How can you learn to write better when all you do is write?

I ask all of you this question — since the vast majority of you are bloggers and some are very serious and determined producers of journalism, non-fiction and fiction.

Next week I am not writing. Next week, to borrow my favorite of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Effective People, I’m shutting down the intellectual production line to “sharpen my saw”.

Selfridges has a Krispy Kreme Doughnut shop wh...
It’s time to NOT make the doughnuts for a while! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I plan to do everything but write: sleep, watch the sky, talk to my Dad, hang out with Jose, see my high school friend Sally and pat her dog Lucy and watch the fire glow in fireplaces and attend my favorite small-town auction. We’ll eat some good food, sleep late, go for long walks through Toronto streets and along Lake Ontario.

I will also read a number of books by career writers and editors and teachers of non-fiction that I hope will help to improve my writing. I’ve been cranking copy for a living since 1978, decades before some of you were born. It is a rare and essential luxury to withdraw and really think deeply and broadly about process. About how to do it even better.

I recently finished On Writing Well, by William Zinsser, who is still teaching in Manhattan, at the age of 88. It is a truly stellar book. I cannot recommend it too highly! Don’t simply trust me — it’s sold 1.5 million copies since he wrote it in 1974 (revised many times since.)

I’m going to read this book, by New York Times columnist Verlyn Klinkenborg, whose brief pieces are lovely, clean and graceful.

And this one, by Roy Peter Clark, whose session last September in Decatur, at the Decatur Book Festival, was sold out, a huge auditorium where they wouldn’t let me, a fellow speaker, even sit on the floor to hear him.

New Paperback Non-Fiction - Really?! 07/366/20...
New Paperback Non-Fiction – Really?! 07/366/2012 #366project (Photo credit: pgcummings)

I’m eager to read this new book, Good Prose, another guide to writing well, reviewed recently in The Wall Street Journal:

Messrs. Kidder and Todd claim that one reason their relationship remained productive for so many years was that “we shared a code common to men of our era, which meant that we didn’t expect much, or feel like offering much, in the way of intimacy or ‘sharing.’ ” Maybe so, but in a sense they were exceptionally intimate: One of the secrets of Mr. Kidder’s success is that he is not afraid of writing badly in front of his editor, which frees him from the paralysis of writer’s block. I’ve worked as a magazine editor for 20 years and done some writing on the side, and I’d say that the relationship you have with your editor should be like the one you have with your urologist—you should feel comfortable showing him unspeakable, embarrassing things and trust that he will not recoil but endeavor straightforwardly and discreetly to help. (The writer-editor relationship should also have a confidentiality akin to attorney-client privilege or, perhaps more aptly, to that of the psychiatric couch.)

One of the things I very rarely talk about here at Broadside, when I talk about writing for a living, is my relationships with my editors, without whom I would starve in a month. Unlike blogging, my writing for print and books always goes through multiple layers of editing by others, often people I will never meet and may not even speak to.

These relationships have tremendous power and weight:

— I have to retain my voice

— I have to insure my material remains factually accurate

— My stories need to retain their rhythm and tone; like a piece of musical composition, none of my word choices or sentence lengths or paragraph lengths are arbitrary

— I need to be sure the many underlying themes are carried through and clear to my readers

But, I also need

— to retain long-term relationships in a small industry where people move around a lot, but stay in the biz for decades

— be well-paid

— keep, as much as I can, a reputation as someone that agents, editors, assistants and publicists really want to work with again

This is the single greatest inherent weakness of blogging. Other than your followers, who is editing you and forcing you, on every single story, to up your game?

I recently read the post of blogger who said — and I could not tell if she was serious — that she expected an agent to find her and publishing success would follow.

Well, maybe.

Journalism and commercial book publishing is a team sport! I cannot emphasize this enough. For someone who may have zero writing training or work-shopping experience, who has never been heavily edited — which means answering a lot of questions from a lot of people who now control some or all of your career and income and reputation — it will be one hell of a shock.

When fellow blogger Mrs. Fringe and I met for coffee a while back, I learned how serious and determined she is to publish fiction. But she’s also shown it to some of the nation’s toughest editors and they were encouraging.

