The way to learn to write better is to write more
One of the most frequent questions I get is this one: I want to be a successful writer; what advice/tips/help can you give me?
Let’s answer that question once and for all.
The best response is given by a writer writing about another writer. I sometimes think it’s impossible for Seth Godin to put out a book that doesn’t have at least one page that makes me want to stop reading and start physically clapping. His latest offering, The Practice, had this:
“Isaac Asimov published more than four hundred books. How did he possibly pull that off?
Asimov woke up every morning, sat in front of his manual typewriter, and he typed.
That was his job, to type.
The stories he created, the robots and the rest, were the bonus that came along for the ride.
He typed when he wasn’t inspired. The typing turned into writing and he became inspired.
We don’t write because we feel like it.
We feel like it because we write.”
Are you clapping? If you’re not, don’t bother with writing – it’s not for you.
There’s an absolutely fundamental point being made, and it’s not just about writing.
Seth Godin also writes – a lot. He puts out a steady stream of blog posts, pretty much every day. Over time some of these posts start assuming a pattern, and may turn into something else. Books, perhaps (he’s written twenty to date). Or talks he delivers. Or content for his many online education programs.
No one pays Seth for the blog content. A lot of people pay for the books, talks and courses.
He taught me this lesson in 30 minutes when I met him years ago. Don’t wait for perfection. Don’t wait for your magnum opus to reveal itself fully formed in your head. That will never happen. Keep writing your column and tweets and posts and client reports. If that stuff is any good, it will turn itself into books.
My last book, The Bigger Deal, came to life exactly like that. From this column. From my tweets. From conversations with the attendees of my learning programmes. From the buzz in my head as I walked around. From my travels. From the notes I made. That book is now in its third year of release, and still selling nicely. Another book is in the offing.
So. You want to write? Then write! Seth again:
Write about your audience, your craft, your challenges. Write about the trade-offs, the industry, and your genre.
Write about your dreams and your fears. Write about what’s funny and what’s not.
Write to clarify. Write to challenge yourself.
Write on a regular schedule.
Writing isn’t the same as talking, because writing is organized and permanent. Writing puts you on the hook.”
If that’s made you want to rush to the keyboard, then hey, you might just be a writer.
You will only find your readers by writing. You don’t know who they are – your writing will uncover them. In today’s world you don’t need permission to write. You don’t need editors or publishers or gatekeepers to give you a pass. No one invited me to write this column, way back when no one knew anything I had written. I simply wrote the first one, and made it as genuine and heartfelt and distinctive as I could, and sent it in.
And here we are, 18 years on.
There are no guarantees. Maybe millions will like your work. Maybe only your mum will (and she’s probably faking). Maybe you can get one hundred people to pay you something for your work. Maybe writing will never pay – but something else will. The point is the practice of writing is the path. If you’re not writing, you’re not on the path. You’re still at the starting line, awaiting permission or inspiration.
The only one you’re waiting for is you.
Do the work. Make it creative, authentic, original, generous work – work that’s you. Ship the work. Put it out there. See what happens. Learn as you go. Get better. Keep going.
Read that paragraph again. It wasn’t even about writing. It’s about any work you do. All creative work – work that doesn’t follow rote, is not preset, is about solving problems or about new ways of doing things – is done like this. By doing it, and learning as you do it.
Inspired? Great! You know what to do. A final word, though. Writing well is also about reading well. More on that next week.
(Sunday Nation, 7 February 2021)