Ever pondered what makes a great writer stand out from the rest? Talent seems like the obvious answer. Yet, even great writers would dispute that. There are countless writers with immense talent who never quite make it. They hesitate at a crucial juncture, preventing their breakthrough.
Many have studied the legends, from modern masters like Stephen King to ancient thinkers like Cicero, to uncover their secrets. Blending their insights with my research, I’ve gleaned valuable lessons.
Here, I share wisdom from these literary giants, past and present, aimed at us, the aspiring writers.
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1. The Challenge of Writing Well
There was a time when I prided myself on my quick writing. Then, I realized true writing mastery isn’t about speed. Comparing my work to a slower, yet exceptional writer, I saw that rushing was my hindrance, not a strength.
As Aubrey Kalitera eloquently put it in “Why Father Why” (1983):
2. The Harsh Reality of Writing
Stephen King, in his book “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” (2000), states:
“…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.”
King’s words suggest that while I may never reach the pinnacle of writing greatness, there’s still hope for becoming a good writer. And that’s a journey I’m content with, as long as I keep writing.
3. Mastering the Basics
One universally acknowledged truth among writers is the importance of mastering the basics. Whether you’re brushing up on old lessons or diving into new courses, understanding the fundamentals of writing is crucial.
Revisiting grammar, expanding your vocabulary, and studying the elements of style are invaluable steps for writers at any level.
4. Expressing Thoughts vs. Speaking Out Loud
The debate between expressing unfiltered thoughts and carefully articulating opinions in writing is ongoing.
Walter Benjamin, a notable author, believed in 1938 that great writers avoid oversharing personal thoughts. Instead, they focus on sharing well-considered opinions. This approach prevents writers from having to retract their words and maintains a level of professionalism and thoughtfulness in their work.
5. Balancing Details and Creativity
Focusing on details is crucial for good writing, but great writing requires more. Clive James discusses this balance, emphasizing that too much adherence to rules can lead to dull writing.
While attention to grammar, syntax, and style is important, overemphasis on these aspects can stifle a writer’s unique voice. Striking the right balance is key to ensuring your writing is both technically sound and engagingly creative.
6. Embracing Imperfection in Writing
Julia Cameron offers a gem of advice for writers: be brave enough to write imperfectly. Initially, I thought she was promoting a devil’s advocate approach, but it’s deeper than that.
She suggests that writers should pour out all their thoughts on a topic, no matter how unrefined, and then refine and remove the less effective parts later. This process often reveals that some of the ‘bad’ content is actually quite valuable.
7. The Value of Every Resource
My experience with Zippo lighters taught me a lesson in resourcefulness. I’d use disposable lighters and discard them, until my wife started salvaging the flints.
This habit reminded me of the importance of utilizing every resource available, including editors. Gardner Botsford in “A Life of Privilege… Mostly” (2003), emphasizes this, stating that good writers depend on editors and would never dream of publishing unedited work. The less competent a writer, the more they resist editorial input.
Invitation for More Wisdom
Collecting wisdom from great writers has transformed even an average writer like me. Do you have additional tips to help writers improve? Your insights are welcome.