Here are some things I’ve learned about being a better writer

For its age and influence and subjectivity, writing is one of those crafts that require great study and practice, though they don’t guarantee success alone.

The ordering of words has always been a great love of mine. I’ve been writing at length for as long as I can remember in whatever medium I could find. I’ve spent the last 10 years developing my news writing form, a tradition I have great pride in. However I’ve tried to keep developing my creative storytelling instincts too — fiction being a complimentary but wholly distinct offering from the nonfiction I know best.

Here’s some of what I’ve learned. (I continue to update this post, though I also have bigger ideas here)

I maintain a small, if growing, collection of short stories and other fiction pieces and try to find opportunities to add to it. A few have been published, including a pair of flash fiction items, this one and this one, and less purely fictional pieces, like this essay and this biographically-inspired profile. I’ve also tried to use public storytelling to develop the skill from my Story Shuffle event series to other appearances.

Remember, true originals are more associated with volume of production rather than a reputation for only writing greats.

4 Tips from ‘Fight Club’ author Chuck Palahniuk

  1. No ‘thought’ verbs, like thinks or knows or believes or realizes.
  2. No thesis statements.
  3. (Brenda was gonna be late, rather than Brenda knew she’d be late).
  4. Characters shouldn’t be alone. Avoid traps like “forgets” or “remembers.”
  5. Give evidence, not judgements. (No is or has, as in don’t say John is handsome.)

So though by any standard I am a very green writer, I aim to read and write frequently enough that I can make great strides. So having taken a renewed interest in the last four or five years, I wanted to share some advice that has stood out to me.

  • An artist must be comfortable with not knowing. Unlike the scientist with a hypothesis or an expert with an opinion, the writer must explore that which she does not know, as it was put so well by author Donald Barthelme (his full ‘Not-Knowing’ essay and a synopsis here)
  • Publishing is an industry. I recently got very lost in a very interesting thought experiment among literary types: is your path to publishing success through getting an MFA or living the New York publishing life? It’s an important philosophical way of setting your own course.
  • Fiction writing is like making a cup so that your readers can fill it with whatever they want. This is something author Mo Willems said and serves as an important reminder to a news writer like me, prone as I am to wanting to never leave an unanswered question in a story. My friend and talented writer Patrick McNeil shared this with me several years ago.
  • For a creative nonfiction piece, you might consider ABC/D. That structure from John McPhee suggests three characters with a single denominator. This is part of a wonderful series from McPee collected here.
  • Know what lie your character believes. It’s a great way to make her distinct.
  • Have a non-writer read your early work. Though it’s just one piece of wonderful advice from Lorrie Moore in this delightful essay ‘How To Become A Writer,’ the idea is profound.
  • Show, not tell, is different for fiction writing. News reporting is a service to the reader, so one should bend to their questions and desires. In fiction, the author is meant to show the way.
  • Find people whose perspective helps you. The world is full of writing advice so it’s better simply to find what connects with you. Lots of threads are enlightening but I have found ‘Fight Club’ author Chuck Palahniuk particularly helpful (as seen in the sidebar above).
  • There are lessons from news writing. Though I struggle to avoid falling into the traps of my native writing form, that style has helpfully informed my voice. I love big-idea ledes (first sentences), quotes that drive forward the narrative and meaningful resolution. I don’t have to throw all of it away.
  • For reporting a story, you know you’ve done enough research when you meet yourself coming the other way. Research is a crucial part of great, deep and profound stories.
  • You will only be great with habit. If you want to write for volume consistently, just commit to completing a single page a day. If you want to write for quality, just commit to completing three pages a day and throw out two of them. And the real point is you need to get the in the habit of producing finished works and setting them aside. Write often and regularly and stronger pieces will be elevated.

  • Writer’s block is an excuse. When you’re stuck, just write nonsense until something real comes. Feeling stuck while writing is a crisis of self-confidence.
  • Keep a Spark File. For me, this is a Google Doc in which I jot down words or phrases or sentences or ideas I like. Then I come back to that document whenever I’m stuck or need inspiration or want to combine something with someone else.
  • Try different forms. You’ll refine your specialty but to find that voice, you need to have as many approaches as you can. So I still keep up occasional news writing, I use this very blog to force me to write, I take submission deadlines as a reason to ship stories that I then set aside and keep that Spark File to always have a next wave of ideas. I try to keep one or two stories alive that I’m working on. No one ever said that you can’t see an email you have for work as a writerly exercise. It’s a volume game.
  • Work on one thing until it is finished. Though conflicted to be sure, I appreciate this piece of advice from Henry Miller on getting writing done.

  • Writing and editing are distinct acts. There are lots of different pieces of advice conveying this (write drunk, edit sober; write privately, edit in groups and the like). Whatever works for you the point is that you must do both to make a great work and you need to separate out the process. If you’re second-guessing yourself or claiming “writer’s block,” what you’re really describing is a situation in which you are editing yourself at the same time as writing. That’s wrong. Stop it. Just write. Edit later.
  • Start with flash fiction. I still prefer to dabble with very short form fiction — fewer than 1,000 words and often fewer than 500 words — to force my hand at leaving out the unimportant parts. There are lots of fun exercises like it.
  • Learn from your idols but move on. When I heard him speak at the Free Library of Philadelphia, George Saunders talked about ‘climbing George Saunders’ mountain to get a better view of your own mountain. It’s fitting. I admire him and others greatly but need to develop my own instincts and voice, informed by what I love from them. In truth, we know what we love about our own voice in part by seeing what we love from others.

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