How to write better
I often go into my boss’s office and start conversations with lines like “I’m about to make a suggestion that I’m not qualified to make” or “Here’s a question I probably shouldn’t know the answer to”. I’m not sure if it’s normal to overstep bounds in the way that I do so regularly, but it’s almost become a habit. If I have an idea or suggestion or improvement or question, I want to share it or ask it. I think for the most part this has served me well. I’ve yet to be told to stop, so I haven’t stopped. That’s exactly what I’m about to do here. I’m going to tell you how to write well. I don’t consider myself a writer writer, but I am technically a writer in that sometimes I write words down for others to read. An expert writer, no. A writer by the simplest definition, yes. I’m hardly qualified to give anyone advice on how to write anything, let alone how to do it better. And yet, here we are: me about to start writing and you about to start reading about how to write better. Maybe what I’m about to say is true, maybe it’s total garbage. Still gonna say it.
The key to writing better is to write.
A lot. All the time. Anytime you think of something, just write. If you don’t have time right then, jot down your idea and write about it later. And if you can’t think of something to write about, go back and re-write some old stuff. Occasionally you can practice writing by reading and critiquing others, but the way to write better is to write more.
Intuitive right? Ground-breaking advice. But there is more and it’s a bit of a catch-22.
You may have noticed that I didn’t say to publish or post or distribute your writing. Not everything you write is worth sharing. The catch-22 is that to be a better writer (which implies sharing your writing with the world) you have to write a large amount and share a small amount. You’ll write a bunch of garbage that you don’t want the world to see. It will be clunky, won’t flow, won’t sound right at all. This stuff, the junk, you shouldn’t share unless you’re teaching a class or trying to burn your personal brand to the ground.
Someone once said “Most books should be blog posts, most blog posts should be tweets, and most tweets should be deleted.” Most of what we write should be for our eyes only. It’s just practice. Don’t show it to everyone. Maybe a spouse or friend, but definitely not potential employers or past professors or colleagues.
@rationalwalk tweeted “You’ve got to be willing to occasionally hit the “delete” button on something you’ve spent time writing if it isn’t good enough to post. The concept of sunk costs applies to everything. Don’t lower your standards just to post something.”
If you write 10 articles, maybe 5 of them are worth sharing. Maybe 9, maybe 1. The point is that if you want to improve your writing, you can’t set a goal of publishing one article a week. A lot of what you write should be scrapped, heavily edited, or completely re-written. Sometimes I’ll have what seems like a great idea, start writing, and realize 300 words in that it’s just not working. Maybe I don’t know how to communicate it yet or the more I think about it I don’t even agree with my original thought anymore. I have 186 notes in my writing file. The folders are Ideas, In-progress, Bad/re-write, Complete, and Published. I’ve published far less than 1/3rd of these online. Of those that I’ve posted, I’ve shared even fewer on my social channels.
(By the way, as I write this sentence this article sits in my “Complete” folder. It’s technically already done. There’s enough here that it gets the idea across. But it doesn’t get the idea across well enough — not yet. So I’m still working on it. The previous paragraph originally said I had 160 notes in my writing file but now there are 186. That’s because since I first wrote that paragraph I’ve had 26 new ideas that I’ve started working on.)
To write better, you have to write a lot. You may write 10 essays in a row and the world will never see them, but your eleventh essay will be much improved over your first. Your readers will see your writing improve by leaps and bounds when in reality you’re making tiny, painful, hard-earned incremental improvements that they don’t know about.
Why does this matter? Improving writing is a lot like starting a business or becoming a great athlete or learning to cook or having a strong marriage or raising good kids or anything else that takes time and dedication. People hear about “overnight” success stories and think about how lucky someone got without realizing that the overnight success story they’re reading about was 7 years in the making.
Stephen Curry’s shot looks effortless because he’s put more effort into it than anyone else (and because he has some amazing natural ability). To make writing look effortless requires a lot of effort. To make good parenting choices in the heat of a meltdown takes planning and practice. These things are usually done in private. No one sees the work and practice and sweat and thought that goes into building good habits or businesses or essays. Mine and Amber’s best parenting moments usually come after we’ve noticed an issue and planned how we’re going to deal with it the next time. We might look like good parents in one instance, but you should have seen us before we had time to plan and practice.
The Wright brothers presented their flying machine in 1903 and, to the public, it looked like their first prototype was successful. What very few people knew is that the Wright brothers had been sneaking away to Kitty Hawk every chance they got for 3 years. They flew over 1,000 practice flights and were the most experienced pilots in the world on the day of what the public thought was their first flight. The world saw an overnight success of two amateurs who had a good idea, not two experts who had surpassed literally every person in the world in their field. No one else saw them researching flight for four years, testing countless prototypes, traveling to Europe where advances in flight were being made, being attacked by mosquitoes at the test site so bad they almost quit, crashing over and over again (Orville once becoming injured so badly he couldn’t fly for a year), boxing up supplies every time they had to come home, boxing supplies and rebuilding the flying machines every time they went back to Kitty Hawk, busting their backs buying and selling bicycles to fund their obsession. The Wright brothers were as far from an overnight success as you could be.
Amazon is a now-massive company that many people see as an overnight success. That’s simply not true. Stock price isn’t everything, but it can tell a story:
If you want to write better, get out and write. Put it in the work. If you want to do anything else better, follow the same advice.
If you clicked this article to actually learn how to write better, here’s a bonus tip: ignore grammar rules. They should be viewed as guidelines at best, nothing more. The purpose of writing is to communicate ideas. If it helps people get what you’re saying better, then end sentences with prepositions, begin them with conjunctions, write some fragments and then some run-ons, and disobey any other rules you want. Grammar rules are for people who just want to show that they know the rules. The English language is full of pointless contradictory rules anyways so write in the way that makes the most sense.