The Single Habit We All Need To Write Better
It’s easy to miss this one.
There’s really only one secret to better writing, and it runs violently against our modern sensibilities as online writers.
It isn’t enough to write regularly, or even often. If you want to get better, you have got to rewrite too.
But when I say rewrite, I’m not talking about simply giving your story a “once over” right before putting your story online. I’m talking about the painstaking stuff.
Like hours of rewrites on a piece you could have sworn was already fine or even great. Rewrites that go nowhere. Rewrites that make you want to claw your eyes out. Rewrites that completely change your mind.
I’m talking about killing your darlings, of course.
Writers today are fighting a time crunch.
Let’s get real — who’s really got time for constant rewrites? We operate in a culture that’s got a permanent hard-on for productivity porn. Everybody wants to know how to craft a viral article in under an hour.
Honestly? I have no clue.
Sure, people can make a lot of money writing viral content. Or even writing about it. And some popular bloggers do write all of their posts in under an hour. Twenty minutes even.
Taking a cue from Amy Poehler, I say, Good for them, not for me.
We all work have to work with our own abilities and then go at our own pace.
For most of us, great writing is time-consuming to create.
The truth is I want to become a truly solid writer. A good one. I’d like to be responsible for routinely writing stories that help change a person’s life, and positively impact how they feel about their future and their ability to change the world.
I’d like to make a name for myself as the kind of writer who tackles tough subjects with honesty, and who only gets better with time.
Since I want to become the best writer I can be, I don’t want to get so comfortable with my daily writing that I quit rewriting. I need to do much more. And rewriting is the only way I know how to exponentially improve my work.
We have to slow down sometimes.
Yes, writing regularly matters. And reading other people’s work matters too. But at the end of the day, a lack of rewriting is what often separates average writers from the really incredible ones.
There are all different ways to go about rewriting, but I’ll admit — none of it is ever sexy. We all want tips to get more writing done in less time. We want to publish everything quickly, make more money, and somehow fit fun into our lives.
Believe me, I am right there with you. As a single mom who depends upon writing for her entire livelihood, I feel the pressure to produce every damn day. I need to write to pay the bills. So I do.
But I also know that if I plan to “make a name for myself” and do this as a lifelong career, I can’t skip the rewrites.
That’s why I don’t sweat it that my stories take me hours to write while others reveal that they only spend an hour or two writing one amazing piece. And that’s why I periodically go through my old work and rewrite the stuff I no longer love.
Artful rewrites are counter culture to gig work.
If you plan to write a book, then you’ve especially got to accept the need to rewrite. But let’s face it, one of the reasons writing is so damn hard today is the fact that so much writing has transitioned over to the gig economy.
That means we’re not only frequently paid per task, but we’re often undercut by one-and-done writers who won’t bother to rewrite.
We all know that rewriting matters. And we know that it makes us better writers. But we also know that most companies aren’t paying for those rewrites. Many businesses today want to pay writers $10 a pop for a flawless story that lands them oodles of new customers. Fiverr and Upwork are littered with folks who will write quick copy for peanuts, no big deal.
As a result, people forget that writing is still an art. There are ideas, drafts, and rewrites. Not everything we write can be golden. Not everything anyone writes can always be golden.
And our culture typically won't attribute greatness to your writing until you’ve achieved a certain amount of notoriety.
Who are you and who do you want to be?
At this point, plenty of people don't care what Shannon Ashley has to say. Shannon Ashley? Who’s that? QuoteCatalog has me listed as an alias of Shay Mitchell. No wonder they’ve bothered to quote me.
But Anne Lamott, Marianne Williamson, Geneen Roth, and Amy Poehler? They’re quotable practically anytime they share a pic on Facebook.
They deserve it, but I don’t doubt for a minute that they’ve all had their fair share of rewrites — and continue to rewrite in order to create their best work.
But as independent writers, we often want it all right now. The book deal, the features, the followers, the pay.
That’s not usually how it goes. Most writers don’t reach a stellar reputation without a helluva lot of rewrites. Unpaid, time consuming, and occasionally heartbreaking rewrites. We write, and rewrite — not as the currently unknown indie writers we are — but as the well-established writers we want to become.
That is what the artisans do.
If you want to be a great writer, don’t get so hung up on your time or productivity. And don't shy away from rewriting, because rewrites are everything.
Rewrites help you grow.
Ever read one of your older stories and cringe at the audacity you had to share it with the world? You should. Growth means you can see the difference in your writing then and now. You want it to be palpable.
Looking over your past work helps you better identify your style and see various patterns — that means the good, the bad, and the ugly, of course. Don’t shy away from your old work. Take its heart and give it better bones.
Rewrites help you change your mind.
When you go over your old writing to give them a fresh feel or total renovation, you might be surprised that you feel much differently about an issue than you did four months ago. This is wonderful. This is human.
Changing your mind makes you a better writer. It helps you see where you came from, where you’re going, and why you think the way that you do. Changing your mind helps you refine your focus and build a better argument when you write. You can be honest about changing your mind, and your writing will be all the better for it.
Rewrites help you think more like a reader.
I’m a big fan of letting your writing sit and your ideas percolate. I like writing something and then coming back to it weeks or even months later. Whenever I take a break from my work and come back to rewrite it later, I get to look at my own stuff less like a writer and more like a reader.
It’s a pretty cool and underrated process. Honestly? I am guilty of not rewriting nearly as much as I should, but every time I do it, I’m amazed at the information I learn about myself.
All of us are guilty of slacking in our rewrites. Perhaps you’re in the same boat as me, where rewrites seem to take the time you don’t have. However, I’ve realized I’m at that point in my writing career where I can’t neglect my rewrites any longer.
Are you at that point too?
You are if you want to write better.