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The Minimalist’s Guide to Becoming a Better Writer

Minima

From my position writing seems simple. You read, you write, you critique. What’s missing from that simple equation is the hard work.

It took me over fifteen years or longer to arrive here. And I’m still learning. Still growing. Portions of writing get easier, but I still have my challenges. Yet, if you love what you do, time will fly. I promise.

Yet, don’t waste time.

So, if you like simple, but want simple explained (I don’t care what we are talking about — there are always nuances to be teased out of “simple”), then here’s a cheat sheet to guide you in your journey to becoming a great writer. Enjoy.

Reading

Writers love to read. And there’s two ways to do that.

  • Read deep. Great writers master their craft. They are not satisfied with understanding the fundamentals. They want to master those basics, and they are always looking to upgrade their talent. Sharpen your saw by reading — and re-reading — classics like The Elements of Style, Bird by Bird. Then work through a list of books that focus on the art of writing: How to Write a Sentence or Advertising Secrets of the Written Word.
  • Read wide. A massive store of ideas, metaphors, peculiar words, superb opening lines, sublime closing ones, and stories will satisfy the monster known as creativity. Read biographies, science fiction, commentaries. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Read the old before the new. You will learn from it all. None of it will go to waste. And the only trajectory you should follow is your interest.

Writing

The more, the merrier.

  • First drafts. A whole slew of writing fits into here. Your journal, premature ideas, emails never sent, pages of a favorite story you copy by hand. This is the portion of the iceberg under the water. The words that will never see the light of the day. Your spring training. Daily workouts. The stepping stones toward perfection.
  • Revisions. About one tenth of what you write must see the light of day. You must deliver something if you want to be regarded as a professional. And what you deliver must be honed. Trimmed. Rewritten. This is where the men are separated from the boys. The women from the girls.
  • Copy. Take a page from your favorite author and copy it by hand. Copy it by laptop. Germane to this practice, memorize well-written poems and paragraphs. Absorb their style.
  • Everything Else. Obsess about writing. Find opportunities to write when you cannot write. Need to make a call? Create a script. Need to deliver a speech? Write a draft. Email friends and family. Dust off posts on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook. Focus on a planned and purposeful neglect of everything else but writing.

Critiquing

Perhaps the most potent element in becoming a better writer is constructive criticism. It’s the objective measure you need to help correct your mistakes. It’s not easy, so humble yourself. Grin and bear it. In time you will develop your own sense of objective criticism. But never abandon bouncing ideas off others. We can always grow.

  • Friends. Run your copy by an honest friend who shoots straight from the hip. Avoid the perennial cheerleader.
  • Critique Groups. Join a group of writers with a slight mix of talent to avoid constant frustration. Listen to the feedback no matter who is giving it: beginner or pro. Evaluate everything they say. Keep the good, dismiss the bad.
  • Professionals. Mentors guide you with specific, strategic direction.
  • Metrics. Pay attention to how people are reacting to your content. Are people reading it? Commenting on it? Sharing it? Is your content driving traffic? Showing up in search engines? Subscribers joining?
  • Self Examination. In time you will acquire the ability to judge your own work — to distinguish the best, the worst and the mediocre. You will have ample amounts of the latter two. Be ruthless. No free lunch.
  • Publication. Submit to traditional and online journals. Send your work to literary agents. Package a work as an ebook and release it. Measure the response.

By the way, when you feel confident, join a group, committee, or company where you are the dumbest writer in the room. Let the talent and the competition spur you to new heights.

Got anything you’d add to the above? Please share in the comments.

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Image source: Minima

Comments

  1. Demian,

    I can’t exactly explain why, but my best writing happens when I deep into a great science fiction or high fantasy novel… Dune, Game of Thrones, Neil Gaiman, etc… Well written stories that take outside of the assumed world.

    Appreciate the guide,

    Hanley

  2. Great post, Demian! The thing I’ve been working on lately is stepping away from the technical copywriting books (which have been great, but…) and doing 2 things:

    1) Living life with an extra-environmental view. The great Howard Gossage coined this term, which means to take yourself out of your environment (mentally) and view your world with an outsiders view. It’s like the ant who can only really see the ant hill he lives in by stepping outside of it. Walking through life with this awareness makes writing much more betterer.

    2) Read fiction. I’ve always hated it because I forget the names of characters easily. Lately, I’ve been digging in to fiction and find that I write my best copy after reading it. Neil Gaiman and Chuck Palahniuk are my fav’s as of now.

    Take care and thanks again for the post!!!

  3. Hello, Demian!
    Another great post. :)

    I agree with all the advice you put forth here, but I would add “Have Fun.”

    We writers can be an overly serious bunch sometimes. We forget why we became writers in the first place – for a love of the written word, the nuances of language, the power of story, the magic of ideas. Sometimes, we have to step away from all the *shoulds* (even the ones we love) and just ENJOY the acts of reading, writing, and critiquing. We have to remember to revel in our love of all things literary … proudly flaunt all our word-geekery.

    :P

  4. Hey Demian-

    Two things on your list I really need to do more — read more (especially fiction) and be better at revisions. I have found that reading fiction is a great way to learn to craft a story while revising and revising and revising makes my prose a lot tighter.

    • And it doesn’t help to read books on how to write fiction. I’ve learned some of my best lessons in books like the First Five Pages and How to Write a Darn Good Novel. Then you read fiction and you see the parts at work. Very helpful.

  5. Kristyna Z. says:

    Thank you very much for your tips in the “Reading” section, Demian.

  6. Awesome post man. I’m reading through all of the old classic copywriter books, some of them written by men long dead. Amazing insights to be had in all of them.

    The tip about copying out the words of the masters by hand is invaluable. I doubt that in our instant gratification society 1 in 100 people will do that. If you do, you’ll be in the 1%. I find that exercise to be like meditation. It just soothes the soul and after the 3rd handwritten copy suddenly you are noticing things you never noticed before. Powerful things.

    I’m currently working on a site about a small self defense knife
    and rewriting the copy. To make it effective I’ve found I have to get into the world of the buyer and realize why someone would want that product.

    Love your blog – keep up the great work!

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