We associate good writers with success – ignoring the many rejections they suffered before fame hit (as well as those who never make it). Reading their books and/or watching their movie adaptations, we marvel at their creativity and imagination. Little wonder, then, that we equate creative writing with successful writing.
According to Jeff Goins (national bestselling author of The Art of Work and Real Artists Don’t Starve), however, there’s no such thing as a “good writer” because there’s really no such thing as “good writing.” What one person likes, another hates. English teachers may love Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for example, while students hate it.
Then why do some works stand out?
Goins says it’s due to effective writing. A writing teacher and coach for over a decade, he insists that “good writing” is vernacular for “effective writing.” What’s the difference?
The first is subjective – people like something, so they say it’s good. The more who pay to read that writer’s work, the more successful that writer becomes, so the more “successful” their writing is. Did you know that JK Rowling’s original Harry Potter manuscript was rejected by 12 different publishers?
The main criticism against it was that she broke an ancient and sacred taboo of English writing – she used too many adverbs (at a rate of 140 per 10,000 words). Stephen King even said that, “Ms. Rowling seems to have never met one [adverb] she didn’t like.”
The rest of the world apparently doesn’t agree with what 12 experienced and successful British publishers consider to be “bad writing.” As to Stephen King – he has a net worth of $400 million, while Rowling is the world’s first author to hit the $1 billion mark.
So the proper question should be – what makes creative writers effective?
1. Read lots
Anyone can learn to write, but you can’t write effectively unless you have an idea of what’s out there that works. Not to suggest that you steal other people’s styles, though TS Eliot famously said, “Good writers borrow, great writers steal.”
It’s about finding the style, language, expressions, and tone that works for you. The dry, terse, journalistic style of Hemingway wasn’t for Rowling, and neither writer’s style might be for you. Only by reading as many books as you can by different (successful) authors with different styles can you borrow, steal, tweak, and eventually develop your own unique “voice.”
2. Capture ideas
Inspiration is everywhere, but they’re no good if you can’t remember them. Effective writers keep notebooks handy to jot down inspiration as it hits so they can refer to it once they sit down to write.
You can also use your phone to record and snap away at inspiration! This doesn’t mean you have to use everything right away, but keep them somewhere handy in case they stimulate your creative juices in the future.
3. Write everyday
It takes four years to earn a college degree, five to wear a karate blackbelt, and a lifetime to master writing. Why? Because just like a degree and a blackbelt, effective writing is a skill – not something people are born with. Every successful writer, from Rowling to King swears they set aside anywhere between two to four hours a day – every day – writing.
On days they’re not in the mood to work on their current novel, they’ll write something else – even unrelated and utter nonsense – just to keep the creative juices flowing. Asked how he deals with writer’s block, Gaiman says he stops his novel, writes short stories, then gets back to his novel when the block goes away.
If you follow any famous writer, you’ll notice that their styles evolve and change over the years, because they keep reading other people’s work, learning, stealing, and adapting. It’s called evolution and growth.
4. Build your vocabulary
There’s a reason most don’t write best-sellers – their vocabulary sucks. The bigger your vocabulary, the more you can understand, the better and more precisely you can express yourself, and the more effectively you can persuade others.
In 1999, economist Sanders Korenman and Harvard Sociology professor Christopher Winship published a ground-breaking study that was controversial at the time but has since been reproduced with the same results. They were trying to find out if successful people have a common trait.
They do – a large vocabulary. According to Johnson O’Connor (President of Harvard’s Human Engineering Lab), this is because words “are the instruments, by means of which, men and women grasp the thoughts of others and which they do much of their own thinking. They are the tools of thought.”
5. Take risks
Once you’ve read enough to see what styles suit you, when you’ve written enough to feel comfortable expressing yourself without having to visit a therapist, and armed with a sufficiently large vocabulary, then what? Experiment! Take risks!
Today, EE Cummings is a god in the literary pantheon, but when he first published, he was crucified – just like Jesus! Why? Here’s one of his most famous poems:
somewhere I have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
No title! No capital letters! No spaces between punctuation! It’s a nightmare! But oh, so beautiful! Today, no one criticizes his writing style, but no one copies it, either, because it’s just so unusual, so innovative, and so uniquely cummings (see what I did there?). Your style may be so unique that you’ll get the same treatment as Cummings, but at least you’ll stand out!
6. Be disciplined
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, explained at a TED Talk what it took to write her book. A former journalist, she’d interviewed many successful poets, writers, musicians, and artists who all spoke of a “something” that came to them unexpectedly and inspired their work.
Frustrated with her novel and at her wit’s end, Gilbert addressed that “something” by telling it how she did her part every day – sitting at the same spot at the same time and pounding away at her keyboard (or trying to). If that “something” wanted it to go somewhere, then it had better do its part, too.
Her book was published in 2009, made into a movie in 2010, and the rest is history. The point is that that “something” would have had nothing to work with if Gilbert wasn’t disciplined enough to do her part every day.