Writing is a peculiar trade.
For those who love the written word, writing is almost magical. I (Chris) am a writer, and I often find that people are fascinated by my job. It seems too good to be true. They imagine, I suspect, that I spend most of my days with a quill pen and a tattered old journal, scribbling away in some scenic and secluded spot in the woods. The birds serenade me while I craft one masterful line after another. Somewhere in the distance, a faint hum of classical music wafts in the air. (This is not the case.)
Others, however, find writing tedious and exasperating. For these folks, if writing is magical, it’s a dark sort of magic, something that can’t be controlled and never turns out well. It seems like a waste of time, a task invented by sadistic schoolteachers who love nothing more than to wield their red editing pen.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle—or maybe, in both places at once. Writing is awesome and writing is terrible. I wouldn’t recommend it as a trade (it’s too frustrating). But I can’t imagine what it would take for someone to force me to stop (it’s too rewarding).
People often ask me how to improve their writing. I don’t consider myself the expert on this, but I have noticed some common features among good writers. So whether you’re planning on writing the next great American novel, getting started on a blog, or just trying to pass English 101, you can get better.
Here’s my slightly subjective and unashamedly unoriginal advice:
1. Good writers write…a lot.
Most people would love to be good writers, but hardly anyone wants to do what is necessary to become a good writer. Good writers may be born with a certain skillset, but it takes practice to hone those skills.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the “10,000 hour rule,” a sort of tipping point for greatness. To gain mastery in any field, it takes about 10,000 hours of guided, intense effort. This should be common sense: if you want to be good at something, you’ve got to do it all the time.
So don’t just write for your school assignments. Start a journal. Start a blog. Write up reviews of books that you’ve read. Write letters to your local elected officials, for crying out loud. Just do it.
Also, keep in mind that nobody has time to write. Like every other discipline in life, you make time for it. Make writing part of your daily and weekly rhythm. Find your time slot and protect it.
2. Good writers read…a lot.
From time to time I’ll come across someone who wants to write well, but who doesn’t ever read. These people are not to be trusted.
Reading does so much for a person as a writer. It expands your vocabulary. It shows you new ways to say things you are already saying. It exposes you to different styles and voices and tones. By steeping yourself in good writing, you give yourself the chance to produce good writing.
So read up, and make sure to vary your reading. Otherwise you’ll sound like a stale knock-off of your favorite author. Nobody wants that, especially if your favorite author is Stephenie Meyer.
3. Good writers listen (sometimes).
Stephen King, in his excellent book on writing (cleverly titled, On Writing), said, “Write the first draft with the door closed. Write the second draft with the door open.” You’ve got to have enough confidence in your words that you can go the distance without anyone cheering you on. But there does come a point when it helps to let other people alert you to your blindspots.
This takes discernment, because not all advice is good advice. It also takes humility. I’ve never been mistaken for a humble man, so this part is particularly challenging for me. I’m learning.
4. Good writers would rather be clear than clever.
Here’s C. S. Lewis:
“The way for a person to develop a style is (a) to know exactly what he wants to say, and (b) to be sure he is saying exactly that. The reader, we must remember, does not start by knowing what we mean. If our words are ambiguous, our meaning will escape him. I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate open to the left or the right the readers will most certainly go into it.”
No other statement on writing has been more formative for me than this one. Lewis’ sheep analogy is constantly in my head as a writer. I’m asking myself, Is this clear? Could it be clearer? Am I sacrificing clarity for flair? Those are questions that every writer should regularly ask, whether writing a short story or a dissertation.
5. Good writers care more about their topic than about writing.
There’s nothing wrong with thinking specifically about your writing—learning new tricks, reading style guides, etc. But nothing beats finding something you care about. You might be surprised at how eloquent you can be when you’re allowed to write about a topic you love.
Don’t be ashamed if what you love isn’t particularly grand. If you care about the Philadelphia Eagles, write about the Philadelphia Eagles. If you care about the Gospel of Luke, write about the Gospel of Luke. If you care about your pet cat Romulus, well then, I suppose Romulus could use a scribe. You won’t always have the freedom to spend your time writing about what lies closest to your heart, but if you have the choice, try. As C. S. Lewis once said, writing for him was a way of scratching an itch. He couldn’t help but do it. Find that mental itch and scratch.