How to become a good writer
by David Patterson
How do you become a good writer? How do you reach the point where you’re able to mold the clay of words and the shapes of sentences into graceful vessels capable of holding your ideas and imaginings. In short, how do you reach your full potential as a writer? By doing three things:
- Reading good writing.
- Writing, and writing, and writing…
- Finding someone who will read what you write with a critical eye and share that criticism with you.
Reading good writing
As a writer you are, in many ways, what you read—especially when it comes to those parts of you that most directly execute the craft of writing. The results of the process of writing are not the words and sentences you put on paper or screen. Those words and sentences are only the tools of writing. The results of writing are the placement in readers’ minds of questions and answers, reactions and deductions, realizations and reassurances, the expected and the unexpected. In order to maximize your writing results, you need to know what those writing tools are capable of producing in the hands of masters of the craft.
It's a bit like driving a car. You may be capable of getting behind the wheel. A car is after all a common tool of our times. But are you capable of driving 200 miles an hour while weaving in and out of bumper-to-bumper traffic in an attempt to get ahead of the cars in front of you while at the same time preventing the ones behind from passing? My guess is no. In fact, you probably wouldn’t even be aware of driving at that speed under those conditions if it weren’t for the existence of racecar drivers—the reigning masters of the craft of driving.
The same is true of writing. If what we read had never progressed beyond the primers that taught us how to read, it would be all but impossible to leap from Dick and Jane and Spot to writing about the trials and tribulations of Hamlet, Gatsby, and even Homer Simpson.
Reading stretches and deepens us as writers. It shows us the variety of ways in which content can be conveyed, and if we take the time to analyze how a piece of writing actually works—to deconstruct it—we get to see exactly how its writer handled the tools of his/her craft. If we’re going to take the time to do all that, then we might as well do it with the output of the best writers. Sure you can learn from the merely capable, but there is so much more to be gained from the best. That's why reading good writing is essential to becoming a good rather than a merely capable writer.
Writing and writing and writing and…
Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers: The Story of Success wrote about what it takes do to something exceptionally well. Tthere were a number of factors involved in becoming a great athlete, musician, artist, scientist, writer, etc. But one component was always there no matter what the discipline—10,000 hours. That’s the amount of time Gladwell says someone must do something before becoming a master of it. Now, the number 10,000 is a little too neat—too round—for my liking, but who cares whether the number is 9,942 or 10,811? It’s the magnitude of time and effort it takes to maximize the talent your are born with and the skills you develop that Gladwell’s talking about. Let's translate those 10,000 hours into words, and let’s say that you can only write 100 to 200 good words an hour. Even with that limited output, 10,000 hours adds up to one to two million words. By the way this paragraph has 173 words in it, and I wrote and polished it in eight minutes. (I timed myself.)
Practice may not make perfect, but it certainly makes better. Masters of their craft are people who have practiced, and practiced, and practiced, and…
Tell me what you think—really I want to know
For me the hardest thing about writing something is when it gets read. I always want to know what people think about it, and at the same time I’m always fearful that they won’t like it. A bit of a conflict there wouldn't you say. So I guess I really, I don’t what to know what they think, unless they’re going to tell me how wonderful, how spectacularly life changing my writing was. The problem is I really need to hear it all—the good and the bad and the ugly.
Writing in a vacuum, without feedback can be done, but it multiplies the risk that what you write gets written for an audience of one—you. It’s sort of like having a conversation with yourself. Who better to agree with you than you. When you’re in the process of writing a nonfiction book and no one is reading your output as you go along and then sharing what they thought about it with you, it becomes just as easy to over write as it is to under write. You can fall into the trap of assuming too much knowledge on the part of readers. Oh, and you can fall into the trap of writing down to a point where readers are left feeling, “Does this writer think I’m an idiot, or what!”
If you want to improve your writing and deliver a more complete and better functioning finished product, find a critical reader, share with that reader what you are writing as you write it, elicit feedback from that reader, and pay attention to that feedback. Sometimes such a reader is called an editor or agent. Sometimes spouse, friend, or fellow writer. Whoever it is, find him or her and do it early in your writing process. If you can, find more than one. The key here is that the reader has to be a truly critical reader, not someone unwilling to tell you about the bad and the ugly.
Reading, writing, and listening
These three things—reading, writing, and listening—don't guarantee you'll become a good writer, but failure to read good writing, to write a lot, and to listen responsively to criticism is a guarantee that you will not write as well as you might.