Improve your writing - the best advice from the bestsellers

There’s a lot of myth and mysticism built around creativity and creative people.

Some believe that true artists receive their talented gifts from the divine and that you can’t learn creativity.

I, along with many well-respected writers, think that’s a bunch of baloney.

In my journey to become a better writer, I’ve read dozens of books on creativity and the craft of writing. 

Here are five key takeaways I’ve learned from esteemed writers like Stephen King, Anne Lamott, James Clear, and Margaret Atwood. Their experienced advice helped inform my approach to writing and influenced the words you read here.

Reading is just as important, if not more important, than learning how to write.

“If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
-Stephen King

If writing is the product, the “output” of your efforts, then you can’t neglect the “input” - READING.

Life, and art, don’t happen in a vacuum. All artists, whether or not they admit it, are influenced by their environment, education, and peers.

If you don’t read, how will you know if your story idea is any different than others in the same genre?

You read to expand your mental library of references. Most new creative ideas are synthesized by combining known ideas in a new way that is useful. Face it, you aren’t going to reinvent the wheel, but you could make something amazing using a bunch of wheels in a way no one has ever used them before.

If you already read, expand your reading to multiple genres. Drink broadly of your influences. Having a diverse library of resources will give you the best opportunity to develop a novel idea.

Keep it Simple, Stupid

Don’t write to sound smart or prove you have a top-shelf vocabulary.

I made this mistake when I was in school. I thought teachers wanted to read those polysyllabic words peppered into essays. While college professors might want to see that, most other people don’t.

“One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you're maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones.”
-Stephen King

Or, as Brene Brown always says, “Clear is kind.”

As you look over your writing, could you make it tighter, and more concise? Could you cut any extra, unnecessary words and still convey the main point?

Slow and Steady Wins Every Time

By all accounts, writing is a consistent practice. Books (at least the good ones) aren’t binge-written during a weekend locked in a cabin in the woods. 

In studying the routines of excellent writers, James Clear concluded that most successful writers established daily working and exercise habits to support their work. Because that’s what writing is - work. The professionals show up on the page regardless of whether or not the “muse” shows up.

You can find 5 painless ways to make writing a daily habit and get your pen moving here.

Write the Junk Draft First, Then Edit

Turn off the editor.

During the first draft of anything, let it all out.

The advice is deceptively simple and hard to follow, especially when using modern writing tech.

Using spellcheck and other apps that quickly tidy up your mistakes and incorrect grammar blocks our ability to access our deepest, subconscious thoughts.

As Anne Lamott writes, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”

Handwrite the first draft so that the temptation of the backspace and delete keys is eliminated. 

Know When to Seek Qualified Feedback

If you aren’t writing to make a connection with an audience, then you’re just journaling for your own benefit. In that case, you’ll never need any feedback on your writing, as you should know exactly what you were thinking when you wrote that.

It might be difficult for you to face criticism, as it is for anyone who opens themselves up to scrutiny. Yet, this is an essential part of writing for an audience.

“Once you feel there’s nothing else that you can do to your manuscript to improve it, that’s when you need to hand it to an outside observer. What I’d like to have is people who are dedicated readers but who are not in the publishing business. You want somebody who can give you a true opinion and it’s better if it isn’t your spouse. You don’t want to have any of those frosty silences over the breakfast table, and you also don’t want to have put them in that position.”
-Margaret Atwood

All authors have readers. So, you’ll need to find a group of readers with qualified opinions you can trust. For that, you’ll have to find people who read material that is similar to your writing. If you write epic fantasy, choose someone who’s read Tolkien, Jordan, and Sanderson.

When the time is right and your draft is as good as it will get, then let it be seen. Observe how your readers understand the material, the emotions they felt, and their main takeaways. It’s like having someone else taste the food before it is plated. You’ll get a sense if you need to tweak it with spice before serving the full meal.