The advice below comes courtesy of the good people at Darkwater Syndicate. In the Syndicate's own words, this primer is "faster than a college course and a heck of a lot cheaper."
Brace yourself, though, as those Syndicate guys pull no punches.
The grim truth is that just because you are fluent in a language does not automatically make you a writer. Nor does having a story to tell. Even a great story can be hobbled by poor execution. The manner of execution is what makes writing an art.
If you want to call yourself a writer, you'd better learn how to use words. Words are a writer's tools. While most might use a hammer just to drive a nail in a wall to hang a painting, in the hands of a craftsman that hammer can do much more. The difference does not lie in the tool itself but how it is used.
By the same token, you need to learn how not to use words. While a hammer may suffice to drive a screw into a wall, a better tool may be a screwdriver. Or a power drill. Or a jackhammer.
Master grammar and parts of speech, develop a good vocabulary, and then get to work.
It goes without saying that you can't be a writer unless you write. While there are as many aspiring writers as there are excuses not to write, all these excuses all boil down to either: "I just don't feel like it," or "I can't find the time."
Discipline is key. Face it, writing is work. If it were easy, we wouldn't admire people who do it well. But if you want to be a writer, or if you want to tell that story you left half-finished, you need to get to work. No one but you can (or wants to) do it for you.
As for finding time, you must make time to write. Each week, we at the Syndicate devote a block of uninterrupted time to a writing project. We meet that schedule whether we like it or not. What emerges through our efforts is a first draft so ugly that we would sooner abandon at a stranger's doorstep. Even so, it is better to have something ugly and with potential than to have nothing at all.
Invest in a box of red ink pens. You'll be surprised how quickly you'll run through them. Chances are you'll spend as much time editing as you will writing.
Most writers hate editing, and with good reason. The process is stuffy, tedious, and painful. Stuffy, because you'll need to refer back to all those parts of speech and grammar conventions we referred to earlier. Tedious, because it entails going through your manuscript with a fine-toothed comb. Painful, because you'll not do this just once. Oh no -- your writing isn't finished until you've revised it several times.
Note that we used the word painful and not painstaking. It's pretty obvious that writing is painstaking. What makes it painful is that your aim is to condense your work. That means you'll be cutting out whole sections of that manuscript you sweated over for weeks. No matter how deeply in love you are with a sentence, a paragraph, a character, even whole chapters, if they do not advance the story in any appreciable way, they get cut. It's enough to make an aspiring writer cry, but what comes next is even more daunting.
We call them beta readers. Some call them critique groups. You can call them what you like.
Writers can be their own worst enemies when it comes to critiquing. Many a writer has lost sleep over criticism, which is why writers often are hesitant to give their work to beta readers.
The fact is writers are often as protective of their own work as a mother hen is of her chicks. This overprotectiveness keeps them from seeking honest -- albeit blunt and sometimes hurtful -- advice on their project.
You need to have thick skin to be a writer. Once you finish your project, get a fresh pair of eyes to look it over, no matter how much you think it will hurt.
And it will hurt. If it doesn't, you've picked the wrong person to review your work.
Let Stand On The Windowsill For An Hour
If you've ever baked a pie, you would know you can't eat it right out of the oven. Pies need to sit for a while and cool. Your project is that tasty pie you've been working on for so long. Much as you'd like to cut yourself a slice, you'd burn yourself if you didn't first wait for it to cool. Your pie would also fall apart into a crumbly mess, so don't be too eager to dig into it once you're done.
A fresh manuscript is hot. Don't touch it. Let it stand for a while to cool off. Let your chapters solidify. You'll know it's cooled off once you've stopped thinking about it. You won't do too great a job at the next step unless your mind is fresh and ready.
Once enough time has passed to distance yourself from your work, it's time for revisions. You'll find that your mindset during the revision phase is not the same as when you were in the production (i.e., writing) phase.
Remember that character you wrote in at the last minute, without whom you felt your story would fall apart? If you've let the manuscript sit long enough, you may find that you've grown a bit detached from this character. In fact, you might not fly into a table-flipping rage if someone suggested you remove him from the story. Actually, removing him might sound like a good idea after all.
Here is where you take your beta readers' advice to heart. Rewrite or reorganize sections that work, cut out the rest.
Don't groan. The final touch is a do-over of the editing phase. Here is where you make sure your project is free of errors.
First, correct all grammatical and spelling mistakes. The proper number of either in your project is zero. Do not rely on your word processor's spelling and grammar checker, as it is not foolproof. Most programs will overlook a word if it is spelled correctly even if it is used incorrectly in the sentence, such as in: "I here you loud and clear."
Once you're done reading for errors, give your work another read, this time for consistency. Scenes you wrote in the production phase may no longer jive with scenes you added or removed in revisions. Keep an eye out for this. It may slip past you because, as the writer, you are so immersed in your work that it is easy to overlook details. Your audience, on the other hand, is coming in cold and will pick up on inconsistencies.
Lastly, give your work one final read for fun. At this stage, you're no longer reading to spot errors. Rather, you're reading to enjoy your hard work. Of course, if you should spot an error or two you missed during the first two passes, feel free to correct it.
Shoot Adverbs Dead
A final bit of advice: shoot adverbs dead. You don't need them. Adverbs are words that tell you how a thing is done, such as in: "She looked at him very angrily." That sentence contains two adverbs, "very" and "angrily." While the sentence is grammatically sound, it is devoid of substance.
Adverbs steal the action away from the sentence and replace it with dry exposition.
You're the writer, and so it is your job to be creative. Show the reader the action, don't cut corners with adverbs. Now compare our example sentence with: "Arms crossed, she glowered at him as he entered the room." This sentence is adverb-free, and better yet, paints the reader a vivid picture. Right from the start we know that whoever is walking into the room is about to get an earful.
Good luck, and happy writing.
This article was featured in Author's Voice, a publication of the South Florida Writers Association, September 2013, Issue 9, and also at Darkwater Syndicate on September 16, 2013.