How Do I Become a Better Writer?Nov 04, 2020
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Rather than interviewing a guest or breaking down an expert author's way of launching a book, this week I'm answering the question: How do I become a better writer?
The short answer is: write. The longer answer is: write and read. The still longer answer is in this episode.
And if you want me to answer your writing question on this show, DM on Instagram at @annabdavid.
Reading Books on Writing Won’t Do It
I do not believe anybody becomes a better writer from reading books about writing—and I am saying this as someone who's written a book about writing.
There are fantastic books about writing—such as Stephen King’s On Writing and Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird—but reading them didn’t make me a better writer.
The way we become better writers is by writing.
I majored in writing in college and we were never taught about writing. We wrote/ my senior thesis was a short story. What we did was workshop out stories: the class would read them and we would give notes on each other's stories.
The Other Key is Reading
I’m not talking about reading books about writing. I’m talking about reading books like the one you’re writing. I had someone writing a memoir who was briefly in one of my programs and when I asked him his favorite memoirs he said, “I've never read a memoir.” And I said, “I don't think this program is for you because if you do not love the form, then you shouldn't have the audacity to do it.”
Now, this doesn't mean that you should feel like you need to be reading all the time. But if you don't like reading at all, writing may not be for you. If you don’t really care about words, then you should get someone to help you write your book.
Make Writing a Daily Practice
Many people tell me, “I'm a great writer, I've got this amazing story.” And the reality is that the more you write, the more you're going to see how bad some of your stuff really is. As Stephen King says, you’ve got to kill your darlings—edit—as you go. By doing that, you start to know, “Oh, that's not good. That's not me at my best. That's cliched.” And you start to know what's really original and from the heart. And you only know that by subscribing to the idea Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in Outliers—that you become truly skilled once you’ve done something for 10,000 hours. That doesn't mean you have to write for 10,000 hours to be good, but it does mean that the only way to become a better writer is to write.
I launched a membership program when the stay-at-home order first started for a group of newbie writers. Because I had someone else running it, I would only occasionally pop in and hear how good or not good their writing was. Frankly, most of them were only so-so.
Imagine my surprise when I popped in six months later and discovered that a lot of those so-so writers had grown into professionals. Their writing started to captivate and impress me. What did they do in that time? They wrote. Every day. Nobody's teaching them and they are getting so good and they are getting good because they are putting their butts in the chair every day.
You Don’t Have to Write All Day
The people in my membership group are only writing for an hour a day. But they built the habit. The more we do something, the more we want to do something, whether that's working out or meditating or writing. And it's so easy, once you slack off one day to just slack off the next; it just gets harder and harder to go back. A prolific writer friends of mine told me that on the days he doesn’t want to write, he sets a 10-minute timer and commits to just writing for that length of time. And then of course, once after 10 minutes, he's in the flow and he wants to do it.
Avoiding distractions can also help; when I was writing Make Your Mess Your Memoir, I committed to not looking at my phone or online at all until I had written three pages. And so my brain was totally clear and it would just be me and my coffee and I would write.
I wrote my first book because my friend Melanie and I both wanted to write novels and she said, “Well, why don't we send each other 500 words every Sunday?” And I said, yes, thinking she didn’t really mean it. And the following Sunday, I received her 500 words and I panicked, realizing I had to write 500 words so that she didn't know that I didn't think she was actually serious.
So I fired those off and thought, “Phew, don't have to do that again.” And the following Sunday, I received her next 500 words. So I had to do the same thing. At that point I had a thousand words and I kept going and those first thousand words are the first thousand words of my book Party Girl, which was the first of my eight books.
So I never would have done it if I hadn't made that agreement, kind of unwillingly, to my friend to be accountable.
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