The Secrets of Great Writing

Aug 8, 2016 | Better Writing

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

That quote is usually attributed to Somerset Maugham, though we really don’t know who actually said it first. Probably it was someone who wasn’t as famous as Maugham. When I read that quote, I think of all those articles about the secrets of great writing. Nobody knows what they are, either.

There Are No Secrets

The fact is that most of those secrets of great writing usually fall into one of two categories. Sometimes, they’re things that have worked for a limited number of writers but not for everyone. Other times, they’re just hard work dressed up in fancy clothes.

There may not be secrets, but there are some things that are true for most successful writers most of the time. Here are some of them.

There Are No Shortcuts

Writing is work. If you want to learn to do it well, you have to put in the time and the effort to get better. Writing a single piece is work, too. It takes intentional effort.

All Beginnings Are Hard

That’s a Yiddish saying I remember hearing when I was growing up. It’s true for just about everything including writing.

I know there are exceptions but for me and most of the writers I’ve talked to getting started is really hard. Once we’re started we can keep going pretty well.

Sometimes the way to get into writing is just to start writing. At some point the words will start to flow and you’ll be on your way.

Great Writing is Re-Writing, So…

Great writing is re-writing. Since it’s not writing until it’s on a page or in a file, you need to get it out of your head so you can start working with it. Do that as quickly as you can.

The First Draft Is the Worst Draft

Ernest Hemingway put it more colorfully when he said, “All first drafts are crap.” He was right.
The trick is to take this as a challenge and not as proof that you will never be able to write anything good. Get on with the revisions.

Feedback Is the Breakfast of Champions

Feedback is also essential for writing. You may not be able to get much when you’re writing something short with a deadline, like a blog post. But, if you’re writing a book, find some alpha and beta readers to help you make it better.

Great Writers Publish

That’s a variation on the Steve Jobs observation that, “Great artists ship.” Whatever you write, it won’t do you or anyone else any good unless you get it out into the world. No book that was never published has ever helped someone boost their career.

“The Great Truths Are Too Important to Be New.”

That’s a quote from my friend, Michael LeBoeuf. It’s true for the truths of writing. They may seem old. They may seem simple. They may seem obvious. But they’re still true. And understanding them will help you write better.