Long-Term Strategies for Becoming a Better Writer
Why publishing every day probably isn’t the best idea and other insights I learned from Umberto Eco.
Write every day, don’t publish every day
I truly believe that writing daily is the most important factor in mastering the art of writing. As I explained in a previous article, as an aspiring writer the key to success lies in an initial high effort. This investment of time will later on in one’s career pay off in high dividends.
However, I would hasten to add that writing every day does not equal publishing every day. On a platform like Medium, it is very seductive to release stories as often as possible. This is understandable: this vision of gaining income plus status seems sufficient reason to confirm quantity over quality.
I would beg to differ. Let’s take the example of sports. A top athlete trains every day for competition. He works up to this one specific event so that in that one moment he’s on the top of his skills. In contrast, if he would have to participate in a contest every day, he would not have a chance to practice properly. The match itself then, should never be a training field.
One of the writers that kept hammering on the importance of the training phase was Umberto Eco.
The universe of Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco was a unique writer. His novels are a prime example of beautiful craftsmanship. Eco, like no other writer, knew how to intertwine entertainment, knowledge, and plot into a unique literary universe.
His novel Foucault’s Pendulum was a real eye-opener to me. The plot mingles together historical facts, fiction, and the ‘uncertain in-between’ of conspiracy theories. Combine this with a very identifiable realism of character and thoroughly researched locations and the outcome is the formula for a perfect novel. At least, to me, that is.
Whilst his novels are often complex in structure, he liked to keep his writing style simple and clean. Use enough paragraphs, he advised, to cater a better reading experience.
However, what I’ve learned from Eco, in reading his books and interviews, transcends the casual writing trick. The main lessons from Eco are about the mindset we need to adopt to achieve the highest possible quality in our writings. This knowledge is universal and can be easily translated to the non-fictional. Maybe the most important one is to take our time.
Take your time to do your research
“The real pleasure in writing doesn’t mean to take a pen and trace some alphabetic lines on a paper. The real pleasure is starting the research.” (Umberto Eco)
Eco, being focused on true quality, and ingenious plots, gives us quite an unconventional point of view on the subject of publishing. Eco was famously known to be a perfectionist about the fictional worlds he created for his writings. In an interview with Louisiana Channel he elaborated on this idea:
“I cannot understand those novelists that publish a book every year. They lose this pleasure of spending 6, 7, 8 years to prepare their story. Go step by step, don’t pretend immediately to receive a noble price. Because that kills every literary career.”
Eco worked many years on each of his novels; for Foucault’s Pendulum for example it was 8 years. To him, this long time immersing in the fictional work he was creating, was a necessity in delivering true quality. This research was also the thing he enjoyed the most in the whole process of writing a novel. Once the research was finished, the writing would be the easy part.
This same attitude applies to non-fiction writing as well: firmly research your topics, grasp the theories behind the ideas you want to write about. This is how you add true quality to your stories, this is how you give value to your reader. This focus on research is what distinguishes an authority on a topic and the would-be writer who plainly applies a copy and paste technique.
Carefully design your world
In a fascinating postscript to ‘the Name of the Rose’, Eco described his design process:
“What you need to do, is to construct a world in the most detailed way possible.”
Eco urged the writer to focus on the details: draw the faces of characters, design the architecture of houses, labyrinths, ships, and all the other elements of the story. He wanted to know each and every little detail about the world his characters were moving in.
This perfectionism translates into realism, which then will make the story more believable more lifelike, more real.
In any story, be it fictional or non-fictional, a world is created. It’s this special world that emerges from the pen of the author. It’s that unique storytelling angle only you can provide.
Be sure to think about this world and how it should look like. This is your voice; this is what makes your writing unique.
Entertain the reader by providing quality
Personally, the most important lesson I learned from Umberto Eco is that quality and knowledge can be entertaining as well.
You don’t have to write a superficial blockbuster to reach a wide audience. Yet you neither have to scare your audience away with pretentious academic texts.
For Eco, it’s the combination of reading pleasure and a very dense plot that provides the best formula in writing quality stories. For him, this symbiosis is a typical expression of post-modern literature, combining pop culture with a knowledge of history and philosophy.
Every sentence has already been written. So, what to do as a writer is to sample our way through writing, by using quotes, references, and a wink to our collective past. In doing so we pay dues to those who paved the ways before us. Our stories will embed extra meaning in the form of a salute to our personal sources of inspiration. So please, give credit, where credit is needed, and quote the sources that you consulted.
“Like the collages of Max Ernst, who glued pieces of 19th-century images together, the story then becomes a fantastical journey, a big dream that intertwines a tribute to all the individual pieces.” (Umberto Eco: Postmodernism, Irony, the Enjoyable)
You’re never too old to start writing
Eco was 48 when he wrote his first novel ‘The name of the Rose’, which later on became an International bestseller (14 million copies sold at the time of his death in 2016). However, he saw this late start as an advantage, as he could incorporate the knowledge and experience of his life into his work.
In other words: he still had lots of inspiration and many things to talk about.
In a society that is firmly obsessed with youth culture and fast success at early ages, let this be a reminder that you are never too old to start writing. Even more so, you’re never too old to succeed.
Thinking about the long-term goals
It’s a common mistake to be very impatient when first starting any new endeavor. Rushed by sheer enthusiasm we want to publish as much as we can. We want to prove to ourselves and the world that we are serious and dedicated in our undertaking. However, rushing things can lead to negative results, in the long run, forever being stuck in mediocrity, gaining no expertise whatsoever.
Umberto Eco’s philosophy on writing gives us a good alternative: take your time.
Take your time to research your topics. Take your time to create your world and find your voice. Take your time to provide quality. Take your time to extend your knowledge. And even: take your time to start.
Once we’ve mastered all these aspects, writing unique, high-quality content will become an automatism. It will enable us to increase our output whilst keeping high standards of originality and quality. This will be the long-term goal.