How To Improve Your Writing With Advice From the Beat Generation

Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg show you how to write better

Photo by Radu Florin on Unsplash

When I think of the Beats, I imagine a group of cool people enjoying life, traveling, exploring, and experimenting. People pushing the limits of societal convention and the boundaries of their own bodies and minds. People who passed on their knowledge through their writing.

Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, or Gregory Corso, to name a few, wrote some of the most remarkable pieces of work in American literature.

If you are an aspiring writer, you have something to learn from them. Here are some of the key lessons from their work.


1. Write About What Makes You Passionate

If there is something that makes Beat literature stand out is that it makes you feel. Happy, alive, desperate, disgusted… whatever it is, but the words on the page are always strong enough to make you feel something.

If you are a writer, writing about something you are passionate about is the most effective way to pass emotions to your reader. Good technique can help to improve a text about a topic you’re not interested in, but nothing replaces the raw emotion that passion can bring to your work.

How to implement it

Instead of following trends and writing about what performs better, give yourself space for creative freedom in an area you love.

For example, money articles perform well online, but if money is irrelevant to you and the one thing you care about is travel… you have found your niche.

2. Write About What You Know

The best example of this is Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”. This masterpiece of American literature is a fictional work but it is heavily based on the author’s travels across the country.

As Sal Paradise, the main character, takes you on the old beaten roads of America, you can feel you are really there with him. This is because Kerouac was there too and, therefore, knows what he is writing about.

How to implement it

Live first, write after. You might be interested in writing about a topic you know nothing about. Does this mean you shouldn’t? No, it just means you should learn first, by experience. Immerse yourself in the world you want to write about.

If you want to write a book about homelessness, go talk to homeless people in your city. Spend time with them, maybe even try to spend a couple of nights on the street. You will make every one of your words sound truer when you put them on the page.


3. Convey a Strong Message

The Beats wrote defying pieces that shook the moral values of the time. They challenged the status quo with their words, diving into topics like drugs, alcohol, homosexuality, or sexual liberation.

Ginsberg’s “Howl” or Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch”, for example, were fundamental in liberalizing publishing in the United States, given their strong content against societal norms.

How to implement it

As we said before, you should know what you write about, and you should be passionate about it. But after your subject passes those two criteria, ask yourself another question: Is my message relevant?

Certainly, you are passionate about your puppy and you know him extremely well. But will writing about him really add any value to your readers’ lives?


4. Experiment With Your Writing Technique

William Burroughs used the cut-up technique. He would cut a text and rearrange the pieces, in order to come up with a new version, oftentimes inspirational because of its arbitrariness.

Jack Kerouac was the king of spontaneous prose, jotting down words on his typewriter without overthinking. As The Gaslight Anthem sang, “It travels from heart, to limb, to pen”.

The Beats experimented with their writing techniques, which allowed them to create new, refreshing, invigorating pieces of work.

How to implement it

You probably have a writing routine. I know I do. I am writing this on a Saturday morning, with a cup of coffee on the side, after a yoga session. I have been doing this almost every Saturday morning for a year now.

Therefore, this advice is as much for you as it is for me: spice up your writing routine. Try different ways, different environments, different topics. Change the laptop for pen and paper. Write listening to classical music, or binaural beats — anything that breaks the routine and helps you regain perspective and some sense of creative freedom.


5. Break the Mold

Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” is a poem that could almost be considered a genre of its own. He did this with much of his work, getting out of traditional writing frames and developing new ways to put his message out to the world.

How to implement it

Even if you don’t create a new writing genre, try to break your own writing chains. If you always write articles, try a novel. If you excel at poetry, experiment with short stories. This way, you exercise your writing muscles and become a more flexible and creative writer.


Takeaway

This is the main lesson you should take from the Beat Generation:

“To gain your own voice, forget about having it heard.”

— Allen Ginsberg

The goal of putting these pieces of advice into practice is not to become a well-known writer — it is to become a writer, full stop.

Experiment, experiment, experiment. You might not find fame and fortune, but you will find something more important: yourself.

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