The Real 7 Steps to Becoming a Better Writer

Getting caught up on my RSS feeds, I saw Brian Clark’s 10 Steps to Becoming a Better Writer. He didn’t make up this advice. It has been repeated far and wide. But it’s absolutely wrong.

The advice is basically, if you want become a better writer, you should write, write some more, keep writing and writing and writing until you become a better writer. Some authors even take great pride at how much they’ve written that’s never been published. They take pride in the number of rejections they’ve gotten, because it makes them feel like they’re pursuing their dream, even if they’re not getting anywhere.

None of that makes you better writer. That makes you a so-so writer at best. If you want to be a better writer, especially if you want to be a truly great writer, here are 7 steps you can follow that will actually make you a better writer, and not just a prolific one.

  1. Read – Ironically, Brian Clark knows this, because he’s a copywriter. All top copywriters have a swipe file, a collection of outstanding ads that they use to make their own writing better. Well, great ads do you no good if all you do is collect them. You have to actually read them. As a copywriter, you should read a top-performing sales letter every day. And as a fiction writer, you should read a little fiction every day. How else can you experience what actually works, learn from the successes of others, and internalize these lessons so that you can replicate them?

  2. Watch TV – Yes, I’m serious. This is true for fiction writers, but equally true for non-fiction. You should watch a little TV or a movie every day, because the audio-visual format expresses ideas in a totally different way than prose does. That allows you to experience the story on a completely different level than if you had read it. In particular, TV gives you a high-level viewpoint as reading simply cannot. Now, I’m not saying you should watch every piece of dreck that hits the airwaves, just as you shouldn’t read all the dross that ends up printed between two hard-covers. But the best TV and movies, the best documentaries, the best ads, you should be watching them.

  3. Analyze – Don’t just read and watch TV. Read the best books over and over again, and watch the best shows over and over again. I’ve watched the first 6 seasons of Gilmore Girls more than a dozen times. And it’s not because I like the show anymore–though I do. I keep watching it, because Amy Sherman-Palladino did an exceptional job, and I want to replicate it. So I watch it, not to enjoy it, but to identify storytelling practices and patterns that she uses, which I can then use in my own stories.

  4. Use good tools – I swear by Holly Lisle’s Create A Character Clinic and her Create A Plot Clinic. I also use an idea journal to generate ideas for characters and plots. I also use a dictionary and thesaurus. These are tools that help me plan my stories and execute them. For copywriting, I use templates and checklists. And so forth. In whatever niche you’re writing, it pays to invest in good tools that will help you increase the quality of your writing.

  5. Write better – I say write “better,” because as a writer, you should be writing a little every day, even if it isn’t much good. You’ll never be a writer until you actually write. So do write, write, and write some more. But if you want to write better, actually take what you’ve learned and use the tools you’ve collected to put it into practice.

  6. Share – Join writer’s critique groups, show your work to other people, get feedback. You don’t have to listen if the feedback doesn’t make you a better writer. But you do need to show your work to others and get feedback in order to become a better writer. In particular, show your work to people who are unlike you, to writers who are better than you, and to aficionados who will rip your work to shreds. (Then ignore them, except for that one nugget of truth you had completely overlooked.)

  7. Start over again – So many experienced writers believe that they have reached their plateau. But the best of the best never stop learning, never stop trying new things, never stop reading outside of their genre, and so forth. They’re forever broadening their basis of experience, because that makes you more intelligent and makes you a better writer. Don’t think you don’t need to try a new technique or a new tool, because you think you’ve already got your groove or have already established your process. Stretch yourself. Challenge yourself. Try a new process. You might surprise yourself.

Improvement in writing, as in any endeavor, doesn’t just happen. The old adage is bull: If at first you don’t succeed, don’t try, try again. Because if you keep doing the same thing, you’ll always get the same crappy result. If you want a better result, you have to try something different. So writing by itself doesn’t make you a better writer. Only challenging yourself to step outside of your comfort zone will make you a better writer. And this requires that you systematically expose yourself to new things, new influences, and new experiences, and that you understand how these affect you.






11 responses to “The Real 7 Steps to Becoming a Better Writer”

  1. Brian Clark Avatar

    >>Ironically, Brian Clark should know this, because he’s a copywriter.

    Yes, I know this. I also know how to make a powerful point that people respond to.

  2. J. Timothy King Avatar

    Hee hee. Makes sense. Worked, too. 🙂


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  4. Suldog Avatar

    Excellent advice, as usual, Tim.

  5. Suldog Avatar

    Not that Mr. Clark’s advice doesn’t have merit. It all depends upon how critical you can be concerning your own stuff. If you keep making the same mistakes over and over, then obviously you aren’t getting better. If, however, you re-read your stuff from a year or two back and say to yourself, “Ugh. I never would have done such-and-thus now!”, then you’ve made progress.

  6. J. Timothy King Avatar

    Hi, Jim. Yes, but I contend that the ability to be critical, to distance yourself from your work and to look at it without relying on your own preconceptions… That ability is a skill that one must develop, and a very difficult skill at that.

    Now, Brian Clark knows how to write. I admire his copywriting skills. What made me want to post this, however, is that I’ve heard the same advice elsewhere, that to be a better writer, you have to keep writing until you get there. But that’s not quite right. True, if one wants to be a writer, he needs to write and keep on writing, and this is an obstacle beginning writers struggle with. But in order to become a better writer (which is the subject here), I believe one needs to do much more.

    On the other hand, I agree 100% about looking back and saying, “Ugh! I never would have written such-and-such…” I think that’s actually a great feeling, because it shows that you’re growing, as you point out.


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  9. melissa Avatar

    Copywriting techniques are very helpful. I have found this text to be extremely helpful with releasing a lot more creativity in me then I thought I had.

    This easy-to-read handbook is something I can return to over and over again.

  10. Nehring Avatar

    I couldn’t agree more. You are right with placing “reading” as the most important. Would one paint without ever studying other artist’s works? Reading is critical to the writing process.

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