Writing: The X Factor

There’s this thing called the X-Factor. It’s what makes your writing sing.

This is the fifth in a five part series on writing.

The X Factor is this is the unteachable element.

If something’s unteachable, you have to tack. Tacking is a technique sailors use when they want to take a sailboat directly into the wind. Well, you can’t do it. So you go at a 45 degree angle, sideways. Then, to stay on course, you go into the wind sideways the other direction for a while.

How do you tack when it comes to growing in the X-factor?

Tack left: engage the arts. Read. Read challenging things. Read the great Russian writers. See good art at museums or fine art galleries. Watch interesting films with plots. I prefer foreign films, they’re less predictable. Listen to music you don’t normally gravitate to.

Tack right: work on the basics again. Do the four exercises from the previous four weeks. Grow in all four of the other areas, tack towards the muse, and you’ll grow in this area too. You’ll learn to recognize it, for one thing, when it happens to you.

The last thing you have to do is keep consulting the compass as a good sailor would to make sure you’re still headed where you want to go. This means getting feedback from writers you respect, and taking them seriously.

I’m still tacking a lot. My two books are The Art of Motivational Listening (2015) and White Buffalo Gold (2012). See the bookstore for how to order.

Five days (or six) to becoming a better writer: Day One

My first rule of thumb is if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. In other words, if you are cruising right along with your writing, don’t stop to read this. However, I am assuming to some extent that you’re not cruising or you wouldn’t bother searching articles like this one. Unless you’re not sure:

You may wonder, “what if my writing is going well, but isn’t very good? I’m producing, but I keep producing stuff nobody wants to read?”

First of all, there’s a difference between writing trash and writing good stuff without an audience. Great writing will find an audience eventually if you’re persistent. You may have to travel through multiple iterations of marketing to get to the far side of the galaxy where the audience awaits, but be selective regarding which critics may tell you whether or not your work is good.

Now, if you’ve determined it isn’t good, you need to determine how you need to grow. That is the focus of this series, where I will hone in on five areas and talk about practical methods you can use to improve. You may take five minutes each day of the week to work on them, so perhaps this one is for Monday.

  1. My spelling, grammar and punctuation are sloppy.

Now we have something to work with. I don’t believe that any writer can churn out rough drafts with any consistency and concern themselves with their grammar and punctuation, but sometimes we do get hung up on whether or not we’re writing clean copy. Trust me, you’re not, and you need to just keep going. But on the other hand, it’s hard for me to proceed if I know I have a misspelling, so I understand the emotional obstacle here. When Word or WordPress underlines a word in red, I have to play with it. You don’t really have to worry about this to crank out a manuscript, but you do need to know your stuff even when you employ an editor. I have two prime examples. For my first novel, my editor told me that few people would know what “pad Thai” is ( a quick informal survey on Facebook resulted in 100% of respondents saying that of course they know what it is) and this resulted in a debate on whether to italicize it or not, and on my newest book “The Art of Motivational Listening” my editor corrected “Canada goose” to “Canadian goose” and I had to re-correct her. This is a common error; many people do not know that “Canada goose” is the correct nomenclature.

How do you get better in five minutes a day?

Grammar, punctuation and spelling are all, unfortunately, a matter of memorization. But in five minutes a day you could read through Strunk and White, looking for one thing that you didn’t know, and keeping it in mind throughout the day. In fact, you might even make a new flashcard each day to help you remember things. Does the comma go inside the quotation mark? Which is the principle and which is the principal? What’s the difference between capital and capitol? I was lucky and I got drilled on this stuff in both 6th and 9th grades. To be sure, it was dry, but I got a good education. If you never had a teacher who cared, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn it now. Even though I had great teachers, even they messed up on occasion. My 9th grade English teacher once asked the class rhetorically if a poet wasn’t using poetic license when he or she used the word “hippopotami” and I had to tell her (cocky brat that I was) that it was indeed in the dictionary as a legitimate alternate spelling for the plural of hippopotamus, therefore a poor example of poetic license. (The shame of the story was that she did not change her lesson plan and three years later my brother made the same correction).

Nobody knows everything. Do this exercise five minutes a day for the rest of your life, and you’ll still need an editor. But the first step to better writing from a technical standpoint comes from memorization of the rules. Sorry to break it to ya. If you didn’t do it in school, do it now.

One last thing: what about vocabulary? I’ve talked about grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Vocabulary is really something to discuss in a different section; keep reading and you’ll see why.

See the bookstore for ways to purchase my novel “White Buffalo Gold” (2012) and my non-fiction book “The Art of Motivational Listening” (2015). They were both edited by people who made very few mistakes indeed and the copy is tighter than my blogs are!