You want to become a good, maybe even a great, writer.
You study books on writing. You follow blogs on writing. Hell, you’ve even thought about taking a writing class.
But you’re tormented by a recurring thought.
What if you’re wasting your time? What if good writing simply isn’t in your DNA?
What if no amount of study and practice will take you from where you are now to where you want to be?
Because, let’s face it, not everyone can be a good writer.
The persistent myth of good writing
A certain snobbery exists around writing.
You may even be guilty of it yourself.
Literary fiction is better than genre fiction. Journalism is better than blogging. “Real” books are better than e-books.
But one form of writing is not inherently better than another. Good writing doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
The only true measure of whether a piece of writing is any good is the impact it has on its intended audience.
Did it engage them? Did it move them? Did it change them?
All other questions are irrelevant.
Of course, this creates a problem for serious writers like you who want to hone their skills. Because by the time you publish your work and learn your audience’s reaction, it’s too late to make any changes.
And if your writing isn’t connecting with your audience, the most common reaction is no reaction at all:
- No comments on your latest blog post.
- No emails praising (or damning) your bold manifesto.
- No reviews of your latest Kindle novel.
So where does that leave you? How do you get good? How do you know if it’s even possible?
The big question: can anyone become a good writer?
I’ll come out and say it.
I don’t believe that just anyone can become a good writer.
Likewise, I don’t believe just anyone can become a good mathematician, a good artist or a good chef. Because nature inevitably plays its part.
But deep down, this may actually reassure you. After all, who wants to be good at something that anyone can master?
And while I don’t believe anyone can become a good writer, I do passionately believe everyone can become a better writer.
Before you get good, you need to get better.
3 essential steps to better writing
Becoming a better writer boils down to three simple steps:
1. Study – you learn the principles of good writing and the conventions of your chosen form. You study the rules of grammar and learn when it’s okay to break them. You seek to understand other elements of good writing, such as tone, pace and structure. You explore purpose and theme. And you recognize that there will always be more to learn.
2. Practice – you write and rewrite until your work is as good as your current skills allow. You create a writing habit and commit to a daily target. You write when you’re in the zone and you write when you’re not. You write when friends are out having fun because you said to them: “No, I have to write.”
3. Feedback – you seek comments and criticism from other writers, friends, teachers, perhaps a mentor. You know these people are an imperfect stand-in for your real audience, but understand that feedback is the fuel that drives your advancement. And when the feedback suggests that your writing falls short, you return to study and to practice.
This learning cycle is essential because it helps you to hone your writing instincts. It trains the internal critic that guides the hundreds of tiny decisions you make each time you sit down and write.
But it won’t teach you everything you need to become a good writer.
The elusive qualities of good writing that can’t be taught
While study, practice and feedback will improve your technical skills as a writer, some of the essential qualities of good writing are more elusive:
- Empathy – the ability to put yourself in the mind of your reader or your characters. Empathy allows the blogger or freelance writer to connect powerfully with their chosen audience. It helps the novelist create believable characters who are nothing like their creator.
- Imagination – the unique ideas and connections that exist below the surface of your writing. Imagination helps the fantasy writer create unfamiliar yet believable worlds. It helps a non-fiction author view an old problem from a fresh perspective. It gives the short story writer the premise for her next tale.
- Passion – a love of language, a desire to communicate, and a delight in telling stories. Passion is the creative energy that carries you through times of uncertainty and rejection. It’s the voice that says quietly and consistently “be a writer.”
These are the qualities that help you capture the heads and hearts of your audience.
These are the qualities that create a unique and urgent voice that doesn’t need to fight for attention.
These are the qualities that separate the good writers from the tragic wannabes.
But if empathy, imagination and passion can’t be learned, how are they acquired?
The simple habits that give you a shot at greatness as a writer
Surprisingly, the habits that give you the best chance of becoming a good writer have little to do with writing.
But if you integrate them into your life, they’ll take you closer to being a good writer than any teacher or mentor:
- Live fully outside your writing. Life experiences are the fuel for authentic and powerful writing. Go out of your way to meet and understand different types of people – it will build your empathy muscle. Put yourself in new, even challenging, situations. Absorb everything. Life may sometimes imitate art, but more often, life inspires art.
- Cultivate eclectic tastes. Read widely beyond the confines of your subject or genre. Watch film and television in a variety of genres – fiction and non-fiction – and listen to talks and podcasts on a wide range of topics. Unusual influences will make your writing stand out from your peers. Unexpected connections are the sparks that create new ideas and striking viewpoints.
- Indulge your passions. True passion is a rare commodity and should be embraced wherever it arises. Don’t dismiss or downplay interests that seem unusual, uncool or irrelevant. Be bold in your enthusiasms and seek out others who share them. Learn to tolerate feeling different and precarious. Uninhibited passion tends to spills over into other areas of your life.
Are you ready to get good?
Anyone can become a better writer. It takes study, practice and feedback. And the right teachers and mentors will speed your progress.
But you don’t have a shot at becoming a good writer until you stop thinking of writing as a skill to be learned, but as one facet of a much larger project: to become someone worth listening to.
Because the world doesn’t crave people who’ve simply mastered the mechanics of good writing. But it will always need more writers with bold ideas to spread, and new stories to tell.
So which habits will you adopt to get good? Let me know in the comments.