I was probably no more than 8 years old as I was watching a favorite movie in which one of the main characters was a writer. She was suffering from writer’s block—that horrible feeling of just itching to write something . . . but without anything dripping out of the end of your pen. This character decided to inspire herself by making a list of potential titles for the book she was hoping to write. 

It seemed to work for her—almost immediately her fingers began to fly across her big black typewriter. However, when her friend noticed this, he immediately criticized her. His response was, in essence: “You must write the book first, then make the title. No title—an insignificant few words—will give birth to an entire book.”

Now that little statement bothered me then, and it continues to bother me more than twelve years later. What was so wrong with writing the title of the book before she wrote the book? Sure, it was not a traditional method—but did that make it wrong?

Even then, at a young age (when my writing efforts were characterized by illegible text scribbled on pieces of notebook paper tied together with pretty ribbons), I came to this conclusion: writing cannot be taught simply by applying a system of arbitrary rules. Instead, each writer must find the tools that he feels most comfortable with. It is not up to a conceited (yes, conceited—like the friend of the girl in the movie!) individual to develop another’s inspirational process.

“Whatever works for you”—that is a phrase that we avoid like the plague when it comes to morality and life choices, but that little phrase is the key to successful writing. If you can succeed at writing by using your own unique methods, then use your own methods, please! If your method is to make up a title first and extrapolate to create your finished manuscript, then use that method. If your method is to write paragraphs, out of order, and piece them together later, use that method. If your method is to create characters first and then weave them into the plot, then use that method. If your method is to scribble notes on yellow sticky notes, then do it. This is the wonderful thing about creative writing; it encourages self-exploration, and it is through this process that you discover the kind of writer—and person—you are. 

The skill of writing is not something you are born with, although some of us are naturally more comfortable with writing. Writing is still taught. But if there are no arbitrary methods, you may ask, how can writing be taught? After all, didn’t I just say writing is a sort of “free for all”? Not exactly. However, it’s easier to teach writing than many teachers, parents, and students realize. It is a foundational skill, one that advances in complexity as additional skills and experience are gained. The basics can be taught, but the writer has to apply those basics and then “learn” the complexity for himself.

To examine some writing basics, take a look at some advice given by a writer himself. Edgar Degas said to “copy and re-copy the masters.” He was talking about art, but his statement can easily be applied to writing. C. S. Lewis was a master of writing—as a writer of poetry, fiction, and scholarly works, and as a Professor of Literature at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. 

Lewis also was an avid letter writer who befriended many children through his letters, encouraging them in their writing pursuits. In 1956, he responded to a little girl who asked numerous questions regarding writing. Lewis wrote: “Of course there are no right and wrong answers about language in the sense in which there are right and wrong answers in Arithmetic . . . don’t take any notice of teachers and text-books in such matters.”1 If we are not supposed to take notice of teachers and textbooks (in other words, those arbitrary rules that someone, somewhere, used to define “good English”), what are we to take notice of when writing?