Back to School Column: Back to Basics for Writers

From Amicus Scriptor, August 28, 2015:


Although I fully retired from the practice of law a few months ago, as we approach September I again feel — as I do every year — the “back-to-school” excitement of my youth. New teacher! New clothes! (Well, at least a new uniform!) New school supplies!

New beginnings.

For those of you who have been wanting to write your first novel, or who have been following along with Amicus Scriptor for the past two years as we’ve talked about writing, September is a natural time for us student-types — you must be one to have made it through law school and the bar exam — to start or restart our writing projects. As someone who has written a book-length manuscript every year or so for the past 20 years, here are five basics I think are important.

Prepare a physical space

No matter what the condition of your law office, your creative-writing space should be uncluttered and organized. Ideally, the colors of the walls are restful. (They say blue or green, but mine are neutral.) Books are on handy shelves, not stacked next to the computer. You should have an ergonomic chair that encourages proper posture and a window to encourage you to get up from your desk every 20 minutes or so to look outside — to keep blood and creative juices flowing.

Your desk should have a lamp with adjustable color temperatures (4,000 Kelvin is recommended) and, of course, you should have your “school supplies” within easy reach.

Gather your supplies

There are a lot of gadgets out there to help the writer take notes and organize material — a digital highlighter or smart pen that copies texts or handwriting automatically to your computer comes to mind as a handy device, especially for the plagiarist — but really, what do you need? Paper for writing by hand (loose leaf or spiral-bound, your preference) and for printing out drafts from the computer and, of course, pens or pencils.

Maybe a highlighter or two with different colors for editing — like highlighting dialogue or timelines or descriptions or character time on the page. Use stickers or index cards for notes. You might mark some favorite websites on your computer, like (for a quick look-up of synonyms and antonyms, although nothing is quite as good for the vocabulary or the extension of images as a hard copy of Roget’s International Thesaurus.

Establish a routine

School doesn’t happen when we feel like it. Half of getting through school is just showing up. Set a time to write each day or every other day or whatever your schedule permits and treat that time as you would a court call. No extensions granted! They say chance favors the prepared mind; the muse will not visit unless you give it time.

Remember to exercise

When you have your space, your stuff and the time, you are ready to write. If you can’t get started or are stuck, you still need to actually write. You need to exercise your writing muscles.

A foolproof exercise suggested by my friend and fellow lawyer-turned-writer, Elyssa Balingit Winslow, is to write out by hand a passage or even an entire short story from a writer you admire.

This exercise helps you notice word choice, sentence structure, sentence rhythms and how clauses fit together to make beautiful and effective sentences.

Winslow said, “Often you’ll stop looking at the page you’re copying, thinking you know what’s coming, and you’ll start filling in your own words. When you correct yourself, it retrains the muscles, stretches you to see and feel new ways to put together sentences and paragraphs and pages.”

She added, “It’s a great exercise even when your writing is going wonderfully.”

Go outside at recess

A basic writing axiom is that everything is material. So give yourself material. Read widely. Go to the theater. Explore museums. Hear new music. Take long walks — on city streets and nature paths. Drink lots of tea or coffee. Eavesdrop shamelessly. Take a class. Take a trip. Join a writers’ group. Volunteer at a shelter. Let your imagination go.

Pretend you are a kid. It’s time to go back to school.