How to Write Gooder: The Controversial Guide to Good Writing (and Not Sucking)
Your writing sucks.
Don’t worry, so does mine.
I’ve never published a best selling book and my blog is an error-ridden, hatchet job compilation of the English language.
But there is good news.
You can learn how to write good. Much gooder.
And don’t panic. This is not another article about spelling mistakes or how to master grammar like an 18th century poet. In fact, I’m starting to think that those things are a bit daggy anyway. This article is all about what it takes to become a better writer. Good writing just ain’t what it used to be – and a lot of people might find it a bit depressing.
Let’s dive in!
Oh, and I’ve added a collection of my favorite quotes about writing and how to write down the bottom.
So what is good writing?
When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing.
- Enrique Jardiel Poncela (Tweet this quote)
If you sat your grandparents down and asked them about good writing and great writers you would probably notice them developing a faraway gaze in their eyes and quoting Hemingway, Shakespeare or H.G. Wells.
Ask your parents about it and they might reference the same authors as well as throwing in some newspapers and magazines like the New York Times, the New Yorker, TIME Magazine or Vanity Fair. Perhaps Christopher Hitchens or Orwell get a mention.
But if you ask the younger generations about who knows how to write you’ll probably hear about 50 Shades of Grey, Twilight, Harry Potter and a few of the hugely successful blogs like Dooce, The Art of Non-Conformity and maybe Seth Godin (classic blogs). And while a lot of us still read those old classics and established newspapers, we also look at WIRED for tech-news and Huffington Post for election coverage.
It’s become a real mixed bag of quality and, well, other.
And while I am aware that these are huge generalizations about what people consider to be good writing (I know there’ll be a lot of arguments about Twilight) you can’t deny that they’ve enjoyed massive success.
And this is where the whole debate on “good writing” gets ignited (feel free to comment about this): is good writing something that is correct, composed well and based on some education/study or is it whatever is effective and popular?
As a career-blogger and fan of reading (both classics and “other”) I am constantly asking myself this question.
I’ve read the first few chapters of a recent best seller and then given up because expressions and phrases were repeated so many times I was convinced it had missed the editing stage.
But I’ve also read perfectly crafted masterpieces with impeccable English that reminded me of the time I ordered a whole plate of plain and near-raw Tofu at a restaurant by mistake: I just wouldn’t recommend it to my friends.
If you look at the few examples above you’ll see that there is no apparent correlation between successful writers and good writing in the same way that good writing (in the traditional sense) doesn’t guarantee any success.
So what the heck is going on?
How do we get good at writing if we don’t even know what that is?
Who’s writing it and who’s reading it?
If you want to get rich from writing, write the sort of thing that’s read by persons who move their lips when they’re reading to themselves.
- Don Marquis (Tweet this Quote)
I guess the first things we have to think about are the author and the audience. These two things play an enormous role in what is considered to be good writing and, most definitely, what will be successful.
For example, I highly doubt that an English major at Oxford University could write a novel for his/her classmates and have it enjoy the success of something like Twilight. In the case of those highly popular books you have to wonder whether pitching it at a lower reading grade helps the popularity because not all of us learned to read English at Stephen Fry levels.
This is not an issue that is confined to the written word either. Will Smith wrote a verse about “dumbing down” in a song called Party Starter:
I call for the days of the unadulterated
When the artistry was cultivated
You know, back when rap was smart and multilayered
We could rap without r`s and ultimatums damn
Now today I say the phrase I long for the good old days when the party was all about partyin’
I was a mini-party starter then
My mind bends when I call my pen
The big question: should I run the mind a vittle?
Food for thought or dumb the rhyme a little?
But Will “if you come to high that’ll alienate folks & they won’t buy it”, look people gettin’ trapped in the track
& they be clappin’, even when the rappin’ is wack
Yo, what happened, when did we get happy wit that?
He’s old-fashioned (yup), but let’s be happy he’s back
Ya heard me!
And most of us know the Chris Rock comedy sketch (too rude to post!) where he says he loves rap music but is tired of defending it now that the lyrics are so weak.
