by Floyd Largent, book editor
If there’s one question writers get asked almost as often as “Where do you get your ideas?” it’s, “How can I become a better writer?”
Whole college courses—nay, curricula—have been built around this question, in an elaborate attempt to provide a complicated answer to what basically boils down to Two Commandments: Write a lot and Read a lot. Both, especially the first, are common sense; but as Will Rogers famously pointed out, common sense ain’t so common. Most people are programmed to believe that simple, inexpensive solutions are worth what you pay for them, while they’ll gladly listen to advice that comes with a hefty price tag.
But here’s the thing: simple and inexpensive doesn’t necessarily mean easy, and besides, just because something is inexpensive in terms of the fiscal cost doesn’t mean it’s inexpensive in every sense. After all, you only get so much time per day, and no begging, borrowing, stealing, skimping, or stretching will increase your allotted 24 hours. The time you spend reading and writing will be at the expense of something else you could have done; economists call this opportunity cost. So you’re actually paying dearly for practicing your art. But the recompense, both spiritual and (eventually) monetary, will be more than enough payback.
Some writers refuse to read other people’s works while they’re writing. Personally, I find it useful as a means of resting my brain and getting some much-needed entertainment. And occasionally, something I read sparks an idea. Once, I was writing an article about nanodiamonds: tiny diamonds so small a million of them could hide in a cup of soil. In the novel I was (re)reading at the time, the main character compared solving a mystery to cutting a diamond: you carefully examine it for flaws and fracture planes, hit it in just the right spot with your little hammer and chisel, and it breaks wide open. That provided the snappy analogy I needed to complete the article.
Read a lot about writing, so you can benefit from the experience of other writers; the top writing magazines can help you here. Read widely, including popular scientific and cultural works, because you never know what tidbit will come in handy as you write. If you write fiction, read especially widely in your chosen genre. Read older stories as well as newer ones; read at all lengths, from the short story/article to book-length works. Among other things, you need to learn all the tropes and overused plots of your field. One overused plot in speculative fiction, for example, is the “Hairy Eve” Story: somehow, something happens to a whole civilization, or two civilizations fight a war of extinction… and the only survivor are a man named Adam and a woman named Eve.
Nearly every aspiring SF/Fantasy writer writes some variation of a Hairy Eve story. Most also write the Misunderstood Vampire/Werewolf story (I did both), the Lost Heir to the Throne story, the Horrible Aliens Are Really Humans story, the Time Travel story, the Zombie story, and a number of others that seem fresh at the time but aren’t. Sometimes a writer can add a unique new twist to the concept, but it’s rare. For example, I still haven’t seen an insightful Recovered Zombie story, where the protagonist is cured and remembers all the horrible things he/she did. Some might claim Warm Bodies as an example of this, but it’s really a Love Conquers All story.
Learning the rules and constantly searching for better ways to string words together does help; but ultimately, experience is the best teacher. Malcolm Gladstone has popularized the “10,000 hours” concept, wherein he argues that one needs 10,000 hours of practice at anything to be considered an expert. Think about that: the standard work year is 2,080 hours at 40 hours per week, so if you treat writing as a job, it’ll still take you almost five years to become an expert at it. Few of us are going to be able to spend that amount of time on our writing each week, but one of the great things about writing is that you can earn while you learn, especially with non-fiction.
Now, I’m not certain the 10,000-hour rule works for everyone; you may need far less time to develop as a writer. But I can say from personal experience that writing just about anything does help develop your abilities as you stretch your literary muscles.
One good thing about writing is that it’s often enjoyable—although yes, sometimes it can be like pulling teeth to get what you want to say into a form worth reading. You may end up doing a lot of writing before you get to the point where the words usually just flow, but you will get there if you keep at it consistently. Every false start is a learning experience. Deadlines are a great cure for writer’s block, so if you don’t have any, impose your own to get yourself moving—and reward yourself when you hit your deadlines.
You may already have come close to your 10,000 hours if you’ve been writing since you were young, like so many of us have. Whatever the case, just keep pushing! The more you write, the more you improve; and at some point, you may be able to produce thousands of words a day with a minimum of effort. It really works; I’m living proof.
The Bottom Line
Becoming a better writer is simple: go and do. Read and write constantly. Don’t design the cover of your book, attend writer’s group meetings every night, fantasize about your potential income, or worry about the taxes on your fantasized income. Write, with a large order of reading on the side. Though some of you may not want to hear it, the real secret to better writing is practice, practice, practice.
Floyd Largent is intimately familiar with technical writing, having worked as a technical writer/editor for ten years. He’s even published his own e-book about fiction marketing.