the consequences of everything that happens. If you keep answering the question, “And then?”, you will tell a gripping story.
Writing is about subtext.
Subtext is the meaning of things that is revealed by what happens, not what you tell the reader. Subtext delivers theme, and understanding it is power for the reader. (The Hunger Games is not about killing people. It’s about courage and honour and love and learning how to be a person you can be proud of.)
Pretend you’re on TV.
Read it aloud. Listen to yourself. Would you switch channels?
All writing has the same rules: textbooks would be brilliant if they were written to be read on TV.
Make it as good as you can.
Draft, revise, leave it, revise. Read it aloud. Revise.
3. OFFEND SOMEONE
Free speech exists at the edge of things.
It’s meaningless if everyone just says harmless things. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” – Voltaire.
Satire isn’t satire unless it attacks someone.
Offence is an air freshener.
Have a moral code.
You can be as critical as you like of things that are wrong, provided you also have a sense of what’s right.
Satire isn’t the same thing as cynicism. Cynicism is corrosive, of you as well as of your subject, because cynics are merely people who complain about everything. Cynics are toddlers with better language skills.
4. CONSIDER YOURSELF A NOBLE BEAST
Writers are noble because they speak truth to power.
Writers are beasts because it’s not their job to be nice.
Writers are not their subject’s friend.
Go easy on the defenceless.
Be fair: put criticism in perspective.
Be humane. Remember you are dealing with people’s livelihoods and values and good name.
5. THERE ARE NO RULES OF WRITE CLUB
No one knows anything.
Film producers don’t know what movies will make money.
Writers don’t recognise their own best work. Know this about yourself.
Formulas are death.
Fifth Gear is not Top Gear.
6. LEARN SOME FACTS
Good facts give weight to opinion.
Tell them something they don’t know.
Knowing the facts helps save you from your own bigotry.
Study your subject.
Look for the little things that tell you about the bigger things. The body language: the way they dress and move and sit and relate to people.
Use anecdotes to illuminate all that.
Get the facts right: check everything.
7. KNOW YOUR READERS
What is your purpose?
Do you want to persuade your readers to your view, or do you want to reinforce what they already think?
Do they want the truth, or do they want to feel good about themselves?
And what do you feel about that?
Write to please yourself.
You’re writing for readers, not to impress yourself. But you have to like it too.
8. OPEN YOUR MIND
Read the enemy.
Test your views against those of people you don’t agree with.
Open your mind, seek out what’s good in their thinking and enjoy their good writing.
9. PRETEND YOU ARE WRITING ABOUT SEX
Powerful writing is about things that are not easy to discuss.
It reveals secrets that change our understanding and experience of the world.
The illuminating feature is what makes good writing true.
It’s the thing that lets you understand the significance of something.
The truth is more important than stuff.
Tease your views out to their dangerous extreme.
10. THERE IS NO WRITE CLUB
What you know to be true and important will conflict with your life.
You may lose friends, the respect of others, work, money.
Value your self-respect above all these things.
You’re on your own.
Don’t let it go to your head. You’re not more important than everyone else. You’re just a writer.
- This article originally appeared on metro.co.nz. Wilson will continue to work with Metro as contributing editor.