Image source: Ferdinand Engländer

"Do you have any writing advice?"

I’ve written millions of words. Here are a few for a friend who wants to do the same.

Before anything else, you have to know what you want to say.

No, seriously.

You have to really, really know what you really, really want to say.

It sounds simple, but most people screw it up.

School doesn’t teach you to do this. School teaches you grammar and vocabulary and syntax. Because those are the things that you can grade on a test.

What you can’t grade is how sincere a piece of writing is.

So we have this frustrating situation where people are educated to write in a way that’s “examinable”.

As I examine your writing, for instance, I can tell that you have a masterful grasp of grammar. I can tell that you have a spectacular vocabulary.

But I have no idea what you actually want to say. Because you don’t either.

And it’s not really your fault. Nobody taught you.

Most bad writing happens when the writer vaguely knows what she vaguely wants to say.

The unfortunate thing is that we often respond to such writers with, “Wow, you’re a shitty writer. Maybe writing isn’t for you.”

That’s because we have a poor understanding of how good writing happens.

It’s unfortunate, because anybody who actually sits down to write something probably has something in them that’s worth developing. We should encourage them to persist and try again.

Good writing comes with practice. It comes with rework. It requires editing, rewriting, rethinking, refinement.

When you encounter a weak piece of writing, there’s one simple question you should ask the writer:

“What are you really trying to say here?”

Ditch the script. Screw the big words. Forget about “style” and “tone” and “voice”.

Tell me, honestly, what you really want to say.

What’s the point of the entire piece? What do you want me to feel? What do you need me to know? Say it in as few words as possible.

If you don’t know where you want to take us, no road will be good enough.

If you DO know, however, you’ll find that we’re a lot more forgiving about the bumpy road. Because you got us somewhere.

(If you’re a casual writer, you can stop here. If you’re a psycho, though, keep reading.)

In the world of drawing and animation, there’s a concept called the Line Of Action.

It’s the backbone of a piece. It’s utterly critical.

If you get it wrong, all the details and color and photoshop and such won’t save you.

If you get it right, you can get away with being sketchy and simplistic and your viewer will still understand what you’re trying to say.

Do a Google Image Search for “Line of Action” and you’ll see hundreds of examples.

Similarly, you need to figure out what the Line of Action is in any piece of writing that you do.

My personal favorite way of doing this is to explain it to a smart friend over IM. Let’s a get a little meta here, and pretend I want to tell you about a piece of writing I want to do.

Actually, let’s do it:

This was really fun to do.

You can’t get better at writing without… writing.

In my personal experience, there are about 5 stages that you go through.

  1. IMITATION: With writing, as with language and with any other creative act, we learn through mimcry.We start with bad imitations of what we encounter. It might be cute in its badness, but mostly it’s embarrassing.
  2. ACQUISITION: Over time, we develop a body of knowledge. We use that knowledge to modify our output. This is where we begin to develop a “style” — every person has a unique vocabulary, and draws from it in a unique way. You develop your unique style not by trying to be unique, but by constantly expanding your body of work.
  3. PATTERN-RECOGNITION: After a while, we start noticing patterns and develop hypotheses about what works and what doesn’t. This allows us to review our older work and go “Hmm, that’s why this was good, and that’s why this didn’t work.” This is the sciencey part of art, and it’s a lot of fun. There’s a lot of learning to be had, and you feel a lot more powerful each time you understand your craft better.
  4. CONTEXTUALIZATION: As we go deeper, we start thinking about our output in a more nuanced way. Initially, it’s a victory just to have some words on a page. Later, we begin thinking about how those words might sound, what they imply. Even cooler is when you begin to see where your writing fits in within the greater body of all writing that exists. And then once all of that is second nature, you start thinking about what is really, really important.
  5. EXPRESSION: Eventually, you internalize all of the earlier parts– all of them are like “engines” that keep running, and they make you better in a myriad of ways. They become a part of the way you see the world, and it’s really joyous. Finally, you experience the magical state of Flow. This is when the choir of angels sing and beautiful sentences march out of your fingertips, fully formed. You can’t wait for this to happen, though. You have to work really, really hard for it.

So my advice is…

1: Read like a shameless lovesick junkie.

Don’t force yourself to read things you hate, or things that people tell you are “important”. That’s a fast-track to self-loathing. (Some people are kinda perversely into that. If that’s you, that’s fine… just be mindful about it.)

Either way, read whatever brings you joy.

Off the top of my head, I recommend Ray Bradbury’s “Zen In The Art of Writing” and Ogilvy’s “Confessions of an Advertising Man”. Also Steven Pressfield’s “War of Art”.

But really, just find good stuff that resonates with you, and inhale deeply. Reading is a mind-altering pursuit that’s actually safe and legal. What are you waiting for?

2: Write like a stark-raving lunatic.

I recommend that you measure your progress as a writer by sheer volume of output. You WILL be a different writer at the 100,000 and 1,000,000 word marks respectively. Hell, you’ll be a totally different person.

And don’t try to write well. Just write. Why? Because you can’t write well before you know what good writing is. And you can’t know what good writing is until you’ve done a lot of reading and writing.

So if you want to write well, you have to let go of the perfectionistic death wish of trying to write well.

Instead, accept in advance that a lot of it will suck. Embrace the suck. Make love to the suck. Don’t try to avoid it or outsmart it. Acknowledge it, face it, and get used to it. Day after day after day.

3: Revisit and edit your work like… a responsible adult.

You know that amazing book that you love?

It wasn’t written on a magical day struck by divine inspiration. It went through countless drafts and and a hideous process of carving, culling, restructuring and rewriting before it became something beautiful.

The book you see was probably 10% of what the writer had actually written, maybe less.

This is the least sexy part of writing, but it’s also probably the most critical. It’s project management. You have to keep track of your work, review it, analyze it. Doing this is something you’ll probably have to schedule and develop a routine for.

If you’re serious about writing, though, you’ll grow to enjoy it. It’ll look boring from the outside, like a teacher grading papers. But you are your own teacher, and you’re grading your own papers, and you’re helping yourself become better. It closes a feedback loop.

4: Enjoy yourself.

This is where I’m going to get a little prescriptive, but hey, it’s my piece so I’m allowed.

Don’t write for awards.

Don’t write for accolades.

Don’t write to impress people.

Write what you wish somebody had written.

If you get attached to things like Likes or Shares or your position on a Bestseller’s List, you’ll never be satisfied. And you’ll never really do your best work.

And that’ll be a damn shame, after all that work.

As I say even to the casual writers, what do you really, really want to say?

Write that. That’s what I want to read.

With love,

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