My first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” got some terrific reviews; Booklist (which librarians read to decide what to buy) called it “groundbreaking and invaluable.” But it was very lightly edited so I had no true feeling for a hands-on editing job until I got my editors’ notes back on “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.”

I was alone, in a motel room in Victoria, B.C., visiting my mother. I read them and panicked. Totally panicked.

Basically, my editor — who was, of course, half my age — said “I really like Chapters 11 and 12.”

What about Chapters One through 10?

Suffice to say that 30 years, three big newspaper staff reporting jobs and thousands of freelance articles had still not prepared me, emotionally or intellectually, for this intense level of trust, revision and sheer hard work.

What are you doing these days to sharpen  and grow your writing skills?

62 thoughts on “How can you learn to write better when all you do is write?

  1. I’m in the middle of my second workshop right now, so that shows how determined I am to improve. Indeed, I think some of my stories have gotten better since I started taking workshops, though my critics may say otherwise. I also go over stories several times and often I have friends read them over to see what they think. In fact, that’s what I’m doing with my sci-fi novel!

  2. Reading what other people are writing & hoping to read some more-am too new to even think of myself as a writer & your post has really made me ponder about the “exercise” of writing “mechanically”,without a pause-as if our very lives depended on it…

      1. Thank you for your response & the pointers:-)Am taking baby steps now,writing only twice a week.I hope that some day,I will be able to give wings to my thoughts and yet be able to remain grounded:-)

  3. I’m new to the creative process of writing. For two decades my writing has been technical-as in reports. I’m glad to have found my voice and a rhythm. Reading others work and making myself write something on a weekly basis is about all I am doing right now.

    Thanks for the book recommendations. Enjoy your brief hiatus.

    1. Thanks. Actually I didn’t write this week either (beyond one-para story pitches) and won’t be writing for two weeks. I’ll take a second week to do reporting and interviewing on a story but won’t need to write it until back in NY. I always want and need time between reporting to think about the story’s themes and layers before I write — certainly for stories of 2,000 words+.

      This week I have to report and write two 1,000 word pieces in three days.

  4. Reading, reading and more reading. I am trying to balance my writing time with my reading time. After reading your blog though, I am aware of an alternative: taking time off from one to exclusively do the other in some kind of alternating pattern. Read one week, write the next, and so on. But the thing is, I find that reading a little bit before I sit down to write is a little bit like stretching before sitting down to meditate. It is my warm up. A paragraph or two of awesome writing really gets me revved up to sit down and pick up the pen and get started on my day’s quota of writing freely and badly. Anyway, thanks for the food for thought and enjoy Toronto. Watch out for the wind!

    1. I wholeheartedly agree. I feel the best way to improve is to set a bar by looking at what you quantify as excellent writing and aim directly at that. I’ve found through trial and error that the most productive times are the ones where I’ve set aside enough time to read. If you read for pleasure, sometimes that feels like you’re not actually ‘working’, but you are. Muses aren’t always ethereal, whispering in your ear. Sometimes they’re right there on the printed page or screen.

      1. It seems pretty clear to me…If you aim for excellence, you have to see it, appreciate it and try to figure out why it is so amazing. Chefs do it, athletes study video, artists visit museums and dancers watch other dancers. I find it shockingly arrogant when a writer seems to think they need no role models in any way.

        Writers not only need to read how to write better (technically) but to think more broadly and deeply.

        Good to hear from you!

  5. I am getting some paid gigs to write–forcing me to learn on the job, so to speak. Stretching my self-confidence. Since I am a self-taught writer, I’m still feeling my way along. Balancing inner compass with practical advice, such as yours.

  6. Seeking out new industry specific opportunities and taking advantage where I find them. This symposium my friend invited me to yesterday was just a really lovely invitation, until I realized that there was a treasure trove of resources being made available if I just paid attention – and I’m not talking about the speaker’s topics. There were names and numbers of people with connections to boards and committees just lying around for the note taking! I have no idea if they’ll be helpful at all, but I’m teaching myself to notice things that may be useful.

    After a few years of poverty and recession forced inactivity, I’m trying to learn to be proactive about seeking out skills and information. Like the blogger you mentioned, when I was younger I had a vague idea that success would just fall out of the sky – a notion I completely reject now.

