The Four Things that Make You a Better Writer (and a bunch of sub-things that have helped me)

When I saw Christie's recent list of three things that have made her a better writer, I considered hinting to Masha that it might make a good blogalectic topic. I never got around to it, but Masha needed no hinting. She listed her "Three Things that have Made Me a Better Writer", and I was all prepared to do likewise until I started thinking about it.

Because—it seems to me, anyway, after pondering their lists—there are really four basic activities that improve a writer's skills. Between Christie's list and Masha's, all four received mention in some form or another. Both Christie and Masha also credited some activities that were subordinate to the main, which is more the point of the original idea. I like to be excruciatingly thorough, so I'm going to do both.

The four things that help a writer improve in his craft:
  1. Reading and studying good literature.
  2. Practice.
  3. Tutelage and/or critique.
  4. Life experience.
For once I'll restrain my hyperexplanatory self and let those stand. Here, however, are a handful of secondary items that have made a difference in my own writing. Oh, and there's no way I'll keep it to three.
"...she only demands from each of you either one thing very clever, be it prose or verse, original or repeated—or two things moderately clever—or three things very dull indeed, and she engages to laugh heartily at them all."

"Oh! very well," exclaimed Miss Bates, "then I need not be uneasy. `Three things very dull indeed.' That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan't I? (looking round with the most good-humoured dependence on every body's assent)—Do not you all think I shall?"

Emma could not resist.

"Ah! ma'am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me—but you will be limited as to number—only three at once."
Sorry, Emma.

Under the subheading of study:
  • Re-reading. Not just once, but absorbing myself in a book until it's practically infused into my bloodstream.
  • Reading conscientiously. Getting out of fantasy—and getting further into it. Regularly searching out classics. Looking for the best in any genre or category.
  • Writing book reviews. This has forced me to read more widely and more actively. It also makes me more conscious of the books I choose (most of the time; wait till you see Wednesday's review), and allows me to see my own strengths and weaknesses in analyzing another author's.
Under the subheading of practice:
  • Private journaling. I have hundreds of pages of journals, most of them quite ridiculous (that's all part of growing up, right? Right?) and still add entries to a private journal when the mood strikes. Journaling allows me to be creative in new ways, or to blow off technique long enough to get some overbearing emotion out of the way. It's also provided countless hours of practice translating thoughts and feelings into words.
  • Blogging. It forces me to write to deadline; also, to write to be understood by—and interesting to—others besides myself. Nearly seven years and over 950 posts in, I've probably got three or four thousand hours in this little site alone.
  • Finishing those first novels. Not just starting them. It's important to learn how to complete a story arc. When I was nineteen, my mother ordered me to finish that story about M. the teenage ice skater, which I did, and but for that I might have never finished anything to this day. NaNoWriMo 2009 was good for me for similar reasons.
  • Remembering I'm a writer, even when doing menial work such as emailing. Working for clarity, for good phrasing, and for interest and humor when appropriate.
Under the subheading of critique:
  • Having a wide variety of readers. That NaNoWriMo novel has been read by my mom and sisters multiple times, Lou twice, a round of beta readers, a round of gamma readers, two trained poets, and my in-laws. Of these, some read fantasy and some don't; some read juvenile fiction and some don't; some read novels, and some don't. Every reader has added something to the value of the work.
  • Learning how to take criticism. How to pull the real implications out of a tangle of suggestions, which may in themselves be vague, confusing, or emphatically contradictory. How to distinguish between tough truth and dangerous conflict with the story's direction. This is one heck of a deadly fairy dance under the moon, and learning to do it properly is much of what proves your mettle as a writer.
Under the subheading of experience:
  • Suffering. Which develops empathy, range, and can also build wisdom. We don't get good at storytelling without persevering through and processing pain of our own, which is why—I'd posit—there are so few truly successful child writers despite there being numerous musical prodigies. For me it's been depression, terror, exhaustion, childlessness, conflicts, heavy internal wrestling over various political and intellectual issues, and just not being the most emotionally stable cookie on the platter.
  • Religion. No, I'm not joking, or exaggerating, or claiming that religion inevitably makes better writers than atheism or agnosticism. In fact, my agnostic tendencies have worked positively against some of the artistic stunting caused by early, heavy influence of weak and moralistic Christian fiction. Being Christian, however, supports my sense of wonder, of hope, of love beyond sentiment and goodness beyond plain decency, which every great novel I've ever read, including the ones by atheists, has successfully mirrored somehow. Those things are, I believe, the core of whatever beauty exists in my own work.
Being neither infallible nor necessarily good at big-picture thought, I may have missed something. If so, point it out! And I'd love it if you share what builds and strengthens your own creative powers, in the comments or on your own blog.


  1. I LOVED this. I sort of just want to print it out and keep it, but, not having a printer, I'll limit myself to just agreeing in comments with a few especially good parts:

    Like the whole "looking for the best in any genre"! So true. I never even looked at scifi until I met my husband (who doesn't look like a stereotypical scifi guy, but really likes the genre ;) - now Dune is one of my favorite books, and Ray Bradbury is one of my favorite authors..opening up a bit is fantastic. I introduced him to..umm..snotty books on the American class system, hmm, maybe I can do better :)

    Remembering I'm a writer is pretty essential, and not something I always do, especially when my day doesn't get anymore artistic than feeding the pigs (which, I mean, if you dress for it, can still be artistic..) Thanks for mentioning this one, I ALWAYS need a reminder.

    Having a wide variety of readers is, I think, very helpful..but isn't something I do, usually, which is my own flaw, and has more to do with part 2 of that section: I don't deal well with criticism, it's either "oh, wow, you're so right, and I'm just..yeah, you know, I didn't really try on this one.." or "huh. Thanks..It's my fault, I really should have picked someone smarter." (I'm working on it though, really)

    Suffering. yeah. Dead on. Especially as it comes from the interior things..the suffering that boils down and lives in the blood (to steal and alter Rilke)..and of course, the whole not being emotionally stable bit..Are there any good writers that are??

    And Faith. I think I would just write grocery lists if I weren't Catholic. It helps me to see things so much better than I could alone.

    Anyway. Amazing post! I think I wrote more in your comments than I did on my own!

    1. Thanks!!!

      Yeah, you know... I would rather read a good sci-fi or historical than a bad fantasy. And I think Lou has outdone me in the introduction-to-good-books department, too. ;)

      And--LOL. Criticism is hard to take at the best of times, and harder when it's just flat-out bad advice. I should perhaps also include the caveat that it's possible to have too many readers. Objectively, I've probably had too many people read my novel. But then, they've all added something, so who knows.

      I'm enjoying the mental picture of being artistically dressed to feed the pigs. It sounds like an oil painting.

      "Are there any good writers that are emotionally stable??" Pffft. I doubt it. ;)

      And faith--yes.

    2. But have they liked your novel, those who have read it? :)

      No, but seriously...

  2. Loved reading this and the comments! And the fact that the cat is featured at the top of the page - I immediately thought of the more recent picture of you typing with one hand, Maia comfortably ensconced in your lap. She certainly is doing her part for the cause, isn't she? :)


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