Can You Learn How To Write?

Child Mozart and the piano

If you have a box of multi-coloured beads and thread them on a silver chain, the necklace you make will be original, an illustration of your taste and talent – or its absence.

If a hundred people make a necklace from the same set of beads, they will all be different. Some a mess, others mediocre, perhaps one a masterpiece.

Writing’s like that. You have a lexicon of words and the writer must lay them out in a thread that is pleasing, compelling, rhythmic, as luscious as honey being poured from a jar.

Bad writing is like garbage thrown away in the street.Sign saying books make you richer

Can you learn how to write? 

Mozart was composing sonatas at the age of five, but he had to learn how to play the piano and did so on his dad’s knee from the age of three. Mozart was taught how to bring different notes from the keyboard, but the way he combined those notes came from something inside him.

Writing is the same. A teacher can’t teach you how to write. What a teacher can do is show a writer how not to write. Writers must find their own style, their own voice, their own way of interweaving words. The teacher is your first critic.

The way to find your own voice is by re-writing, editing, cutting, scrapping and starting again. You know there is a great story in your head, you’ve just got to weave all those threads together.

To use a sculptural metaphor, the great novel, essay, biography is imprisoned inside a block of marble and the writer must chip away with a tiny chisel until the exquisite appears.

How to Write Better

Try this experiment. Write an eight line paragraph describing, say, a walk in the park. Now go through and cross out every fourth word. If you have to put a word back in for the story to make sense, take another one out. Keep working until the paragraph tells the same story with a quarter of the words deleted.

Now try this. Take a page you have written and read it aloud; record it on your smartphone. Now cross out every adjective and adverb on the page and record it again. Listen to both versions. You will be shocked.

This is George Orwell’s 5 Rules for effective writing:

  1. Never use a metaphor or simile or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut is out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Orwell adds a sixth rule as an afterthought: Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

What is the passive as opposed to the active? The active sentence has a subject that acts upon its verb. The passive voice makes the subject a recipient of the verb’s action. The active voice is the player who performs the action. The passive voice is the opposite.  

  • The secretary mailed the letter.
  • The letter was mailed by the secretary.

In the first sentence, the secretary is the star and her sentence does away with that bothersome little ‘was’. In the second sentence, it’s the letter that takes on the active role, while the secretary is just a vehicle. The first sentence will on almost every occasion be best, but there may come a time when the letter is the crux of the story and deserves the active role. Maybe it’s from a lawyer with a message that a distant aunt has left you $10,000.   

Find the first line of your story and the rest will write itself.

If you have any writing tips, leave them in the comment box below.  


Posted in Blog.


  1. Don’t become too enamored with the “phrase du jour.” At the end of the day, you’re thinking outside the box, perhaps enthralled with all things iconic and quintessential, but, seriously, find different ways to put those thoughts in writing. Most of all, be who you are!

  2. Interesting.

    Fun exercise.

    I tried this with a one of your own books and once I’d done the deletions I was left with three pages.

    The name has been changed to protect the innocent …

  3. I recall almost twenty years ago when you were my editor and taught me some of these valuable lessons. (Initially, I wrote very valuable lessons, but then went back and removed very) In my early days as a writer, one particularly vicious editor (not you) crucified me upon a cross built upon the mortal sins of my passive sentences. To this day, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, I am conditioned to shun the passive at every opportunity. Which, I’ve learned can actually prove to be an interesting and challenging exercise in sentence and story structure. One great injustice I’ve experienced is many times when I read a book that sold 10 million copies, it’ seems chocked full with passive sentences and other structural evils writing teachers and vicious editors would eagerly feed into the shredder. So, if as a writer you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t, what I try to focus on is achieving the message contained in the lyrics to the song “16th Avenue.”

    Ah, but then one night in some empty room
    Where no curtains ever hung
    Like a miracle some golden words
    Rolled off of someone’s tongue

    And after years of being nothing
    They’re all looking right at you
    And for a while they’ll go in style
    On 16th Avenue

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *