There is a four volume set of interviews which originally appeared in the renowned literary journal, The Paris Review.
I remember when I first learned of these books I put them on my “wish list,” though I waited a number of years to splurge and buy them for myself. I had read a few of the interviews before, on the Paris Review website back in the days when reading something like this on a website was new and novel, and I instinctively knew I wanted to read more.
Why? Because these interviews gave a behind the scenes look into the writing process. They gave some answers, or at least hinted at some answers, to questions I had about writing.
How Do I Develop Writing Instincts?
I think the questions I had were pretty basic. They were the kinds of things I asked when I was a new writer, and the kinds of things I am often asked when someone finds out I spend large chunks of my time crafting and re-crafting words.
- Where do you get your ideas?
- How do you keep motivated?
- What keeps you coming back to writing?
- How do you make the writing better? Like real writing?
In fact, if I really think about it, almost all of the questions I’ve ever asked other writers, or looked for answers to in books, really come back to that final, central question: How do I make my writing better?
As a wide reader, I’ve read plenty of really good stories and books, along with a fair share of bad ones. All of that reading developed a quality sensor in me, and when I compared my work to that of higher-quality writing, I knew my stories were lacking…something.
The difficulty was (and sometimes, still is) that I wasn’t exactly sure what that something was. There was an undefinable element (or three) missing from my writing, and I understood that perhaps there was a way to define and improve on those missing pieces.
What I found in those interviews was two-fold: yes, there was some concrete advice to be harvested, but there was also a reliance on what I would call writing instincts.
Much like the instinct I had that something was missing from my own writing, veteran writers had a finely tuned radar for spotting trouble and avoiding it. They had developed ways around common pitfalls and seemed to naturally produce finer work.
Once I understood this, the question became slightly different: Is this a natural, innate instinct, or is there a way to develop writing instincts in such a way that I could improve my writing.
Obviously, since I spend so much of my life learning about writing and passing that learning on to others, I do believe writing instincts can be developed. Below, I will tell you how I developed mine.
Understand the Elements of Storytelling
Have you ever been to a fine restaurant and thought, “I wish I could make this at home!”
The first way to reproduce the gourmet dish is to understand the recipe. Sure, if you have a refined palate, you can probably guess some of the ingredients. But to really get the dinner right, having a recipe is a great help.
I think this is how most writers start, actually: They have a sense of why good books are good books, and they start to try their own hand at it.
The elements of storytelling (plot, character, setting, dialogue, detail) are like a basic cooking class: An understanding of these key ingredients goes a long way to making a tasty dish.
When we begin to take great books or stories and break them down into their component parts, we begin to see HOW other writers have attempted to create a great literary feast. Once we see HOW this has been done, we can even begin to consider WHY the author chose this method, or this combination of ingredients.
As we ponder these questions, we are developing our own writerly radar.
Try and Fail
Analysis like this helps us get more and more adept at understanding what elements work together to make a spicy literary meal, but until we attempt to try them in our own work, this understanding is just head knowledge.
My grandmother used to spend hours and hours reading cookbooks. Yes. Reading cookbooks.
When I was young, I didn’t understand that. What is there to read??
But here’s the thing: My grandmother had a vast knowledge of cooking. She could read a recipe and almost taste the end result. She understood, from years of trial and error, how this ingredient might mix with that one. And when she found something new, it would pique her interest. It would give her another tool for her cooking tool box.
Trial and error is important for us all. Trial and error is where we can take the knowledge, and see how it actually applies in our own work.
If someone were reading recipes for years and years, but never trying to put it to use, what would be the point? If we read and read and read books, and books about books, and books about writing, but we don’t apply those things to our own words, we are missing out.
And the real truth is this: We probably won’t be masters of writing right away. As we write and write, though, we begin to see improvement. Our voice develops. Our words start to pick up some of those hard-to-define qualities of rhythm, cadence, impact. We develop an ability to imagine the taste of a food dish, just from reading the recipe, and that has reverberating impact throughout our writing.
Get Quality Feedback
As long as we are actually writing, now, we might as well gather some information on how close we are to hitting the targets we are aiming at.
I’ve talked a lot about the write-feedback-revise loop, and in this particular post, I want to focus on only the long-term benefits of engaging with quality feedback.
When you solicit quality feedback, what you are really doing is measuring your success. You’ve tasted your new soup recipe so many times as you add this spice and that one, your tastebuds are dull to the overall effect. You need a taster to give you fresh feedback.
Feedback for your writing has another benefit: It helps continue to refine and develop your writing instincts. You will find, after you’ve been told about some error you make on a regular basis, you will begin to spot that error as you edit your work. Then, you will start to identify the error while you are drafting, and you can quickly fix it. Then, you will grow to a place where you catch yourself just before you make the mistake. And finally, you will come to the place where the common error is no longer a part of who you are as a writer.
Sure, there will always be things to fix or edit or refine. That’s part of good writing. But as your writing instincts develop, so will the quality of your first drafts and the thoroughness of your revisions.
Learn to Focus Growth
Finally, as your writing instincts gain traction, you will learn to focus your growth efforts. You’ll identify your strengths and weaknesses, which will help you be more selective in what you do to improve yourself.
Maybe punctuation is a problem that every reader of your work points out to you. Read a book on punctuation.
Maybe you are plot-heavy and character-thin: Find a writer or writing teacher who is good at character development, and work to improve your own work.
Maybe you just discovered that your dialogue is lacking: Focus on resources for improving and deepening the impact of dialogue in your work.
When we know where we need to grow, we can focus our efforts there. This will dramatically accelerate our improvement and aid our efforts to develop writing instincts. Over time, we will find ways to improve our writing so that the gap between our work and the literary classics becomes more and more narrow.