I call myself a writer - not necessarily a good one, that's true, and not one who writes or updates frequently, but a writer all the same. Why? Writing's a part of me that I can't get rid of.

I've been reading this article recently (yes, I know it goes to deviantART, yes, there are nice people and good art over there, yes, you just have to look really hard to find them), which talks about what good writers wished they had been told when they first started.

I've been writing since I was umm...about six, and I've no idea how long I've been writing well for - or if I can write well at all. Mainly I learned through teaching myself and paying little or no attention to anyone who tried to teach me things, which isn't always the best way...

...Looking back on it, I think that one of the things I wish people had told me, or that someone would tell other people, is that no-one can tell you how to write - only you can change things. It's a very trite and clich├ęd lesson, but it also happens to be true. Part of great writing is introspection - great writing in this case being the thing that separates a Cathedral of the Sea from Anna Karenina - , and you can't very well get someone to introspect for you. Unlike other subjects and disciplines, writing is not only about getting that 500-page novel finished, but also about learning from experience - and there's no substitute for that.

One of the things a person wished they were told in the article is that you can't write in another person's style - sad but true, English teachers of...well...England. A style is a person's voice and way of expressing things. While it's not set in stone, trying to get someone to write in a radically different style results in either a) a mixture of their style and said different style or b) a cackhanded, pretentious mess. Why? Because if it doesn't come naturally, whatever the person's trying to say won't be expressed naturally either. Some would argue that natural expression isn't needed, citing purple prose and (if they're really bad) classical poetry. I have to tackle this argument in two parts, so...

...First of all, purple prose is generally taken as a bad thing, because all the words get in the way of the expression. I myself consider writing to be about expression, or alternatively as a form of concentrated life - well, it reflects experiences and emotions, doesn't it? Get in the way of that expression, or of the reflection of life, and you pretty much destroy the point of the story.

Secondly, classical poetry is actually quite moving and evocative in the original language, but the difficulties of translation make it sound stilted in English. Assuming you can find a decent translation or you actually know Ancient Greek or Latin well enough to translate, I think you'll find that it's nowhere near stilted - stylised, maybe, but not stilted.

But I digress. Another thing I wish people would harp on about more is said bookism - in other words, using too many synonyms for "said" is just as bad as making all the dialogue into "he said" "she said" "the giant monster from Mars said", etc. It requires a careful touch, lots and lots of reading over your work, and having read a book like How Not To Write A Novel. (This isn't an advertising plug, as I've read the book - many times over - and it's a hilarious, very educational guide to writing which I think several people need to read.)

What the idiots in charge forget is that you can't force someone to write something they don't want to - well, all right, you can, but it's never going to be as good as something which they wanted to write. "Well, we can still assess their technical skills!" one of them might bluster. And sure, I'll give them that - it's unlikely that spelling and punctuation, for example, would be drastically affected by having to write something which they don't want to. However, other things like plot, characterisation and even writing style could be affected - not because they're deliberately trying to sabotage their marks, but because if you're writing something you don't want to, you have fewer ideas of where to start and less interest in the story. This generally tends to result in a worse story, for obvious reasons.

Don't you dare refer to stories as essays. One of the (few) things I've learnt while writing is that a story and an essay are completely different things. "Why? They're both tasks," you say. Except they're not - essays are tasks associated with soullessness and drudgery, but stories are associated with complexity, open-endedness and actual interest in what one's doing. But of course it couldn't possibly make anything worse if the poor sods sitting their English exam bullshitting aptitude test Controlled Assessment were encouraged to thing of their task as even more soulless and dull than it already is...

Completely contradicting everything I've said, I've learnt that there are none or very few rules about writing. Strange but true. Even spelling and punctuation can be thrown to the wind if it serves plot purposes - you can do almost anything with the English language, but it has to be done in the correct context. This is generally a better guide to writing than being told that you can't use colloquialisms in your stories. On the other hand, it has to be used with a lot of caution - just because A. Runaway-Bestseller wrote an entire book in Igpay Atinlay doesn't mean that you can as well. There are general guidelines about writing, but very few actual rules. It's best to stick to the more sensible rules (e.g. correct spelling and grammar), but they can be broken - with great caution, I should add.

Pretty much the last guideline/rule I'd suggest, coming back full circle, is that there's always more out there to learn. Not just from the books themselves, but from manuals, the internet, people's criticism...take it all with a pinch of salt, but take it all the same. It will fill your head up with knowledge and experience, which hopefully goes into being a better writer.