I often judge writing contests, both non-fiction and poetry. Recently, I judged the North Carolina Poetry Society’s annual contest in the haiku category. Although it was blind judging, and the winners’ names still haven’t been revealed, I’m sure the winners worked hard to perfect their haiku. Passionate writers work hard at producing quality writing.
It always irks me when some authors, many of whom teach, make the comment that one is a born a writer. When we were of school age, we learned spelling and composition and basic writing skills. In adulthood, we write letters and memos in the course of our day. But we are not born writers. I’ve never read about a writing gene. And, even if we interpret that statement loosely to mean that we are born with skills such as observation–part of being a writer–then we need to qualify it by stating that our writing skills must be cultivated and practiced.
We can develop observational skills; a facility with language through reading a lot of good writing in a particular genre; take workshops; and attend good critique groups. Many people become good writers or published ones later in life through practice and learning to be observant– key elements in being a good writer of any genre. Writers need to describe what they wish to convey in specific terms, and that requires good observation and reflection. We also need to practice how to write succinctly, deleting extraneous words and finding simpler ways of expression.
How do you practice observation? Whatever you see around you, something ordinary, for example, ask yourself if it’s really ordinary. Is there anything unusual about it? You practice being observant by first asking questions about how and why things are the way most people perceive them as, and how and why they are not what most people perceive.
If you are writing informational pieces, question commonly-held perceptions or beliefs. Be a contrarian, be a devil’s advocate. If you are writing a creative piece, observe shapes, sizes, and the color of things.
When I write how-to books on writing informational and creative pieces, I do so because people need to learn how to be good writers. It’s not automatic. Everyone has to read and practice how to write like “a writer,” even if from the time they are young, their teacher tells them they have a knack for writing.
In judging the recent haiku contest, it made me reflect on how people can become better writers by judging contests. My method of judging a contest involves reading each piece in the beginning, two times. Then I let each sit for a day. I re-read each piece two times, the second day, and I start eliminating those that are inadequate. I don’t start eliminating pieces until the second day, because I might run the risk of overlooking a few, which at first glance, I didn’t reflect on enough. The entire process of elimination can take several days or a couple weeks of re-reading poems each day.
In judging haiku, for example, I ponder symbolism; whether there is depth of meaning or layers of meaning; diction (precision of words, particularly with verbs); evocative imagery; word economy; and style. I love to see haiku with literary techniques, such as alliteration and assonance. If done skillfully, alliteration and assonance, even in a short poem, can enhance it. If they are done sparingly in a short poem, they don’t distract the reader.
As a poet, I not only select words for their meaning, but also for their sound and how they contribute to rhythm. Further, does the poet express himself/herself in a subtle way, without explaining? Does the haikuist embody the haiku spirit: understanding natural phenomena; having a sense of spirituality or humility; and seeing the beauty in the ordinary?
As long as you keep reading good writing in your genre, you’ll never stop learning and improving. You’ll pick out styles you enjoy of other writers and incorporate their techniques into your own.
Spend an hour each day/night, if you can, reading and reflecting. This not only gives you writing ideas, but it renews you. If this isn’t possible, then perhaps write just fifteen minutes a day in a quiet space or play soothing music to block out household noise. I spend two hours each evening reading and reflecting. I am able to do this because during the day, I have strict guidelines for getting my work done efficiently without distraction. I answer my phone only during the noon hour or after 4 p.m., and I return phone messages then.
There are many ups and downs in any career, and perhaps writing has one of the most, because of the many rejections writers receive. Focus on riding them out by re-submitting rejected pieces soon after revision, or simply by trying another publication. Keep your momentum up.
And keeping your momentum up, often involves announcing your accomplishments all ways you can. If you don’t, not many people will hear about them. Good feedback is essential.
Discouragement often kills writers. Always try to keep a bright perspective. I have two post-it notes on my computer: Do something enjoyable each day, and Identify the happiest moment of my day. Referring to these, helps me keep a bright perspective.
Copyright 2017 by Charlotte Digregorio.