When I first started out as a professional writer, I read every resource I could grab on the subject. As I read, read, and read some more, I noticed that one piece of advice kept cropping up: “If you want to become a writer, just write.”
At first, I thought, well, that’s not very helpful. Obviously, writing is what writers do. Besides, that doesn’t tell me anything about how to be a better writer. If writing is that simple, then everyone who does it for a living should be bestselling authors by now, right?
But the more I thought about it, and the more I wrote, the more it made sense to “just write”. Over the course of my writing career so far, I realized:
(Writing) Theory is Nothing without Application
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that you completely ditch “How to Write” books, articles, and the like in favor of mindlessly tapping away at your keyboard all day. Trying to write without a solid grasp of the basics is like trying to swim without knowing how to float and hold your breath underwater.
Still, you can’t spend time reading about writing without actually writing. Otherwise, what did you do all that reading for?
Writing Rules Can Be Broken
To me, writing “rules” are more guidelines than dogma. While it’s true that the likes of the passive voice, long sentences, and adverbs can weaken your writing, there are written works that incorporate all of those into their prose, and still turn out great anyway. Case in point: Stephen King once chided J.K. Rowling for her overuse of adverbs, but that never stopped her from becoming one of the world’s most beloved and influential authors.
Of course, in order to pull that off, you need to have a complete mastery over the “rules” first before you even think about breaking them. And, in my opinion, that level of mastery is achievable only if you practice good writing habits on a regular basis.
No Two Creative Processes Are Exactly the Same
I usually write first thing in the morning, after drinking a cup of coffee and taking a nice, warm bath. I consider these habits as part of my creative process, since they help prepare me for a long day of turning my jumbled thoughts into coherent prose.
But I’d never go out and tell any writer who cares to listen that “Hey, this is what I do before I write, so you should do it too!” I recognize that what may work for me may not work for other writers. Sure, there may be writers who also write in the morning after drinking a cup of coffee and taking a nice, warm bath, but I’m also positive there are writers who do none of that, and still churn out great work anyway.
It doesn’t matter whether your creative process resembles another writer’s or not. What matters is that, regardless of how you prepare for the act of writing, you’re still able to write, and able to write well.
“Good” Writing is highly Subjective
Pick a book – any book – from sites like Amazon and Goodreads. Chances are it’s rated 5-star, 4-star, 3-star, 2-star, and 1-star – all at the same time!
It’s ridiculous, right? How can one book be both above-par and sub-par?
The thing is, the concept of “good writing” is subjective. Sure, there are universal criteria for “bad writing”, such as poor grammar and syntax, but for the most part, your readers’ individual preferences will affect how they perceive your work. In other words, it’s pointless to try to please everyone.
Instead, think of a specific person who will benefit the most from your writing, and write only for that person. You’ll be surprised at how your work will turn out.
Starting Is the Hardest Part of Writing
Actually, starting is the hardest part of anything.
According to this article, the human brain does a funny thing when confronted with a Jupiter-sized project: It automatically visualizes all the possible ways your project can go wrong, so it attempts to “simulate” productivity by filling (read: wasting) your time with small tasks. (“Oh, my first draft is due tomorrow? Wait, I need to check my email first…”)
To avoid that, you need to plunge into your project from the get-go. Once you get going, you’ll have this uncontrollable urge to finish no matter what, in accordance with the Zeigarnik effect. As the Nike slogan goes: “Just Do It”.
You Can’t Be “Good” If you’re Not “Bad” First
You might say: “But what if I try to write, and all I come up with is a pile of crud?” To that, I say this: “Well, improving on a pile of crud is easier than improving on a pile of nothing.”
When you’re writing the first draft, you’re at the point where you’re still trying to transform all your research and ideas into words. Naturally, you’ll end up with something that may need some extra polishing, or even a whole rewrite. If you think about it, that’s marginally better than trying to “polish” a blank page.
Bottom line: You can’t learn to do something well, if you don’t try to do it at all.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received? Let us know in the comments section.