If you want to be a better writer, you must put it out there. Forget talent, forget brilliance, or trying to be clever. If you want to improve your writing, and therefore become a better writer, you must write and write and write. Revision. Restructuring. Rewriting. Live it and breathe it.
And read and read and read. There are no shortcuts. One must live the life. Being a man or woman of letters is a way of life. It all begins there. If you are willing to adopt the lifestyle, then chances are that you will improve, and even go places.
A student of the writing life is by connection, a student of the life of the mind, a student of literature, a student of thinking. A person like this reads like she breathes. Every free moment is spent actually reading something; that is, when you are not writing something.
What most students do not understand about being an honors or Advanced Placement student in English is that it involves a lifestyle. There is no one volume to read. There are no specific years or eras to study. One usually has adopted the lifestyle from a young age. Was there a time when one did not read? The student cannot remember it. Reading just always was. In the morning, while eating breakfast, a student read the cereal box, front, back and sides. In school, the student may or may not have excelled, but could always be found in the library reading strange books not assigned by the teacher. In high school, I knew guys who would blow off whole days of school to read philosophy, or mysteries, or Camus. School books were pedantic; if you were a student of literature, you were never satisfied with the anemic reading list of the English classroom. You were way beyond that.
No, it was not a matter of arrogance, although there is a certain amount of arrogance implied in being a writer, as book critic David L. Ulin says. You are grabbing someone by the lapels and demanding that he read your latest essay: that is arrogant, in a way.
Many readers and writers are shy people. They like a cold, dark day where they can curl up in a favorite chair and read. These people may be shy on the surface, but they are not shy in print, or with print. They know what they want to say; they know what they want to read.
In my classroom, I know who these people are. They are the ones who pull out a book to read, even when there are only a few minutes to spare. Sometimes, they read right through my lectures, or when they are assigned other work. I should interrupt them, force them to get back on task, but I can’t. I know the land they inhabit. I have been there myself many times, and I have been known to go back there when I should be writing something, or grading some papers, or doing something more productive. So when I see the girl in the fourth row reading a Gossip Girl novel, the fifth Harry Potter book, or Catch-22, I have to ignore it. For the good of readers everywhere, I have to let her go.
These students may also not read the assignments as thoroughly as other, more classroom-motivated students. When the papers are returned, these students often have higher grades. They tell the student across the aisle “I barely studied for this.” Yet there is the higher grade. In a nutshell, they are used to reading like a true literature student. Therefore, the knowledge comes to them more easily. In addition, they are often naturally good writers, and so their first draft of an in-class essay comes out better than another student who has stayed up for two days trying to read through the novel and then write coherently about it in forty minutes. They are better because they live the life and practice the skills.
These are the students who think through in their minds the story they wish to tell. Their very thoughts are organized in narrative fashion. Does this skill come naturally? In part, but it also comes from practice. This is the thing they do well, like other people play football, or drive a car, or throw pottery. This is the way they deal with the world, indeed, how they access the world. It is the main conduit, this reading/writing lifestyle, of living.
The AP exam in both language and literature tests things a student might have learned in the English classroom going back to at least third grade. Unlike many other AP exams, there is no finite text or course to study. It includes everything, although both exams focus primarily on the sixteenth century forward. Still, a student must know major mythologies, religious texts, early forms of writing as reference points for what comes later. One must get the connections and allusions and references to ancient literatures and cultures, to current events and politics. It is truly everything—English, history, philosophy, rhetoric, sociology, psychology—and accessed primarily through writing. The multiple choice section of the exams is worth forty-five percent of the total score; the essays are worth fifty-five percent. The test even leans toward the better writers!
So, you may ask, what if I adopt the lifestyle? What if I am like this? I spend my summer nights reading under the covers with a flashlight. I read every Harry Potter book, made every voyage with Horatio Hornblower, solved the mysteries with the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, followed all the plot threads in the course of the Narnia Chronicles, and now I read like I eat or breathe. Bookstores are places I will haunt when I die. I was on the river with Huck and Jim. I shadowed Holden around Central Park, and I walked Boo Radley home with Scout after he saved Jem’s life. Will I, how do I, become a better English student?
What about writing?
Oh, I do that too, you would say. I keep a journal. I write for my school paper and literary magazine. I am obsessive about rewriting my papers, continuing to polish my work, until it shines like golden orbs of essay brilliance. I enter every writing contest. I submit pieces to newspapers and magazines without telling them I am still in high school. Now I even tell them. Anything to be able to submit and may be see a story of mine in print. I have notebooks filled with stories, essays, poems, like Emily Dickinson did. And if someone took away all my pens, I would continue to write in my own blood. What else can I do to be a better writer?
Keep going. A lifestyle is for life. And I will not tell you that books and writing take the place of falling in love, or having a child, or knowing your parents are proud of you. But the literature and writing life will teach you about those things, and how to appreciate them when they happen to you. Good books teach us how to live. Being a good writer means capturing the experience for others who come after you. If you are willing, and you are committed, it is a wonderful journey.
Just a few of many books that celebrate and enhance reading and writing:
Readings by Michael Dirda
Book By Book by Michael Dirda
An Open Book by Michael Dirda
The Delights of Reading by Otto L. Bettmann
The Literary Companion by Emma Jones
The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White
The Writer’s Mentor by Ian Jackman
On Writing Well by William Zinsser
Robert’s Rules of Writing by Robert Masello
Woe Is I by Patricia T. O’Conner