Why Your Writing Isn’t Where You Want It To Be
Because you focus on “Writing” like it’s the actual thing
Every so often people reach out to me — with varying degrees of self-assuredness and aggression — wanting to “know” or “talk to me about” my writing, my “process,” and, above all else, what “secret” I’m using that they can lift and duplicate in their own work.
Well, here’s the biggest secret of them all:
Good writers don’t focus on “The Writing” as some standalone thing.
Good writers read — a lot — but they don’t dump those hours into reading books “on writing.” (I’ve been reading about 50 books a year since my mid-20s, and the only book “on writing” I ever read during that time was Stephen King’s.) Good writers don’t watch endless videos on “writing.” Good writers don’t pore over Medium articles with the tag “writing.” Most good writers don’t have MFAs.
And that’s not to say they don’t learn grammar, spelling, or sentence structure, or occasionally research best practices if they have a question, because they do.
It’s just not their primary focus.
Good writers don’t define their domain as “writing.” Deep down, they define their domain as: the subject on which they write. Writing is merely a medium; a means to an end. Their real focus is on the thing behind it.
I am not every writer. I can’t say what every writer is focused on, and I don’t know what every writer is writing about. But I can tell you that I do not care about “Writing” as a standalone thing. I do not write “to write.” I don’t get hung up on whether I am or am not a “Writer,” and my aspiration was never “To Be One.” I write because I have thoughts, and I just needed a place to put them. Most of my thoughts are on “people,” and I am far more interested in “how humans human” than I am in “how to ‘writing’.” I don’t care.
If you’re focusing on the medium (“the writing”) instead of the message, and treating “Writing” like it’s the solution to “good writing,” of course your writing is going to be weak.
It’s the same with anything.
I’m not a professional athlete, but I’d be willing to bet the great ones spend more time actually doing their sport than reading what other athletes have to say about it.
I no longer do a ton of visual art, but I have taken many drawing classes and I can tell you: we spent 99% of our time creating art from real life, and zero time asking other artists what tools, technique, or sleep schedule they use. In turn, I have an acquaintance who works as an illustrator / comic book artist, and his work improved immeasurably when he stopped seeing his work as “drawings” and instead studied the human form.
I don’t personally know any of the “great” entrepreneurs, but I hear they spend more time experimenting and selling and making and building their business than they do reading how others built theirs.
In the words of Gary Vaynerchuk, who admits to reading almost nothing:
“How many books from these ‘experts’ do you need to read before you can actually do something? You can only read so much and at some point, you just have to do. Stop being a student.”
“But I still need the tools / technique / whatever TF”
No, you don’t.
Get your head straight, prioritize the right things, and the rest will reveal itself. Worry about optimization once you actually have something to optimize. If you’re not churning out content, you don’t have anything to optimize yet. Don’t worry about the perfect headline or the perfect writing “tool” if you haven’t even mastered the basic craft of “putting words.”
If you love your work and feel compelled to write, your process will work itself out and get out of your way.
If you keep throwing yourself at it and experimenting, you’ll figure out for yourself what works and what doesn’t.
What to focus on instead?
Just like entrepreneurs are far more successful when they focus on a domain rather than just “being an entrepreneur,” writers have to have something they’re actually saying, not just focus on “saying something.”
It doesn’t matter what the thing is, but there has to be a thing.
Psychology, astronomy, happiness, friendship, relationships, molecular biology, cooking, a story, human beings,… your own feelings — it doesn’t matter. But I can tell you: it’s not “the writing.”
You keep treating this medium like it’s really about the tools or time or technique, like the secret is somehow in some “framework” or process, then empty frameworks and lifeless words are exactly what you’re going to end up with.