As far as I know, no one has ever asked my friend Dan the secret to becoming a great plumber. Same thing for Alan, who’s an electrician. People know that being an electrician or being a plumber means that you must master a craft. They don’t think that there’s a “secret” of any kind. For some reason, they think writing is different. It’s not.
If you want to write well, that’s good news and bad news. The bad news is there’s no express lane on the road to writing well. The good news is writing is a craft just about anyone can master.
Several years ago, soon after I’d gone out on my own full-time, my mother called one evening. She asked if I had a minute to chat, and I told her I was getting ready to go to bed, but of course, I could talk. We disposed of the family matter that she called about and began talking about other things.
My mother knew that I was working on improving my writing. She asked, “Have you done your writing for today?” I admitted I hadn’t. “Well,” she asked, “why are you going to bed?”
After the conversation, I went back to my office and sat down to write my daily quota. That’s how you learn to write well. You write.
You don’t wait for inspiration. You don’t look for shortcuts.
Inspiration Is for Amateurs
If you’re waiting for inspiration, quit waiting and start writing. Depending on inspiration is like waiting for the tooth fairy to show up with your sweepstakes winnings. It’s not likely to happen. Jack London had it right.
“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”
You can’t become a competent writer unless you write a lot. And if you’re waiting for inspiration, you’re not writing. So, if you want to become a competent writer, start writing. You won’t get any better by not writing. Burn the following thought from Stephen King into your brain:
“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
No One Gets A Pass Because They’re Talented
It’s true, some people show up better-equipped to write than others. I’m one of them. My parents were both word people. My mother wrote short pieces for magazines and, later, advertising copy. My father was a preacher. My uncles were great storytellers. That helped me when it came time to write.
I took a freshman English class in high school where we read a book a week. Mr. Irwin Hoffman taught that course. I was lucky to be in his class. Mr. Hoffman introduced us to a wide array of great writing. He inspired the habit of reading good writing.
That’s where I started from. If you want to write well, you’ll have to start from where you are. Then, here’s what you must do.
Read a lot of good writing. That’s how you develop the mental models of good writing to compare your work to. There’s no way around this, unless you’re waiting for the same character that brings inspiration to deliver insight into great writing.
Write a lot. The more you write, the better you can get. But writing alone will not do the trick. You need to get feedback, reflect on it, and improve your writing because of it. This is not an easy or quick process.
If you want to learn to write well, remember that you are mastering a craft. Start where you are. Read to develop good mental models. Write a lot, get feedback, and write better because of it. Don’t wait for inspiration. Just go to work.