Clearly us readers and writers aren’t the only one noticing that the popular stuff is often not of the highest quality when it how to write with good composition or technique.
The author’s goals
But remember we were talking about authors and audiences? What that means is that the writer’s goals play a huge role in the type of writing that he/she wants to get good at.
Let me use myself as an example here.
I write blogs. This one and ViperChill are the main ones but I also do copywriting for a very select few clients. And what that means is that I am usually writing instructional material pitched at people who are just learning the ropes.
It’s called evergreen content – stuff that always stays relevant and, if you follow my method, always aims at newbies.
If I started writing blog posts in the style of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds I would no doubt become irrelevant very quickly. Unless, I suppose, people thought it was satirical and witty. This guy writes as a dinosaur robot in all caps and seems to be doing pretty well for himself!
For me, improving my writing skills is all about getting better at blogging. I want to have a successful blog that genuinely helps people.
I’m not trying to write a great romance novel so I don’t need to take a course in fictional writing.
I’m not trying to compose the next great symphony so I don’t need to learn how to pen sheet music.
I’m not even trying to be well respected by people who understand what good English is supposed to look like (sorry Mum).
I’m just trying to communicate what I know to people who want to know it in a way that is helpful and distinctive.
That is good writing, for me.
But not for everyone.
Can we learn how to write?
How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.
- Henry David Thoreau (Click to Tweet)
If you’ve read this far you’ve probably realized that I don’t have all the answers.
Trying to figure out whether my writing is any good is like trying to tell if a politician is telling the truth: sometimes you’re just not sure what to think.
Luckily, though, there are two ways to learn about how to get better at writing:
- Rely on your own experience
This is where you learn by looking at what you’ve done in the past and comparing it to the current situation. It might also look at data like subscriber rates and eBook sales to see whether more people are enjoying your stuff.
- Rely on the experience of others
A lot of great writers throughout history have left us tips and hints about how you improve your craft. What this means is you can pick an author/authors that you admire and try to learn from them in the same way that they learned from their heroes.
Let’s take a look at some of the best things I know about writing as well as the best things I could find from people who know a lot more than me.
1. What are your trying to do? I mean really.
The very first thing that you need to do is figure out, and I mean really figure out, what you are trying to do as a writer and an author. This is quite an in depth process that takes a lot of research and introspection. In fact, although I’ve been blogging for many years it was only recently that I decided (or remembered!) that this was what I really wanted to do.
You see, over time you get corrupted by various things in your life. You might start out wanting to be the best blogger or writer but then your kids come up to you saying, “Dad I’m hungry!” and you realize that there are other things in life that you need to take care of.
But if you have really figured out what you want to do, and I mean really, you will always account for these things. You’ll find a way. You’ll make time or you’ll take a second job cleaning a gym at 6am like I did for two years.
And knowing what you want to do isn’t just a matter of saying “I want to be a blogger” either. You need to know things like:
- Why you want to do it
Are you trying to help someone? Do you need to get something off your chest? Is it to make money doing something you love? Do you want to have the number one book in the Bird Watching niche?
- When it needs to happen by
If you don’t set and end-date or goal your ambitions really are just a fun thought. Writers set deadlines and work through periods of extreme boredom or anti-creativity.
- How you’ll react to failure
Everyone fails. Even the best writers. How are you going to deal with that?
What your limits are
How long will you let it go on? What will or won’t you do for money, fame and pleasure? You have to set limits on why you write in order to keep it focused and regret free.
Imagine if a scientist didn’t know which disease he/she wanted to cure. How could they develop experiments? How could they study previous scientists who had breakthroughs? How could the hone their skills and gain credibility? The very first step, or at least the one you need to do before you give up, is figure out exactly what you are trying to do. Specifically.
2. Do they want to hear about it? Are you sure?
A lot of famous and traditional writers will disagree with this idea saying that you shouldn’t worry about what people want to hear but rather focus on what you have to say. But for the most part, especially for bloggers and copywriters, you really need to know what your readers want.
This might have a lot to do with the whole quality vs popular debate but for me writing is about helping people and in order to help them you need to know what they are having problems with.
