Today’s guest post is by Fred Johnson.
The late David Foster Wallace (1962–2008) has long been recognized as a literary genius by those qualified to decide such things. His 1996 novel Infinite Jest blew critics away with its complexity, inimitable style, and sheer length, and his other novels, along with his essays, short stories, and works of nonfiction, have been praised as works of startling originality and substance.
While it would be unwise to try to imitate Wallace’s own idiosyncratic style, it’s undoubtedly a good idea to listen to what this giant of American letters had to say about writing and getting stuff done.
So without further ado, here are David Foster Wallace’s eight tips to make you a better writer.
1. Pay Attention
This tip sounds obvious enough, but Wallace isn’t just suggesting you pay attention when writing your book—you have to be vigilant at all times. Watch how people communicate, read as much as you can, and when reading, pay attention to “the way the sentences are put together, the clauses are joined, the way the sentences go to make up a paragraph.”
Wallace believed that the best fiction writers spend a huge portion of their time simply observing others and watching the world, trying to understand its processes.
2. Keep a Dictionary Nearby
For those familiar with Wallace’s work, this tip won’t come as a surprise—Wallace is known today for his adroit navigation of the language and his carefully crafted, remarkably rich sentences.
But even writers of more minimalist prose should not assume they can get by without a dictionary—English boasts almost two hundred thousand words, and a writer should be curious enough to find pleasure in discovering new ways to express him or herself. As Wallace says:
To recognize that you need a usage dictionary, you have to be paying a level of attention to your own writing that very few people are doing… For me, the big trio is a big dictionary, a usage dictionary, a thesaurus […] I cannot retain and move nimbly around in enough of the language not to need these extra sources.
3. Aim for “Effortless Writing”
This tip doesn’t mean you should lie back and not bother putting any effort into your writing (if only it were that easy!), but rather suggests that a reader should not have to struggle to read your work. Coming from the author of the thousand-page, endnote-riddled Infinite Jest, this tip feels a bit hypocritical.
Reading “effortless writing” is easy in the same way that “listening to an incredible storyteller talk out loud requires no effort to pay attention. Whereas when you’re bored, you’re conscious of how much effort is required to pay attention.”
How best to do this? Be evocative, observant, and articulate. Understand what makes people tick, evoke your readers’ senses, and avoid flowery and pretentious language. Read as much as you can!
4. Write Your First Draft by Hand
This tip is related to Wallace’s insistence that writers need to pay attention. Writing by hand, Wallace suggests, slows the process down, meaning that the writer has more time to think about what he/she is doing.
The first two or three drafts are always longhand. . . . I can type very much faster than I can write. And writing makes me slow down in a way that helps me pay attention.
As a diehard typist, this is something I’m keen to try. Maybe success is only a pen and paper away.
5. Don’t Forget the Reader
Writing, more than anything else, is about communication. Communicating effectively means forgetting yourself for a moment and remembering that your readers are human beings who don’t know you, who don’t find you intrinsically interesting, and who can’t read your mind. They will have their own hopes, fears, opinions, and doubts. Somehow, as a writer, you have to reach them and touch something within them. In this sense, Wallace suggests, writing well is more about spirit than it is about intellect:
Spirit means I never forget there’s someone on the end of the line, that I owe that person certain allegiances, that I’m sending that person all kinds of messages, only some of which have to do with the actual content of what it is I’m trying to say.
Wallace goes further still, suggesting that the writer cannot assume that readers will automatically find his or her writing as fascinating as he/she does:
I am not, in and of myself, interesting to a reader. If I want to seem interesting, work has to be done in order to make myself interesting.
6. Don’t Worry Too Much About Talent
The question of whether innate talent is more important than tenacious drive has been hotly debated by writers, artists, and creatives of all kinds for centuries. Wallace weighs in, suggesting that although talent will grant writers a head start, it’s not the be-all-and-end-all—if you’re going to be successful, you’re going to have to put in the work, no matter how talented you are. Gifted writers, Wallace says, are “not always the best writers in the room because the other part of it is it takes a heck of a lot of practice. Gifted, really really gifted writers, pick stuff up quicker, but they also usually have a great deal more ego invested in what they write.”
He goes on to reassure those of us who probably cannot be considered “really really gifted”: “Good writing isn’t a science. It’s an art, and the horizon is infinite. You can always get better.”
Well, thank heavens for that.
7. Look out for “Vogue Expressions” and Cliché
This tip goes back to Wallace’s earlier assertion that a dictionary should be a writer’s best friend. Writers should try to communicate what they mean using the language best suited for the job, not the language that happens to be trendy, clichéd, or frequently used.
This, in part, is the key to cultivating a unique writer’s voice and to crafting original prose. Wallace has this to say:
The more attention one pays, the more one is immune to the worst excesses of vogue words, slang, you know. Which really I think on some level for a lot of listeners or readers, if you use a whole lot of it, you just kind of look like a sheep—somebody who isn’t thinking, but is parroting.
8. Don’t Chase Perfection
One of the most common reasons people who want to write can’t bring themselves to begin is the fear of producing something imperfect. As something of a lazy perfectionist myself, this tip rings especially true for me.
Writers from Zadie Smith to Neil Gaiman have warned against perfectionism, and Wallace adds that writers who have studied literature or creative writing are more likely to be aware of the failures of their own work.
While this can be discouraging, in the long run it is a good thing: “If I’m not aware of some deficits, I’m not going to be working hard to try to overcome them.”
Wallace offers no solution to perfectionism, but simply points out that “like any kind of infinitely rich art, or any infinitely rich medium, like language, the possibilities for improvement are infinite and so are the possibilities for screwing up and ceasing to be good in the ways you want to be good.”
In other words, you’re going to fail, you’re going to succeed—just make sure you’re doing something. Words to live by.
Fred Johnson is an editor for Standout Books, where he helps authors take their manuscripts from good to perfect. In his spare time he writes bad poetry and worries about the future. Connect with Fred on Twitter and LinkedIn, or visit his blog.