We talk a lot about the business of publishing—everything from picking the right title and choosing the right cover to writing a winning book description and marketing your book to readers. All that is important, particularly for authors just getting into the business. But to be absolutely blunt about it, writing is a craft, and none of it matters if your book isn’t any good.
Talking about craft can be tricky, because (let’s face it) “good” is subjective, and always in the eye of the beholder. Plus, there are writers who bend, break, fold, and mutilate the “rules of good writing” and end up winning Pulitzers.
Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” for example, does away with quotation marks and punctuation, doesn’t capitalize proper nouns, and often doesn’t attribute who is speaking during dialogue, but it won a Pulitzer and (maybe even more notable) made it into Oprah’s Book Club.
So, when talking about craft, we need to keep in mind that the rules are meant to give us boundaries to push against and sometimes break through. Nothing is black and white, nothing is universal, and nothing is immutable. Unless it is. Language is weird.
The Yin & Yang of Good Writing
There are two places to start, when you want to learn or improve on your craft:
- Read good writing, and a lot of it
- Write far more often, and work hard to get better at it
These will seem obvious at first blush, but it’s alarming how often writers ignore these two golden rules.
In his seminal work “On Writing,” Stephen King wrote, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
King himself is a voracious reader, known to always have a book at hand. In a time before eBook apps on smartphones, King shoved paperbacks into his back pocket so he could read in line at the grocery store. Presumably he could sense when to push his cart forward. Or, possibly, no one in line wanted to criticize the guy who wrote “Carrie.”
King read widely, too, devouring history and biography right alongside mysteries, thrillers, and westerns. That’s a key point to keep I mind: Read everything. Read outside of your favorite genre. Read things you may not have thought you’d be interested in, just to see how it feels to read through to the other side.
Just keep this golden rule in mind: As a writer, you have a flat-out obligation to read, and read widely.
Reading is how we program our brains with language. We can program our brains with stories and ideas in all sorts of other ways, from television and movies to real-world experiences and conversations with friends. But our relationship with language starts and grows with reading.
If you’re reading, of course, you should be reading something good. Again, we’re talking about something subjective, but let’s make it easy. You need to read things that thrill you. You need to read books that use language in ways that make your heart pound and your eyes water. Read anything that holds your interest, but push yourself to read work that uses language like an artist’s brush, painting the inner world of the author on a canvas of light that simply brightens your soul. Go read good books.
And then, try to imitate those books.
Avoid plagiarism. Do not steal. Leave the exact verbiage where you found it. Instead, try to capture the tone of what you’ve read, practicing it and imitating it until you can do that author’s voice at parties.
There’s an apocryphal story about Benjamin Franklin teaching himself to write. He knew the fundamentals, of course. He could put quill to parchment and produce something readable. But he wanted to inspire heart pounding and soul brightening with his own work, just as he experienced when he was reading the work of others.
To that end, he started reading work he loved, and then attempting to replicate it by memory, in his own hand. He would close a book, pick up a pen, and start writing. And then he’d compare what he’d written to what he’d read, and if it didn’t match, he’d start again.
Franklin was obsessed with not just memorizing the works he’d read, but with learning how to write the way the author had written. He wanted that voice, and so he mimicked it, until he understood, instinctively, the cadence and rhythm and nuance of it. At that point, he could write as if he were that writer, and then, experimenting from there, he developed his own voice, synthesizing what he’d learned from others, and experimenting to hone his skill.
All Writing is Practice
I’m not saying you need to follow in Franklin’s bifocaled footsteps, but having some sort of regimented means of incrementally improving your craft isn’t a bad idea. You can even make it a productive exercise.
One piece of advice I give to new writers is to treat all writing as practice.
Even in an age of always-on media, movies and television streaming to our smart devices, and live video letting us gab directly with anyone watching, we still have an awful lot of writing to do.
Facebook and Twitter updates, emails, text messages, memos for work—you probably write a lot more than you ever imagined you would. You should use all of those as opportunities to practice and improve your craft. Treat it all as formal writing.
That word “formal” could throw you for a loop, I know.
Worried you’ll alienate your friends with text messages that read, “Greetings, my erstwhile companions. What news do you bring of local tomfoolery?” Relax. You can treat informal scenarios as formal opportunities to practice dialogue. Your characters will need to talk, and when they do they’ll need to sound like normal human beings. So there’s your loophole. Use it well, my erstwhile friends.
The point is to take all the small, bit-by-bit opportunities that come your way and use them to write to the best of your ability, always.
In fact, in emails with friends, you often have the opportunity to experiment and perfect your voice, without worrying about consequences. Try mixing it up with new vocabulary, and see how things go. Learn and implement a new grammar rule. Write sentences accurately but atrociously align with allocated alliteration.
If you’re worried about your friends thinking you’re weird, let them in on what you’re doing. They could offer valuable critique. If something you wrote made them laugh or made them think or made them sort of confused and maybe a little hungry, file that feedback away. You might want to do all of those things in your prose, later on.
Enlist the Self-Doubt Jerk in Your Brain
Every great writer got that way by experimenting with language until they found a style that worked for them. Improving your craft, as a writer, means doing this experimentation deliberately and often.
You should always question your status quo, asking, “Is this really the best I can do?”
That should be easy, because chances are you have a little voice in the back of your head that questions everything you write anyway.
The rule here is, first, never let that negative voice in the back of your head keep you from writing, but always let it drive you to improve your writing.
I want to make this very clear: I am not saying that your writing must be perfect before you can release a book. The adage goes, “Perfect is the enemy of done.” And that’s absolutely true.
Since you’re going to have that nagging little pest in your brain anyway, though—always trying to convince you that you’re not good enough—why not put the little bugger to work? Harness the power of that blowhard’s wind, and use it to billow your sails and push you out to the open sea.
Turn self-doubt into a regimen of self-discipline for continuing improvement. And for fun you could even yell “Victory from below, you little belly ferret!” every time you get a good review on something you’ve written.
Redefine Your Success
One last bit of advice on perfecting your craft … stop thinking of success as a destination, and start thinking of it as a journey.
Honestly, this advice is good for you no matter what type of success you pursue, so follow it in all aspects of your life. But for our purposes, we need to stop thinking of “honing our craft” as something we’ll accomplish some day and then set aside, going on to write beautifully by default, ever more.
Instead, our success as a writer will depend largely on our continually and continuously working to learn more, grow more, and improve our writing every day.
Honing your craft should be a daily pursuit, in other words. It’s a discipline you want to constantly implement and improve upon.
And this is because regardless of how good you are, there will always be something new to try and learn and make a part of you. Embrace that. The challenge of it is what will make you an unbelievable writer.