    Your upcoming break sounds much needed and like it will help a lot! And ditto the comment above about reading! I’ve rediscovered reading and I am *loving* it.

    1. Any room filled with friendly people — and most are — are open to a smart, engaging conversation. Get biz. cards and stay in touch. You have no idea when you’ll need them or what they might help with even a year or two from now; with LinkedIn, people can move around professionally and still be easily be re-found.

      I guess this is one of the most essential life skills — I hate the word networking, but it IS building a network — that formal education doesn’t seem to teach.

      While working on my latest project, I reached out to two engineers in Silicon Valley, an industry leader in Toronto, a colleague in Nova Scotia and a software designer in Toronto. Without just sitting still long enough to realize how many people I know now, I might have been more intimidated to try a totally new idea in a field I know (yet) little about.

  7. Great post! Though I admit, it isn’t nice, but I stopped and giggled about the blogger expecting to be discovered. If this blogger is reading, yes, it could happen, but it isn’t likely. Many of the reasons it isn’t likely has nothing to do with the quality of your blog/writing, but has to do with the business end. A blog doesn’t demonstrate if you can meet a deadline, or work with editors to make necessary changes. If you’re posting fiction, then what you’ve posted counts as published, which gets sticky when it comes to selling rights to the work. (I don’t know how it works with non fiction at all)

    Writing is a craft, improved by practice, reading, and opening yourself enough to accept not all of your words are golden. Classes, critique groups, beta readers, all are invaluable to improving your skills, but only if you’re open to critiques, and then able to put the work and crits to the side for a bit, think about them, and then apply the ones that make sense.

    1. My goal is not to make that person feel bad, but to educate people who — and many of them don’t know or want to know — it’s tough! We see the HUGE successes of the Julie Powell’s of this blogging world (to name one shining example) but they are damn rare. The other thing that drives me mad is that even journalists who have been writing for decades to (arguably) demanding standards freak out when confronted by the 65,000 to 100,000 words of a non-fiction work. And that’s just the writing, not the research and interviews and plotting and structure. I know people with big ass big house contracts who, quite literally, get panic attacks over it.

      1. Books are major projects, whether they’re fiction or non. I think just as many people focus on the rare author who can write a full length work inside of 6 weeks as those who focus on the few authors with big dollar multi book deals. Adding on to your list of what’s involved, I would include time and energy for multiple drafts, and the realities of a) most advances don’t earn out, and b) whether they do or not, the advance is not one lump sum, but spread out btw delivery and acceptance, publication, and some houses are spreading it even further these days.

  8. I think a lot of the ability to improve must come from the writer themselves, partly in terrms of accepting the comments offered by other professionals in the field, but more particularly in looking to themselves as a source of improvement. It is a constant learning curve – I’ve been in the business, professionally, for 30 years and I always feel that a day when I haven’t queried whether I couldn’t do it better, or learned something new about what I am doing, is a day wasted. For me, at least, that drive to improve includes my blog – I am constantly pushing to up the calibre of it.

    And as you point out, one of the tricks to it is to take a break from writing, every so often. Fresh places blow away the cobwebs. Last week my wife and I toured the South Island of New Zealand, deliberately leaving my computers and everything else behind (except for a printout MS which I didn’t have any real time to deal with…)

    1. This will sound arrogant, so I hope it isn’t too annoying. I am always hungry to improve. The challenge now is finding someone whose skills are so amazing to learn from — and the time or $$ to spend just focusing on craft. I am burned out focusing on sales and marketing.

      I so envy you such ready access to paradise. New Zealand is truly one of my favorite places in the world.

  9. This is definitely something I’ve been struggling with recently. Three months ago I started a reporting job with a newspaper in Buffalo, Wyoming, not knowing that they were in the process of firing their editor and would run through a second one within two months after my hire. We’re currently editorless, and it’s hard to know if the things I’m turning in are legitimately good and how they could be better. I’ll put some of your suggested books on my reading list as I try to figure out how to get better more or less on my own.

    1. Oh, my dear. Hugs!!! Welcome to the insanity of print journalism. I have to admit, that’s my kind of newsroom — look at all the liberty you now have to set your own agenda. Many young reporters would kill for that sort of freedom. Zinsser is fantastic. Start with him.

