Can reading aloud help you write better? Does planning too far ahead overcomplicate things? We asked Dutch author Thomas Heerma van Voss, our virtual writer in residence, to share his techniques for constructing great writing. Thomas’ virtual residency is in partnership with New Dutch Writing and the Dutch Foundation for Literature.
Don’t think: I am going to write something ‘literary’, so I’m going to have to use all kinds of metaphors, complex syntax and (semi-)philosophical musings to tell my story. Write the way you speak. Never start by thinking you have to write something complicated or deliberate, or because you think you have to develop your own sophisticated style, but simply because you want to tell a particular story or describe a specific scene. Your style will appear all by itself. It always does. All text betrays the writer. (An example: for years no one knew the real identity of the writer behind the successful Dutch pseudonym Marek van der Jagt. Eventually, a computer identified Arnon Grunberg as the author on the basis of language use and the length of the sentences. Style always reveals the DNA of an author.)
Read. As much and as widely as possible. See how other writers construct their scenes, tease the reader, build tension. Don’t be afraid, especially when starting out, to steal or imitate – all arts begins with imitation. One of the Netherlands’ most famous writers began his writing career by copying out stories by Ivan Turgenev in an effort to master his rhythm and way of writing.
Read everything that you write out loud, and not just the dialogue but every single sentence. As if you were reading a bedtime story to yourself. It will help you to spot where your text becomes sluggish, which words you tend to repeat and where the reader’s attention might slip. (This might sound strange, but it really works.)
Don’t cling to the initial idea behind your book or story. The final version will always be different from what you had in mind at the start. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it often leads to new insights, the kind you would never have thought of otherwise. All my stories and books only ever start to take shape after I am about halfway through writing them, and sometimes not even until the editing stage. Try not to judge your text on the basis of what it ‘should be’ but on how it is, how it comes across, what works and what can be improved.
Writing is all about engaging your readers. By surprising them, by making them feel connected to your characters and what they go through. No matter what you write or how strange your story might be, make sure the reader believes it. And that it keeps you interested, too. This is all down to style. Real-life events can become implausible if not described well, and strange concoctions can come across as perfectly logical in a well-crafted story. This is often the essence of good writing.
Thomas’ writing tips were translated from Dutch by Danny Guinan.