Now this does not mean that you have to always write about things people are talking about. Why? Because a lot of the time people don’t actually know what they are doing wrong or what they are having problems with. Here’s one of my favorite quotes to illustrate:
If I had asked people what they wanted they would have said faster horses.
- Henry Ford. (Click to Tweet)
Sure, if we have the creative brain cells of Henry Ford we can think like that but for the most part you need to know what people need if you want to have any shot at success.
For example, E.L. James, the author of 50 Shades of Grey, has said that she based the book on a Twilight-like scenario with characters and situations that the population at large could identify with or fantasise about. There’s the innocent and inexperienced girl, the rich and powerful man who is mysterious, strong and then very loving. There is angst, anticipation and all the things that the author thought that women would want to hear.
And it worked pretty well for her.
So how do you find out what people want?
- Know yourself
You are the people. As much as we sometimes feel like outsiders or special, we are actually the same as everyone else with the same concerns and problems. By getting to know your own foibles and issues you can better to relate to others.
- Get naked
No I don’t mean take your clothes off (although you can if you want!). I mean get naked with your views on yourself and those around you. Look at things directly and as they are and try not to add your own filters to every situation. This honesty will, again, help you relate to situations and people as they actually are.
- Be compassionate
Compassion is the wish that others be free from suffering. Without it there really is no ability to know what people are going through or what they are feeling. Instead of getting angry in frustrating situations try looking at the agressor with compassion and see what you learn about what people need in life.
- Study the classics
By looking at what has worked in the past you can get an idea about what works and why. Take a look at the best selling books of all time and find the common threads. Take a look at the stories that people consider classics and find out why they are so loved.
- Test your writing
Put yourself to the test and get your writing out there. If you don’t have a blog yet start one up and publish snippets of your stuff for people to critique and to get a community response.
Part of being a good writer is knowing how to relate to your audience. It is helping them with their problems on their level. Your English and composition can still be good, of course. You just have to simplify the way you present it.
3. Is it distinctive or just like everything else?
One of the most important lessons in business applies to writing: you need to be distinctive.
There has never in history been a longterm successful author, blogger or writer who just wrote the same as everyone else. Sure, they might have borrowed styles or methods but they would have then written about distinctive topics or presented it in a new way.
And this doesn’t just apply to the writing itself.
Being distinctive applies to the writer themselves, the blog it’s presented on, etc. You want to find a way to stand out from the crowd and be remembered by readers or publishers. You want people to know your style and your look and your writing as soon as they read a few words.
This is all about successful branding.
One example I wanted to show you of this is Nerd Fitness by Steve Kamb. He has created a great following in a very crowded niche by approaching his content and his style in a very distinctive way.
Does this mean that part of being a good writer is being a good marketer? Perhaps. Just like every other industry in the world, the roles and goalposts are changing really quickly and we need to adapt.
4. Have you practiced? Like, Samurai practiced?
To get good any anything you need to practice. Even naturally talented people need to spend huge amounts of time training and rehearsing before they get truly good.
Writing is no different.
But one thing I’ve noticed is that people often think they are practicing hard at their writing but really they are just sitting around wondering why their old stuff isn’t taking off. Practicing means trying new things, learning new strategies and constantly chipping away at your style.
So how do you practice writing?
- Read, read, read
Reading is one of the best ways to get good at writing. You should read all types of things from magazines to blogs and books. Read people you like. Read people you don’t like. Read things you normally wouldn’t even look at. It’s only through huge amounts of reading that you can really discover how good you might be able to get at writing yourself.
- Write constantly, like a professional
Get comfortable with writing all the time. Take jobs on writing topics that might not interest you but that challenge you to produce words in a new way. People say that you need to write every day but you need to treat it like a professional sport – write at least four or six hours a day.
- Learn to write when you don’t feel like it
One of the hardest lessons to learn but one of the most rewarding is when you write when you don’t feel like it. This is something that all experts need to get around. Sometimes you’ll find that your best stuff happens when you really don’t feel in the zone.
- Establish a solid routine
The best athletes go to training at the same time every day. The same should be true of writers. Write down your routine and stick to it no matter what other difficulties are going on around you. Constant and regular effort is extremely important.
