Have you ever wondered what exactly it is that separates a great writer from an average writer? The obvious answer would be talent. However, ask any great writer and they would argue the point. There are a ton of average writers out there with as much talent as anyone. It’s just that there is some point, a line in the sand, that they are unwilling to cross that keeps them from breaking through.
More than one curious soul have researched the greatest of writers, from contemporary gothic writers like Stephen King to old-world philosophers like Cicero to see what they had to offer on the subject. If they could do it, so could I. The following is a mixture of what they found and what my research turned up.
This is solid advice from the greats both living and beyond the grave, to all of us average writers. I do believe I will take them up on it.
Recommended Reading: 10 Writing Tips For Bloggers
1. How "Easy" It Can Get
I used to brag about how fast I could write but that was before I realized that the really good writers do not find it that easy. One day, I was afforded the opportunity to compare an article I wrote, to one written by someone whom I consider slow but brilliant, and I realized that speedwriting was one of my problems, not a talented virtue.
A good writer will always find it very hard to fill a single page. A bad writer will always find it easy. – Aubrey Kalitera, (Why Father Why, 1983).
2. The Scary Truth Stings
Stephen King says in his "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft" (2000):
…it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one. (p.136)
A prolific writer who has written hundreds of short stories, novels, poems and more, King is basically telling me that I personally will never be a great writer, however, I can take solace in the fact that there is still hope for me to become a good writer.
Even if there is not, as long as I am writing, I am a happy guy.
3. The Best Advice Ever
There is one thing that I am sure most writers would agree upon and that is this: if you want to better yourself and your writing, take the time to learn the basic fundamentals of writing. If it has been awhile, revisit the old textbooks, take an online class, or join a local writing course.
Learning or relearning grammar, vocabulary and the elements of style can only improve your writing regardless of your current skill level.
4. Speak Your Mind Vs Say What You Think
There is some debate between speaking the writer’s mind, (In his or her writing) and the writer saying what he (or she) thinks. Author Walter Benjamin said back in 1938 that the great writers feel that speaking one’s mind is to go overboard.
It is enough to say what one thinks as an opinion and nothing more.
I believe he is saying that the great ones never show their hands or need to pull a foot out of their mouths because they never speak their minds in a tirade. That is advice I may need to heed.
5. It is All in the Details
A good writer pays close attention to detail. A great writer knows better (read the discussion by Clive James here). I tried to pay strict attention to the details of my writing once or twice. The last time, my editor called me a grammar nazi (and rightly so). Apparently, she knew what the great writers know: following too close to the rules makes for boring and monotonous writing.
That is not to say that one should slap words on the page as if they were painting a fence. There is much to be said for being careful with grammar, syntax, and style. However; if a writer is to find their voice, something will have to give a little, lest their voice be that of a dictionary.
6. Boldly Being Bad
Here is a great pearl of wisdom from Julia Cameron. She says that we must dare to be bad when we write. At first, I thought that she was talking about that whole devil’s advocate thing. She is not. She believes that a great writer writes everything that is in his or her head on the topic at hand, then goes back, and edits the bad stuff out.
That is because she knows that very often, some of that bad is very, very good.
7. Why Waste It? (It’s There For A Reason)
I use Zippo lighters and when I run out of flint, they sit in a drawer for months until I purchase more. Bic after disposable bic, they get tossed out until one day my wife started making me give her every empty bic I used up.
Didn’t ask her why she needed them but I soon found out one day when I reached for a pack of flints for my Zippo and had my hand slapped away by the Missus. From her purse, she pulled out a prescription bottle filled with (30 of) the flints she took out of the empty bic lighters she had been collecting.
The point of this story is if you have an editor, use him (or her). Gardner Botsford, (A Life of Privilege… Mostly, 2003) says that the less competent the writer is, the louder he or she complains about having an editor. He goes on to say… "Good writers lean on editors; they would not think of publishing something that no editor had read."
More Good Advice
When it comes to getting great advice from great writers, even an average writer like me can produce an interesting piece of work. Do you have other tips that will help average or at least competent writers improve? Drop us a line in the comments. I can never get enough good advice.