      Feel free to email me privately. I’d love to hear a little more about this Wild West situation.

  10. I’ve found it helped to teach writing, even though all I taught was middle school English Language Development. Looking at my students’ work and really pondering what I liked and didn’t like and why was very useful and instructive. Editing something–even if it’s a volunteer publication–also helps. I’ve edited a number of large documents (accreditation reports and that kind of thing) for my schools, and I think that improved my writing. Distance is useful.

    But I am in agreement with Krashen on this. The main thing is to read.

  11. With every story/post I write my writing style is still developing and as far as I’m concerned. I have no personal aspirations for being the next great author. I do have two friends who are published authors who have been urging me to submit material to publishers so I may someday to see what happens. For now though I let my thoughts guide my writing and as the post takes shape I begin the rewrites and additions play with perspectives and tweak the tenor of the piece by experimenting with styles. So I suppose like many other times in my life I’m just following my muse to see where it takes me.

  12. Marlo Heresco

    There are numerous ways to improve writing aside from workshops. If you’re in need of creativity, sitting seaside, river side or park side can prove inspirational. As others have pointed out, expanding your own vobabulary and sentence structure by reading books is ideal and is one of my favorite ways however, there is more to ‘writing’ these days than just composing sentences. When you write for the net, which more and more people are resorting to for their daily doses of *insert news topic here*, a decent vocabulary and sentence structure are only the beginning. Understanding SEO, where to place keywords, how often they are to be used, and most importantly – why – are mandatory writing skills to getting a magazine job these days. Even if you write for print, understanding SEO and implementing it into your printed material is often preferred because then it can be used online as well making your work somewhat doubly-valuable If you will…and yes editors are a blessing – well, good editors are anyway. 😉

    1. Thanks. Good to hear from you again!

      Here’s the problem for me (ducking) — I do not find a lot of the writing on blogs (partly due to SEO) to have the grace and beauty that makes me want to come back and re-read it for inspiration. I know it’s out there. But the mechanical aspects of writing to gather maximum eyeballs, and those of creating a world, fictional or not, that transports the reader…

      I am eager to just read as much as I can about craft right now. I’m writing my thank you note to Zinsser today.

      1. Marlo Heresco

        Ha ha…this is where the ‘good editing’ comes in my fellow Canuck. Properly placed SEO reads well, is enlightening, and brings the reader back. SEO should not ‘stand out’ like a sore thumb…or any thumb for that matter. It should blend and be completely discrete. One thing I’ve learned from being a published writer is this: just because someone is a writer, does not mean they are a good writer. I cannot stress enough how much this rule also applies to editors. On two occassions in the last six months I’ve experienced bad editing (unfortunately, after the articles were published) and am blessed to work with magazines who directed a new editor my way both times…which I took as the silent admittance that yes, there was unacceptable editing going on. Editors really are the other half of the equation…so the next time you come across an article that lacks the grace and beauty you speak of, there’s a reason.

      2. Then I need to hire you to coach me in SEO!

        Editors can weaken or strengthen copy. Zinsser is adamant — if they are screwing it up, move and and find editors who won’t.

  13. I find it refreshing to read your posts. It is so nice that you are willing to share how and what it takes to be a “real” writer. I blog and my writing experience prior to blogging has been writing papers in grad school…so I have a steep learning curve.
    It has always been amazing to me to learn how professionals learn their craft and maintain their skills. As a licensed professional, maintaining my skills is prescribed by individual states but these are the minimal requirements to still remain professional at what I do…
    Thank you for sharing and helping me realize that although I write I am not truly a writer…but I enjoy trying to be. Enjoy your break!

    1. Thanks!

      I love writing and why not share? I really do not see my work as a “zero sum game” — if I share any tips, I’ll suddenly starve as all my competitors rush in. Usually, it’s the reverse.

      You raise a really interesting point (thanks!), which is that self-employed writers have no one, anywhere, ever, telling them when or how to hone their skills and raise their game. I find it increasingly challenging to make time for that, to draw back and really think about what it is I am trying to convey in my stories or my books. It is often layered, with multiple themes and any assignment simpler than that is a relief but also a little dull in that respect.

