Four Mantras All Writers Know And Love

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I’m on a writing retreat with my younger sister and family this weekend, and we’re editing, writing, and working on several projects (from crochet to design to catching up on other unfinished ideas).

We were sitting by the ocean, bantering about writing and editing. She shared four “writing mantras,” from one of her favorite teachers, and we both realized that these are rules we live by in our own writing practice. I loved them and I thought I’d share.

If you can’t read well, you can’t write well. The most important thing you can do to be a better writer is read. I recently listed a years’ worth of my favorite books, and I’m already embedded in at least half a dozen new novels, historical accounts, and business books this month alone. Immersing yourself in good quality writing is the best teacher.

There is no good writing, there is only good re-writing. When I work with new writers, I often tell them to expect the first page to be “full of shit, with a few gems hidden in there somewhere.” It takes time, patience, and a whole bunch of red-lines to work with words on a page. It also takes the courage to put words down on paper without initial judgment or concern. Just do it, and let yourself write. Don’t let your judgment of yourself preclude you from starting in the first place. Trust that it can continue to get better with editing, time, and practice.

The goal is not complex words and simple ideas, but simple words and complex ideas. If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough. Writing does not need to be complicated, pretentious, confusing, or full of jargon. To me, writing is a process for building understanding for yourself, and others. For myself, I often copy notes, explore ideas, and re-work words on a page just to tango with an idea until it makes sense in my mind. If I can’t explain it to people, then I’m not well-versed enough in the concept. Writing is a tool for communication (externally) as well as understanding (internally). Often, much of my writing is just about my words, rants, ideas, and explorations–before any of it gets shared with anyone else.

What you take out is just as important as what you leave in. Getting to a clear, simple essay or point is not straightforward. Often, I have to write 5-6 pages just to get to a distillation of one great paragraph. It’s part of the process.

What are your writing dreams and goals? Are you upping the ante with your writing? I’ve recently received multiple messages from people who want to be writing more. My advice? Do it, and do it as often as possible. A little is a lot.

 

 

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12 Responses to Four Mantras All Writers Know And Love

  1. Laura Kimball says:

    You always turn out the most amazing posts, Sarah! And the fact that you’re on a writing retreat is just pure-awesome.

    Anyway, I like #3 and your point about writing simply. That’s my philosophy too. You don’t need a dollar-word when a nickel-word will do the trick. I know too many people who use the longest, most obtuse word they can think of in everyday speech to describe what an average person would in one word. It’s interesting, unnecessary, and usually they don’t come from a writing background.

    Great tips, Sarah! Hope you have a creative rest of your trip!

  2. Jennifer Funk says:

    These are really great mantras, Sarah. No matter how often I hear them, it’s always nice to hear them again. More than anything, they affirm the fact that I’m doing the right things most of the time. I do struggle, though, with #2. It seems it’s more of a time thing than anything else. Once I get the words down for the first time, I’m often ready to move on to the next piece of writing because new writing ideas are bubbling inside me and there never seems to be enough time to give to the old piece and the new. Needless to say I have a few unfinished pieces..

    Anyway, I always enjoy your posts and look forward to details about the writing retreat.

    Happy writing!

  3. Roseann says:

    Hi Sarah,
    Excellent post!
    I had an English Composition professor who was tough, but excellent. I turned out my best papers after taking his class. He has since passed, but has left his imprint on thousands of students. When my friends and I talk about writing something, we say we’re going to “channel our inner Figge”.
    Your post reminds me of some of his favorite rules about writing.
    I feel much better about writing pages and pages, and distilling it into one quality paragraph.
    Very encouraging!
    Thank you,
    Roseann

  4. Jenn says:

    I need to print these and tape it to the top of my laptop. I need to read more! When I read it inspires new ideas. Most of my best work has been inspired by something I read and applies to a new topic. Revision is also important. Sometimes I am scared to cut anything. I think it is because my writing time is so precious (I have 3 kids) and I feel like if I cut, then I have wasted that time. It’s the final product that matters!

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  6. […] Four writing mantras: how to become a great writer. I’m on a writing retreat with my younger sister and family this weekend, and we’re editing, writing, and working on several projects (from crochet to design to catching up on other unfinished ideas). We were sitting by the ocean, bantering about writing and editing. She shared four “writing mantras,” from one of her favorite teachers, as rules to remember to become a great writer. […]

  7. Sam Davidson says:

    Great advice. Thanks for sharing.

    I think it was Hemingway who said, “Write drunk. Edit sober.”

    So, I’ll add that to the list.

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  10. […] mind through the ritual of daily writing and thought. Check out the conversation with my sister on four writing mantras for any writer, the page I’ve built on storytelling and narrative, and practice using better […]

  11. Love this, Sarah. This one is particularly fun: “What you take out is just as important as what you leave in.” I love hacking up my writing. It’s a lot easier for me than the actual “writing” part. Love your ambitious goal for March! Hope you crush it.

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