I’ve had a few friends ask what I did to cultivate my love for writing and what I did to improve my own writing. It felt appropriate to offer my magnum opus on writing in hopes it helps some of you. These are the only six tricks I know, and if these don’t work for you then they probably aren’t working for me either.
Most of it is your typical advice, but I’ve tried to freshen it up a little bit. Writers are stale people.
If you want to become a better writer…
1. Write every time you get a chance.
If you added up all the words I’ve written, you’d find only a small fraction has been shown to the world. I have tens of thousands of words tucked away in computer folders and saved drafts, and they will never be seen. They’re ideas whose paints are dried and can no longer be touched up. A lot of them aren’t even mishaps or smeared. They just don’t have that thing about them.
If you want to write, you’ve got to write. This post can’t write something for you, and you would probably become a better writer if you stopped reading this blog post and opened a Word document. Seriously. At least go write 500 words or so that you want to keep, and then come back and finish this post. Or, put down the books about writing and literary criticism. Actually type (or pick up a pen, if that’s your thing).
2. Don’t publish every time you get an opportunity.
Although you should write every time you get a chance, you shouldn’t publish every time you get an opportunity. There’s a big difference between the two. What distinguishes a good writer from a great writer isn’t just skill—it’s having an eye for what should or should not be written.
The plight of Christian publishing is that most books don’t deserve to be written. Even fewer deserve to be published. The criteria many Christian publishers use to determine whether or not they should publish a book reinforces tribalism and celebrity culture, and in doing so they have watered down the industry altogether.
There are three questions that I use to determine whether or not I should write and publish something:
- Does this need to be written?
- Am I the person to write it?
- Am I the person to write this right now or in my current season/week/month/year/etc.?
There are times something needs to be said, but it needs to be said by somebody else. There are also times you’re the right person to say something, but you should wait to say it at a more appropriate time or in a more appropriate season. Cultivate patience in publishing—whether it be blogging or book deals—and you will become a much more refined writer, especially in the eyes of everyone else.
3. Read widely, and read wisely.
There’s a myth that great writers must read a great number of books. It can be true, but I think the assumption is misguided. It’s sort of adjacent to the last point: the difference between a good writer and a great writer is an eye for what should or should not be read. You’ve got to read wisely and widely.
Writers ought to be voracious readers, yes, but it is more important for them to be good readers. If you want to become a better writer, find good books within a wide range of genres and eat them up. It won’t do you a whole lot of good to only have a literary diet consisting exclusively of your own discipline or field.
Read classics. Read biography. Read modern fiction. Read economics and politics. Read philosophy. Read essays. Make your readership massive. But if a book is bad, don’t finish it unless you absolutely need it for your research. If you’re serious about writing, you need to learn the art of putting down bad books when you’re only forty pages into them. Don’t even finish ’em. This isn’t pretentious. There are simply too many books out there to justify wasting your time.
4. Be a realist.
For most of you, writing isn’t worth it. Its return rate absolutely sucks. I love writing, but I refuse to lie to potential investors. Writing is a different task than being a football player or an electrician or a brain surgeon. Husbandry might be nobler than writing, but even the farmer has something more consistent to show for his labor.
Everyone should write more, but not everyone should become a writer. I’m not the only one who feels this way: Stephen King says a bad writer can never become a good writer, and a good writer can never become an excellent writer.
Some of you just don’t have “it.” I don’t know how to tell you to corner “it”—maybe try a squirrel trap. But if you don’t have “it” after trying your hand at writing, there is no guarantee you ever will. You can go to English courses or read good books, but they can’t promise to give “it” to you, either.
I don’t want to know where I fall on the spectrum of bad-good-great-excellent. I could assume, but it would be pretty self-deprecating of me (and self-deprecation makes for really weak advice-giving). But those around me have affirmed I have “it,” and that’s enough from which to grow. I have to be honest about when my writing is bad, but I also have to be honest in swallowing that I have “it” in me. It’d be dishonest to waste “it.”
Be a realist: If you were given “it,” you should use “it.”
5. Write above your level.
There’s no reason for someone who has been writing for four or five years to tell you how you can be a great writer . . . but that’s exactly what I’m doing.
It might seem silly, but if you really believe in what you’re writing, you ought to write above your level. Many will say that trying to get something published is bad, but the hard work of good writing will weed out those who just want to get published from those who put in the work of being a writer. You’re sticking your nose out there, so write like the whole world is watching. Like Luther said, sin boldly.
When you write above your level, though, you have to be careful that you aren’t trying to write above your authority. There’s a difference in earning your stripes and showing off the stripes you earned. I don’t have a book contract, and I’ve made maybe a few dollars off my writing. I’ve put in enough labor that I feel like I can call myself a writer—it’s my personality—but it’d be silly for me to talk as if I know all the in’s and out’s of publishing. You have to show off what you’ve done without overstepping into what you wish you could do.
This is particularly relevant for young writers, so I want to say a brief word to them: People distrust young writers when they try to speak with authority they do not have. At the same time, people will not listen to those without authority. So, what are we to do?
I don’t think this means us young guns shouldn’t write—I just think it means we have to be more careful in how we write above our level. We have to show everyone else that although we know less than them, we are able to talk about what we know with humility. We aren’t dumb, we are just young, and I think a lot of young writers have a unique perspective to offer. Don’t count yourself out, but don’t oversell yourself either.
6. Develop a theology of writing.
I’m assuming most of you reading this are Christian since you’re on The Blazing Center. You probably couldn’t put up with us if you weren’t.
Someone once made me articulate a theology of writing. I think it was five pages. In it, I had to essentially form an argument for why I write, what the posture of the writer should be, and so on—the typical sorts of things you’d expect. If there’s enough demand for it, I’ll post a less formal version of mine. But the point is this: You should be able to tell people why you have so much unction about writing. Writing matters, and you should be able to tell people why in your own words.
If you struggle to find a starting place, here’s one: You’re living in sentences. This world was spoken by God. The collapse of empires are God’s comma splices, and the birds are his quotation marks.
Mimic your Maker in the creative act, and your creative product will be much more gospel-shaped. Even if you don’t talk about the gospel, it’ll bleed through the pages because it is the great Story behind all stories. Mimicking God in your writing will make your story better, too, because God didn’t make mistakes. His words conveyed their fullest meanings.
If you want to become a better writer, challenge yourself to pen a theology of writing. Sharpen it, hone in on it, refine it, constantly mold it. Your theology of writing will carry you through the lifelong vocation of being a writer, and you’ll need it when you start to forget your identity. (And trust me, if you’re a writer you will forget it sooner or later.)