      Getting better on your own is very much reliant on your own work ethic and drive. I make a lot less $$$$ than some would imagine, (which is annoying as hell), but I am proud of what my name is attached to. I’d rather produce less, more thoughtfully, and seek alternate revenue streams (public speaking, for example) to subsidize better quality work. I know a guy who is a legend in our biz for making $250K a year but his work is almost unreadably banal.

  14. I write as often as possible, read widely, and listen to every bit of advice that comes from my editors. The way I see it, they have not only experience editing work, but they also have a specific style that they prefer to publish; if I want to work with them, I need to listen.

    I’m currently reading Unconscious Branding by Douglas Van Praet (genius book) and Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? by Thomas Geoghegan. I think I’m going to have to switch to something lighter soon!

      1. Sure!

        Unconscious Branding is Van Praet’s explanation of how to use concepts from evolutionary biology and unconscious behaviorism to create business solutions. He’s the EVP at Deutsch LA and holds degrees in Advertising and Psychology from Syracuse. Genius writing.

        Were You Born on the Wrong Continent is Geoghegen’s argument for using the European model of capitalism to fix the American model. He specifically focuses on Germany, a net creditor, and hypothesizes that Germany’s Euro-model is the result of the New Deal living on. I’m not as far into that book as I am into Unconscious Branding, but it’s an interesting read so far. I’m a bit of a Europhile myself–a side effect of marrying a German–so it’s nice to see a positive, logical review of European socialism.

      2. Sold!

        Thanks….these both sound really interesting, and the latter one, esp. as I want to write my next book somewhat on these themes. I grew up in Canada, lived in France, UK and Mexico. I always felt WAY too American for Canada (pushy, direct, business focused and not crazy lefty liberal) then moved to NY and went oh, shit…I’m MUCH more European than I understood. I am all for hard work, but unfettered capitalism is killing too many people’s lives and dreams, so I totally get your point. I cannot stand a life that is workworkworkworkDIE. And Americans seem to have little interest in any serious shift in that perspective. OMG what if I am….less productive?!!

        Jose is American and we have some very lively debates over this stuff.

  15. Thank you for the blog. Love the help and insight. In all my endeavors I am always looking to improve and appreciate any tips, help and yes even criticism. We all know we can’t possibly get better without it. Writing for now is simply a creative outlet that makes me happy whatever the form may be. I remember fondly when I was accepted into a very competitive undergrad communications program here in Montreal. I was ecstatic and surprised. I had top marks but was not your typical all-knowing artsy applicant (after all I was a theatre student w athletics as my extracurricular) When I met with my professors to hear their feedback on my acceptance, one very wise man said to me, “don’t doubt yourself.. If you only knew film, whatever else will you communicate about?” So yes, there is so much more to writing than just writing.. especially if all we do is write.

  16. Great post. Thanks for the books recommendation, Caitlin. I love a good book on writing. I’m actually quite looking forward to the writer-editor relationship during my journalism course, and hopefully my new career. I’ve had a writer friend read and comment all I’ve ever written. I was lucky to find someone who wanted this kind of relationship with me for fun (I do the same for him.) None of us are afraid to say a piece of writing is bad or needs work or whatever. It’s ever so hard to judge my scribbles with a clear head. Besides, i love it when he points my attention to the little trick that can turn an okay piece of writing into a more satisfying one. It’s real team work.

    1. You will do a lot better than many of your peers for having already had — and appreciated — that relationship. I had an hour conversation yesterday with someone who works with young reporters and I was told they wilt and sulk at the first touch of criticism because “they’ve never failed.” Well, that’s just nuts. A rewrite is not a personal failure. I’m very fussy about my work, but I also have to keep my bills paid. So there has to be a time you roll over (unless an edit is egregious or inaccurate) to preserve the working relationship. Not all the time, but it happens

      Some editors are hacks and you will have to fight hard to defend your work, but generally the goal is to make the piece the best possible.

