Becoming a Better Writer

by Philip Martin

Write. Don’t wait for inspiration. As Raymond Carver noted, Isak Dinesen (Danish writer Karen Blixen) said that she worked every day without hope and without despair. She meant that writing was not a matter of wishful thinking, but of what you do, one day at a time.

Advice for writers is overwhelming, endless, repetitive, contradictory, and often comes from someone who want to sell you something. Of course, there is a ton of free advice floating across the Web, some of it good – if you know where to look. But you might have to wade through a ton of blog blather to find it.

Keys to success? As an editor of books of advice for writers, I found that that longer a successful writer had been practicing, the less specific they were about technique; the more they gravitated to large concerns. As Neil Gaiman suggest, tongue firmly in cheek, we writers don’t understand writing.

Some focus on the difficulty of the craft: Sitting down at a keyboard and opening a vein. The fear of writer’s block. The agony inflicted by critics. The self-serving greed or whimsies of publishers. The bitter School of Hard Knocks, where only the strong-willed and long-suffering survive.

Others seek solace in methods: bird by bird. Break it down into small sequential pieces. Follow ten steps to success. Faithfully keep your morning journal, your midnight-dream journal, your coffee-shop chronicles, your chrysalis-blog soon to become a book. Write 500 words a day. Write more, write less, count your words and write the totals on a chart.

Others adopt the bold approach. Cinch your breastplate, lower the visor, draw your pen and sword, wave them madly, and put the spurs to your steed. Plunge in. Start at the beginning, and charge to the end.

I’ll throw a hat into the ring with my own approach to what someone needs to do to become A Writer. Writing, as I see it, is primarily a matter of playing well in a living culture of literary people. Those people include other writers, readers, and people in between like agents, editors, and booksellers. And like any culture, the literary world is so complex that it is not easily learned by rules or exercises. Instead, you learn by observing, emulating, trying, apprenticing. Each person will learn differently and end up with an individualized voice, albeit probably with the “regional accent” of the genre or style of writing he/she absorbs. And the thing is to find others who like you and like what you do; you want to find out what people like and need and how you can help them and be a good neighbor in the literary world.

In the end, it’s more craft and crunch than high art or gifted inspiration. Like a blacksmith, you need to go to the forge and pound on the iron till your arm is tired. And so the crucial trick of the trade may be to find a good master craftsman (or woman) to learn from. You copy his/her actions, fetch water, hand him or her the tools, gradually learn techniques. You’ll also get to see how he/she conducts the business: attracting and serving good customers, knowing which work to take and which to leave alone, how to deal with the triad of fast, good, or cheap.

What does it really take to become a writer?

1. Be an active reader.

To be a cellist, you want to listen to Pablo Casals, Yo-Yo Ma, etc. To be a competent brain surgeon or rocket scientist, you need to study technique. To be a good writer, you need to be a voracious reader. This is the most essential starting point for any writer. (While you should read the good stuff, writers like Ray Bradbury advocate reading anything and everything.) And for real growth, I suggest reading outside of your favorite genre. Metaphorically speaking: If you’re a cellist, read something about the history of rocket science; if you’re a rocket scientist, listen to Yo-Yo Ma.

2. Be a good questioner.

The good writers don’t just accept everything or like everything. Keep an open mind. Fresh ideas – for your literary craft, career, and content – are crucial. And the best ideas come from two simple questions: Why, and What If?

3. Learn to improve in small, steady ways.

Although books or articles or courses may trumpet “10 Simple Steps to Success,” in fact we learn good writing just like we learn to speak well – over time. We absorb a lot, try a lot, and go with what works. You’ll learn in small chunks, a tip here and there. No one really has a magic bullet or comprehensive program. The constant learning model means that your literary skills generally gets better as you go.

4. Find a niche.

I often describe writing as a living culture. Think of it as a type of cultural eco-system. Every writer who survives finds a niche. Successful techniques are dependent on the niche you choose. Find a good niche that will be your literary home and grow into it. Like a living organism, you’ll learn to adapt to each change in literary climate, nutrients, competition from others, cycles of lean years and lush seasons. And within our niche, although in some ways we are competing for limited resources, in other ways our success will often come by finding ways to cooperate with others that share your niche.

5. Find good mentors.

While absorbing ideas, techniques, and styles from many sources, look for a few prized, most-admired, most-successful writers to emulate. Imitation is flattery, and the apprenticeship approach in writing works as well as it does for other fields. Start by trying to write like those writers you most admire. At some point, your skills improve to the point that you find your own voice. But that probably doesn’t happen right at the beginning. So learn to stand on the shoulders of giants. It’s not the end goal, but a way to get there.

6. Write.

Don’t wait for inspiration. As Raymond Carver noted, Isak Dinesen (Danish writer Karen Blixen) said that she worked every day without hope and without despair. She meant that writing was not a matter of wishful thinking, but of what you do, one day at a time.

Kelly James-Enger, successful freelancer and author of Six-Figure Freelancing, has said she has a drawing in her office of a man in a sailboat, with an old proverb, “If there is no wind, row.”

