Janey is about 6. She stopped her bike on the sidewalk directly in front of me.
“Hi, Mr. Wally. Hi, Toto.”
Janey is a polite little girl who lives in my neighborhood. That’s why she took care to greet me and my dog before launching into her agenda.
“You’re a writer, right?” I admitted that I’d been called so.
“Can you teach me to write?”
Janey’s a little young to become a client. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t have the money to pay my fees, either. Even so, her question deserved an answer.
“I can’t teach you to write, Janey,” I told her. “But I can teach you how to learn to write.”
Janey nodded. She thought about that for a moment. Then she looked up, “Thank you, Mr. Wally.” She rode her bike around us and continued down the sidewalk, calling back over her shoulder, “Bye, Mr. Wally. Bye, Toto.”
Maybe you’re like Janey, but a bit older. Perhaps you want to write better. Well, I can’t teach you to write, either. But I can teach you how to learn to write better. That’s what this post is about.
You can’t write well unless you know what good writing looks and sounds like. You must create a mental model of good writing so that you know what to aspire to and how to evaluate your progress.
Read good stuff. Read good stuff in the genre you want to write in.
If you want to write novels and short stories, read the great ones. Read great ones from the past and the present. If you want to write business books, read well-written business books. This is not a step. It’s a lifestyle choice. If you want to write well, you never quit reading good stuff.
You can’t learn to ride a bike by reading books about bike riding or by watching other people ride a bike. You must get on and ride. Writing is the same. You can’t learn it by reading about it or by reading good writing. You learn to write by writing.
You may already know what you want to write, but maybe you don’t. If you don’t, create a simple goal for yourself. Tell a story. Explain something. Share something interesting. It really doesn’t matter what you want to write about as long as you know what you’re trying to do.
It also doesn’t matter how much you write or how well you write.
All great writing starts as awful writing. That’s true for great, renowned masters of the craft. It will be true for you. It will be true when you start to learn to write well. It will be true for you no matter how good you get. The first thing you write will always need improvement.
Try to Make It Better
Take that first draft or that first mess and try to make it better. Read it aloud. Your tongue will stumble over things your eyes thought were just fine.
Mark up the manuscript so that you know what to change. Then change it. Get as good as you can before you move on to the next step.
Get feedback from someone who knows what great writing looks and sounds like. He or she should also be able to suggest improvements.
That someone might be a teacher or a coach. If you’re going to take a class in writing, pick classes where you must write a lot and where you get a lot of feedback.
You don’t need a professional. If you have a friend who knows what good writing is and can convey his or her insights, use that person. Join a group of people who are working to improve their writing. In most groups, the members criticize each other’s work. Make sure you join a group where a couple of the people are more experienced than you are.
Use the Feedback You Get
Feedback may be “the breakfast of champions,” but you won’t get any value from it if you don’t consume it. Make some changes to your original based on the feedback you received.
Repeat the Process
Learning to write well is not something where you work on it for a while and then check it off your list. It’s more like a lifelong habit.
As you learn to write better, you’ll probably find yourself writing more. You may get to a point where you think, “Hey, I’m pretty good…” That’s dangerous. It means you’re not paying attention anymore. Sure, you can revel in your improvement. Just don’t think you’re as good as you can get.
I can’t teach you to write, but I can teach you how to learn to write. Start by reading good stuff to develop a model of what good writing looks and sounds like. Then write. Try to improve what you write. Get some feedback and use it to write better. Repeat.