      1. Exactly: the goal is to make the piece the best possible. I keep that in mind when i’m asked to review a piece of writing or when I receive criticism. Doesn’t mean I don’t hate getting it though 😉

      2. The word criticism doesn’t mean negative — it’s feedback, an opinion, another point of view.

        I wanted to die when I got the many editorial notes for Malled and was persuaded I could not possibly fix it to my editor’s standards. But I did. Thank God she was so demanding and gave me the chance to learn to get a lot better — some books are simply returned as “unpublishable” and you have to repay your (spent) advance. Which would you prefer?! 🙂

  17. Dorli

    Coming late to the party… Thanks for the interesting question, which is similar to one I’ve been asking myself: how do I (a professional writer) keep learning? Reading and writing aside, I suspect that paying more attention to more visual sources, such as photography, helps sharpen my abilities (though not directly). I also believe it’s time for another foreign language refresher class. Studying different media – which are also used to relay messages – and different linguistic structures sheds new light on writing, I think.

    1. Absolutely. I watched “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” last night — for the 3rd time. This time I noticed even more visual detail. A good/great writer MUST be a highly trained observer, of nuance, color, sound, tone. Was the dress silk or rayon? Was it sunset or 3:00? What model was the car? The more we pay very close visual attention, the better our writing can be.

      I once (hideously) in Montreal, as a reporter, had to cover the aftermath of a bus/car head-on collision. The car windows (one cannot forget, even to 1988) were sheeted with blood. But I was the only reporter who forced herself close enough to get the make and model of the car — a fact my editor praised me for.

  18. first, since you mentioned editing, i think there’s a good in your second paragraph. shouldn’t the period be inside the quotes?

    as for blogging versus “writing,” that’s where i’m having trouble, and i’ve mentioned this to you before – not that i expect you to regularly so, “oh, yes, there’s that lovely man from new jersey again.” i have four novels finished except for some tweaking at the end and maybe a chapter to add. but i don’t seem to get to it because i’m enjoying blogging so much. i’m 13 chapters into a memoir series about my career in education. it’s called “the rise and fall of me.” and it mainly is about the backstabbing and other turmoils that have followed me through 25 years in education. readers are greatly enjoying it and anxiously waiting for the next part. i’ve also recently started my own series of common grammar/language mistakes that writers make. thanks to the wonderful feedback i get from my readers, i’m dealing with the guilt of not nearly reading and commenting on their work as much as they do on mine.

    so i guess, as i’ve said before, i need the discipline to just walk away from the blogging, temporarily, if i’m ever going to actually “write” anything.

    1. Short term gain/pleasure versus long-term gain…Blogging is a quick hit of instant gratification, and for that it can be quite addictive.

      My constant battle is between getting and completing paid work and finding even more potential paid work — i.e. not getting to writing my book proposals (which are unpaid work until they sell.) I keep putting them off because the thought of even MORE bloody writing is overwhelming. I plan to blog less frequently and focus on raising my income.

      I very much enjoy the blog and the conversation we have here, but am pretty much losing it with the stagnant views I’m getting. I have almost 4,000 followers but no one seems to read it. It’s annoying and I just can’t spend a lot of unpaid energy chasing even more unpaid attention, no matter how socially pleasant it is. Without some very clear way to fix that problem, it just means I am chasing diminishing returns.

      1. I think we’ve seen the stereotypes of writers as a lonely lot, typing away behind curtains, cigarettes or whiskey, and not very sociable. Stereotypes. However, I’m leaning towards the idea that it is a necessary evil in order to actually get anything done.

        I recently caught up with a woman who edits for a magazine called Philadelphia Stories. They run occasional fiction contests, and they’re allowing me to help judge the short stories. I’m going to enjoy that.

        When I was in college, I dreamed of writing for a daily newspaper. That won’t happen, but I would very much enjoy editing because – I think – I have a much greater grasp of language and grammar than most people. But don’t count my usual lack of capitalization as a strike against my skills.

      2. Writing is not a group activity! I think this is one reason a lot of people piss away a lot of talent and potentially useful production — because they’d rather talk to their husband or wife or dick around on Facebook (guilty of all of these) than turn their back (literally) on their loved ones and other amusements to toil away in solitude. It’s damn lonely! So you have to really want to write MORE than anything else, because, God knows, there are a million more fun and lucrative and social ways to spend your time.

        Have fun with the short stories. That’s a neat opportunity to see who’s out there.

        I used to judge the Canadian National Magazine Awards, but was so pissed off by the awful quality of the finalists last time I told them off. I just couldn’t see the point. In previous years, I did get to read some astonishingly good work and was happy to give it that sort of recognition.

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