Want to become a better writer? Don’t ask me!

Rotund Writer in Helsinki
Rotund Writer in Helsinki

Who doesn’t want to become better? Well, okay; there are some people who don’t want to get better, I’ll give you that. But the likelihood is that if you’re reading this site you are a writer and you want to become a better one. It is also not worth it organising over how good you are. Yes, you can easily find your place in the sizeable pack of writers. But this doesn’t matter.

In life it rarely matters where you are; what is really important is where you want to be and whether or not you’ve worked out the conditions that will get there.

Before we go any further with this one I would like you to remember three things:

No one can tell you how to write

Strange as this sounds it is true: no one, and I really mean ‘no one’ and particularly not a Nobel Prize winner in literature, can tell you how to write. Someone telling you how to write means that they are stripping much of this creativity and uniqueness away.

Still, people will try; don’t listen to them, let them waste their breath. Listening to someone telling you how to write means that you are willingly decreasing the level of your creativity, originality and drive.

Learn how not to write

I once bought a book called ‘How not to write a novel‘. Most people laughed because they didn’t understand the profoundness of it. While writing about how to write is a waste of time – and restricts opportunities – telling people how not to write can be wondrously helpful.

It is always worth learning from the ones before you and writers may as well learn how not to write.

Learn the principles of writing

Learning – and reflecting upon – the principles of good writing is not the same as learning from others how to write. A major difference is that the former describes the conditions of writing and the latter, by its very nature, focuses on the outcome, or the ready text.

One safe assumption

I know that whatever I say you will try to place yourself in some kind of pack order; or at the very least you will be making assumptions – changing ones – about your writing and yourself as a writer. And these are sometimes very difficult to distinguish!

This is fraught with danger: assume that you are a great writer and you stop developing and growing; assume that you are rather hopeless and you will sooner or later give up. I believe that the safe assumption is that you are a writer; don’t bother with the rest, just continue writing.

Having said that no one can tell you how to write, let me follow that by telling you what I believe to be the four things that will help you become a better writer.

One: Persistence

Have you read On the Road by Jack Kerouac? If you haven’t you probably should click on the link, get the book (no, I am not an affiliate of Amazon) and read it: it is a classic. There is one part that always comes back to me when someone asks me how to be a writer. The Writer in the book was asked the same question; his response was:

            ‘Persist. Persist with the persistence of a drug addict.’

I agree with Kerouac; one carries you through the hard times in writing and makes you better is not the initial enthusiasm of young love but the good old persistence of an addict.

Two: Reading

All nations make jokes about the parts of their population that are less educated and upwardly mobile; the Russians make jokes about the Chukchi people – an indigenous group of the North. There is this joke that goes like this:

‘A Chukcha went to Moscow wanting to be accepted at the Academy of Writers and Artists. Naturally he had to answer some questions so that a decision whether to admit him or not could be reached.

Have you read Tolstoy? – they asked him.

I have never met anyone called Tolstoy. – he replied.

May be you have heard about Dostoyevsky?

Nope! – he answered.

But then what are you doing here? – they said.

Chukcha is not a reader – he responded – Chukcha is a writer.’

Well, if you are not a good reader it is very unlikely you’ll be a good writer! So if you really aim to improve your writing, you will have to make sure you read; and read widely.

Three: Reflection

The difference between ‘readers’ and ‘writers’ is not in the reading – both groups read voraciously and widely. I believe that the difference is in the way in which these groups read: readers read with feeling though they absorb the story and the form; writers while enjoying reading read with intent and reflection (or with thinking).

Four: Criticism

In my career as a scholar, I have met many very gifted academics who don’t get very far in their research fields and they certainly don’t publish. Do you know why? Because in their youth (professionally speaking) they wrote an article, the reviews were critical and…they never tried again. They simply decided that they are not very good in this game and left the playing field. This is a mistake.

Criticism, even when not very graciously delivered, is not meant to put a stop to creative effort. Criticism is the most powerful instrument for improvement.

To become a better writer learn to use the criticism you receive as a tool; then go a step further and seek criticism. After all, hearing someone tell you that your writing is splendid may feel good (and it does) but there is not much to be learned from it.


Becoming a better writer is easy; you just need to persist, learn from and through other writers and mobilise criticism as an instrument for improvement. That is all!

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