On the website of Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials trilogy, begun 1995 with The Golden Compass (Northern Lights in the original British edition), he notes three things that inspire him: (1) Money (as a professional writer with bills to pay), (2) “the desire to make some sort of mark on the world,” and (3) “the sheer pleasure of craftsmanship.”

And he hones in on the prime trait of a writer: “pig-headed obstinacy.”

If you’re going to make a living at this business . . . you have to realise that a lot of the time, you’re going to be writing without inspiration. The trick is to write just as well without it as with. Of course, you write less readily and fluently without it; but . . . Amateurs think that if they were inspired all the time, they could be professionals. Professional know that if they relied on inspiration, they’d be amateurs.

7. Measure results.

The proof is in the pudding, as we say here in the Midwest. The outcome – is there a benefit to you? – is the only real measurement. Ignore what people say you “should” do. Throw away what doesn’t work, and keep turning toward what works best. As you see what works better and what doesn’t, move your resources (time, energy, focus) to those things that work the best. And away from those pursuits that work poorly. This is immensely important to your success.

8. Listen to your critics.

This doesn’t mean to change anything or everything to please them. For instance, you’ll notice that one person likes something specific and the next one hates it. But it does pay to listen, and consider what you might do better. Often, an outside opinion is going to be more accurate that your own. It’s your baby, so you’ll tend to like it. Or you’ll suffer from the opposite effect: you’ve spent too much time with it, and you’ve grown to feel that a piece of writing is somehow tired and uninteresting, totally lacking in any of surprise or value. But a person reading it for the first time will view it differently; if they like it (or don’t) . . . that’s valuable feedback. You will probably not be the best judge of your best work.

9. Seek your literary fans.

Rejection is in many ways irrelevant; it is only a step in the search for those who truly like what you write. Look for those you like what you write. That might be 1 out of a 100, or 1 or of 10,000 readers. Many writers flounder from a combination of impatience, over-confidence, and a mistaken belief that success will come on some grand scale and that everyone should like what you write. Your audience, however, is not some gigantic, monolithic universe of adoring fans, lining up in long lines to get your autograph. For most successful writers, the goal is simply to find a set of people who really, truly like what you write. They like it so much that they are willing to pay for it and recommend it to others. Find those delighted readers (and sometimes, the literary gatekeeper agents, editors, and publishers that know how to reach the audiences in ways you won’t and who like working with you), and share what you write with them.

10. Being a Mediocre Writer Is Too Easy

You’ll notice that I haven’t touched much on the art of writing. Is there an innate talent that you must be born with? Is there a magic secret or lucky number that will win literary sweepstakes of fame and fortune? Is there a line in the sand of quality control; on this side is Art, on this side is Dreck? Is there a level of success that allows you to say, “Now I am a Writer”?


One of the oddities of the writing world is that it allows too many individuals – in some ways, it glorifies the tendency – to continue in fruitless ways. Someone can write a muddled novel, self-publish it, and call themselves a writer.

The fuzzy line I’d draw in the sand is the one you cross to become a professional writer. I don’t care how much you make – you can give the work away for all I care – but I do care that you write at a quality that is good enough to make people value it.

If you were in the restaurant business – say, you opened a restaurant because you love to cook, you have a true passion for food – you would face substantial overhead costs, so great that unless you pushed hard towards what worked, you’d soon have to close. You’d have to learn marketing, customer service, good pricing practices, very quickly, or fail. And you’d have to provide culinary offerings that people were will to pay for, drive out of their way to get, spend time lingering in your establishment instead of popping a container in a microwave.

For writers, the overhead is so minimal. A computer, some paper, and not much else besides time. So a lot of people bumble about, repeating mistakes, being persistent (that’s good), but not progressing (that’s bad). They would like to do better, but they just don’t consider seriously enough how to correct mistakes and learn all the key practices.

To grow as a writer, be honest about evaluating what works. Ultimately, it’s not a matter of whether you like your work. The tough question: do others like, read, buy your work – or at least invest some of their own resources to get it and read it? If not, you haven’t crossed that line to become a literary professional. To gain tangible success, you have to listen more to others and hear what they think of your work. To be a good writer, you need to create work that is read and valued.

Without Hope and Without Despair

In the end, writing is a disciplined pursuit. Yes, there is a niche for you. You learn, you practice, you improve, and you find and grow into the niche where you’ll thrive. Whether you become a haiku poet, or a cereal-box copywriter, or a romance novelist, or a science reporter, or . . . it doesn’t matter. Your success is based on your ability to take small step after small step forward.

That’s the trait all successful writers share. Like Karen Blixen, they work without hope and without despair. They have good days and bad days. They are passionate, they love their stories, they believe in their skills, but they ask, always, how to improve everything they write. So that it’s valued by others.

And they work. And they grow as writers with each piece.

As will you.

This article is by Philip Martin, director of Blue Zoo Writers and Great Lakes Literary ( and author of How To Write Your Best Story and A Guide to Fantasy Literature.

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