* This is another entry in our “Advice for Aspiring Writers” Series.
“People tend to look at successful writers … and think that they sit down at their desk every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have… But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts.” – Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
If you want to become a better writer you must write relentlessly. Although this is not what any of us wants to hear, the truth is that there is no better way to hone your skills than good, old-fashioned practice. Even the most successful authors can tell you of the steady stream of tedious paragraphs and awkward turns of phrase that still come from their fingertips. If any of that writing ever sees the light of day, it is only after merciless and heavy-handed editing. Experienced writers write every day. They know they must keep at it – they must continue to exercise their linguistic muscles if they expect to produce writing worth reading. Quantity comes before quality.
If you’re looking to improve your writing, I encourage you to set a writing goal. Start a blog (it’s free) and commit to writing one post a week. You’ll grow more by regularly blogging than if you were to set out to work on a multi-year autobiography project. Once a week, write a 500 - 1,000-word post sharing the happenings in your shop or life. The blog platform can teach you to organize your thoughts, present them concisely and cogently, and wrap them in a compelling lead and closing.
Even if no one reads your blog as you struggle to find your voice, the regular practice will make you a better writer.
Unfortunately, many aspiring writers are paralyzed by perfectionism. They stare at the flashing cursor, waiting for the perfect opening sentence to flow out of the universe through their keystrokes. As they’re waiting for this epiphany, they wouldn’t dare type anything prematurely. I mean, what if their argument turned out to be an incoherent mess? What if their words came across as contrived? What if they misspelled a word, or worse, used one incorrectly? They watch the cursor blink until they decide they don’t have the writing gene.
But wordsmithing is craft, not magic. You cannot stick your finger in your belly button, close your eyes, and wish upon a star for a genius first draft. If you want to learn to express yourself through writing, you’ve got to start with words on the page. Anne Lamott has said, “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place… Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means.”
I think this is dead-on. Although I find non-fiction writing much easier when I rely an outline, I never let it become an immutable boundary. First drafts are just as much about play as they are information so I say whatever I want to say – it’s not uncommon that some of that off-the-cuff stuff actually makes it through the final editing process. It’s once those first words are out that the real work of writing begins – every sentence and turn of phrase is scrutinized to see how it can be improved. But it starts with just saying what’s on your mind.
Up next… How to edit your writing.