How Writing Goes from Good to Great
By Sophfronia Scott
There’s a review of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden that I find so striking and inspiring that I keep a copy of it on my desk. Here’s what it says: “A novel planned on the grandest possible scale…One of those occasions when a writer has aimed high and then summoned every ounce of energy, talent, seriousness, and passion of which he was capable…It is an entirely interesting and impressive book.”
In the course of my business I meet many writers who have little confidence in their writing and seem to think it can’t be anything more than what it is. That’s like getting into a car for your first driving lesson, driving badly, and then assuming that’s the way you’ll always drive. But most of us don’t drive the way we did when we were 16. We get better with experience.
The difference, of course, is that it’s easier to know how to get better at something like driving a car. With writing, if you have little experience, it’s harder to figure out how to go from being competent to writing something truly great. But that doesn’t mean you have to settle for being merely good or mediocre. It just takes work–and knowing how to work. Here are some ideas to help you progress with your writing.
Set the Intention
I love the words “aimed high” in the review above because I believe that’s where it all begins. As a writer you have to start the work not on paper, not in a computer, but in your own mind. Set the intention to write something great. You don’t have to know what you’re going to write, but do know that you want it to be amazing, eye-opening, award-winning. If you start from the feeling of “Well, I’ll try but I don’t know if it’s going to be any good,” how interesting is that? It’s not a motivating thought and most likely you will fulfill that thought by writing just as you aimed to write: something not very good.
When Bruce Springsteen sat down to write the songs for his album, “Born to Run”, he wasn’t planning on writing “just another album”. He specifically set out to write on a grand scale, to write something truly great. (He always aims high, but in this instance he really had to pull it off: his first 2 albums had not sold well.) Now you may be thinking, “Well, I’m no Steinbeck or Springsteen,” but I say this: How do you know unless you try to be that great?
Read Great Work (and Learn from the Bad)
Reading great writing can be an inspiring, uplifting experience–if you allow it to be. Too many writers read great work and use it to beat themselves up! They say “success leaves clues” and great writing is the same. If you’re attentive, you can pick up the technical aspects that a great writer has mastered so that you can work on mastering them yourself. Look at how other writers use tools such as character, dialogue, calls to action, and chapter structure.
Likewise, don’t be afraid of reading bad writing. There’s much to learn from it as well. If you can recognize the difference between great and bad writing, you’ll be more likely to recognize it in your own writing. If you can recognize it, you can CHANGE it!
Understand What Rewriting is About
That’s where editing and rewriting come in. For all the bad rap editing gets, it’s really a good thing. You can do it yourself or have someone else edit your work for you, but the point is to be able to look at your writing objectively and see if it’s doing what you wanted it to do. You can also look at it from the point of view of asking yourself, “This may be good, but how can I make it great?” Don’t be afraid to rewrite as many times as it takes to get it right.
Ask for Help
What if you’re all out of ideas for how to make it better? Don’t worry, it happens. Sometimes you’ve just read the piece too many times to come at it from a fresh perspective. That’s when it helps to ask someone else to read it for you. Just make sure the person you ask is a good reader with a critical eye. And if you’re stuck on one particular part, don’t ask the person to read it and tell you if it’s any good–remember, you already know it’s not right. Ask the person to give you suggestions or ideas for how you might do that section differently. Even if their suggestions don’t work, they might inspire other ideas that will.
One Last Note: Great writing won’t happen overnight. It is a process. And you may not hit “great” with this book or even your next one. But if you keep aiming for “great” you’ll get closer and closer and before you know it, you’ll hit the target!
Â© 2009 Sophfronia Scott
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