As annoying as it is, the old saying about practice making perfect is all we’ve got to rely on. It is only through constant and sometimes heart breaking effort that we come to get good at something we love.
5. Become curious about the world around you
The last thing that I want to write about is something that has really been in my face the last couple of years. Curiosity.
It seems that if you look at the best book writers, bloggers, journalists, etc. from history you will find that they all have one thing in common – they are extremely curious about the world around them.
The sad thing is that you often find that these wonderful works of literature or reporting come from an extremely tortured human heart. They are often drinkers or drug addicts – writing is just one other method they use to try and calm the storm that rages inside of them. And that said, it is important to remember that you can’t “bring on” great writing by trying to become a tortured soul. It doesn’t work in reverse.
But what you can do is learn to look deeply at the world around you and the industry or topic that you are involved in. That genuine sense of curiosity is what has spawned some of the greatest articles, blog posts and books the world has ever seen.
What has this got to do with how to write? Well, my theory is that it not only gives you material to write about but it also creates a style of finished product that is greatly more readable and interesting that something that was written without curiosity or questioning. A curious author has a way of drawing you in by giving you a perspective on ordinary and regular situations that you had never thought about or never been able to express. And as the quote above mentions, this often comes across as something extremely simple.
So how do you become more curious in your daily life and in your writing?
- Remember the simple things
Our current world bombards us with modern technologies and comforts. We can’t sit still for five seconds without checking the news on our phone or distracting our brain in some way. As a result we tend to think very shallow thoughts about things. We need answers from Google and we don’t like to think for ourselves. Getting back to simple activities and appreciating them can lead to new insights about the more complicated scenarios we find ourselves in.
- Meditate for clarity
Strongly linked to the above suggestion about getting naked, mediation allows us to connect with ourselves on a much more natural and honest level. It allows us to develop some clarity. I can’t tell you the number of times I have had a great article for an idea but just not been able to express it because my mind was so full of other crap. Learn to settle it down and see what pops up. All you need to do is sit still and focus on your breath for a few minutes at a time. Don’t make this a new cause for complication.
- Listen to people
Do you remember the last time you sat down with someone and listened to them without waiting for your turn to talk? It’s hard. We want to help but often this means pushing our own agenda onto conversations instead of just listening. But if you stop and really pay attention to what people are saying with some curiosity about their situation you will discover a lot about the human condition.
- Don’t accept everything you hear
In general we are pretty trusting people. But the great writers of the past questioned the world around them. They questioned authority, God, the status quo. This is an extremely important part of being a curious person because if you are happy and accepting of the current situation you really don’t have any reason to look deeper and then not a lot to say.
Go and have a look at all of your favorite bloggers from all the different niches that you read. I have a strong feeling that all of the good ones have a very curious tone to how they go about their posts and their subjects. A curious person is often a good writer.
With all that said and done I want to show you my favorite song – a song about curiosity and looking at the world differently. Sit back and take five minutes to read the lyrics on the film clip and enjoy the music.
A collection of writing quotes
Let’s finish off this article with the sharing of some famous and inspiration quotes about how to write. I hope they give you something to think about.
I try to leave out the parts that people skip.
- Elmore Leonard
Writing became such a process of discovery that I couldn’t wait to get to work in the morning: I wanted to know what I was going to say.
- Sharon O’Brien
Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space.
- Orson Scott Card
Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.
- Flannery O’Connor
A writer should say to himself, not, How can I get more money?, but How can I reach more readers (without lowering standards)?
- Brian Aldiss
Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret.
- Matthew Arnold
Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamppost how it feels about dogs.
- Christopher Hampton
More conversations and fewer announcements.
- Seth Godin
A final word on good writing
So after all of that do we know what good writing is? Well, not exactly. But the good news is that you don’t really have to be able to identify exactly what is the “right” way to do it in order to get good at it.
As far as I am concerned, what you really need to do is learn how to be brutally honest, compassionate and curious about your topic. If you can practice hard with those things in mind then hopefully your writing will improve.
I’m counting on it for myself.
What do you think?
Photo: © Ron Chapple