Can you share any advice on becoming a good writer? — James M. (Dublin, Ireland)
1) Write. I wrote 300 blog posts between the ages of 23 and 29 before starting Wait But Why. It can take a while to find your voice and your tone and your style. At the beginning, you’ll be all over the place, the same way you are when you try a new sport or video game or musical instrument. That’s good — you’re experimenting on a canvas. Don’t judge your own writing at this phase — you’re experimenting and searching and playing — you’re not doing your best writing yet. If your mammoth is freaking out too much and ruining things, start with an anonymous blog.
2) Don’t be a complete perfectionist, but don’t settle for writing you know isn’t working. Even if you’re experimenting, if something you’re trying isn’t working, try to figure out why, rewrite parts, start over and try a new approach, etc. — keep fiddling until it clicks. Each time you go through the hard, painful work of agonizing over writing that isn’t working and eventually get it to click, you become a better writer.
3) Read a lot. It’s like fertilizer.
4) On one side of the spectrum, you’re completely copying the exact style and even the wording of another writer you like — let’s call that a 1. On the other side, you’re completely unique, writing in a way the world has never seen before — let’s call it a 10. Your goal is to start somewhere in the middle and then work your way up the scale as you mature as a writer. That said, having influences is inevitable and perfectly okay, because true 10s don’t exist. This same concept applies to stand-up comedy, music, or any other type of art. It’s a badge of honor to say The Beatles are one of your influences, but no one likes a songwriter who’s blatantly copying The Beatles. Without getting to a 7 or 8 on the uniqueness spectrum, there’s likely a ceiling on how high your writing career can go.
5) While you’re experimenting with your writing, keep your mind open to all creative possibilities. The first 290 of the 300 blog posts I wrote in my 20s had no visuals. Only towards the very end did I try drawing something one night. And only then did I realize how much I liked combining hand-drawn visuals with my writing. That could have easily never happened, and if it hadn’t, Wait But Why would be an all-text blog today.
6) If you get feedback as you grow as a writer, be careful who it’s coming from. The person giving feedback should A) believe in you, B) be rooting for you, and C) be completely aware that what they’re reading isn’t your max potential but you experimenting, gaining confidence, and trying to figure out your voice. A person who satisfies all of those is great to get feedback from. Someone who fails any of those criteria is going to do you more harm than good, and will often be the person who makes you quit prematurely and never try again (even if you don’t realize they’re the reason that happened).
7) Remember that in most cases, the ideas behind the writing are more important than the quality of the writing itself. You’d rather have great ideas and pretty good writing than the other way around.