Advice from experts including Stephen King and Steven Pinker
Sometimes you don’t know what you want to say. Other times you don’t know the right way to say it. And very often you can’t get your butt in the chair to write anything at all.
Whether it’s reports and presentations for the office, that great novel you’d love to write, or the movie you can see in your head that hasn’t made its way to the page yet, you could definitely use some tips on how to improve your writing.
Well, let’s not screw around here. We’re gonna get insight from the real experts: uber-bestselling author Stephen King, renowned playwright David Mamet, Harvard professor Steven Pinker, blockbuster screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, UCLA Film School professor Howard Suber, “Family Guy” writer Andrew Goldberg, and many more.
Let’s get to it…
The Most Important Question To Ask Yourself
“Why should anyone care about what I’m writing?”
No, asking yourself this is not a symptom of clinical depression, it’s the best — no, the essential — question you need to start with.
Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, puts it rather bluntly:
Nobody wants to read your shit.
Now Pressfield’s not being cruel. He’s saying you need to give the reader a reason to care. Don’t just assume because it’s interesting to you that it’s interesting to them.
Before you write something, ask yourself the question. And rather than hanging your head and trying to find the antidepressant with the fewest side effects, answer it.
What are you going to do to make sure someone other than Mom is interested in what you’ve written? Is it fun? Is it informative? Does it answer a question people are asking?
Jason Hallock, the top story analyst at Paramount Pictures, says that no matter what you’re writing, a “hook” that draws the reader in and makes them curious is vital:
Eric, you and I have talked about attention as a zero-sum game, and with all the distractions fighting for that scarcest of resources, it’s important to think of the audience first. This is more of an entertainer’s perspective than an artist’s, but I think it’s equally valid (if not more so…). That’s why the hook is so critical. It’s universal, too, not just in writing or movies, but in business. It just has different nomenclature. Sometimes it’s called a logline, sometimes an elevator pitch. You’ve got to engage attention–to captivate. It’s not easy. I’ve written thousands of loglines on projects over the last two decades, and in almost every case, the harder something is for me to boil down into a single sentence or two, the worse it is as a story.
Take the time to craft a quick sentence or two that summarizes what’s interesting about what you’re working on. Test it on a few people. If they say, “Tell me more” you know you’re on to something.
(To learn the 7-step morning ritual that will keep you happy all day, click here.)
Alright, so you know what you’re writing is worth writing. The next step is something a lot of people skip…
Actually Sit Down And Write
Yes, to get something written you actually have to write it. Some call it “The Discipline of the Chair.” Sit down and write.
William Zinsser has sold over 1 million copies of his book On Writing Well: An Informal Guide To Writing Nonfiction. What does he say?
You learn to write by writing. It’s a truism, but what makes it a truism is that it’s true. The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.
But even he procrastinates when it comes to writing. It scares everyone a bit. That’s natural. So what does Andy do? He surrounds himself with things that give him confidence. Here’s Andy:
If there is a certain pen that makes you feel more like a writer, then go get it. A certain notebook. Whatever makes you feel more like a writer will help you. Confidence is such a powerful driver to writing. If you happen to be in a steady state when you’re feeling confident the way that you write is different.
Yes, sitting down to write can be scary. And guess how intimidating it is to write a blog post about how to write well? I wrote anyway. So should you.
(To learn how to build a habit of writing every day — or any good habit for that matter — click here.)
Okay, writing a lot isn’t easy. So what is the easiest way to improve your skills? Osmosis. Well, kinda…
Read, Read and Read Some More
Stephen King has written one of the best (and most entertaining) books on how to improve your writing. And he doesn’t mince words on this topic:
If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.
Why is reading a ton so important? As Harvard professor Steven Pinker explained when I spoke to him, if we’re going to learn the rules of good writing, it’s probably going to be passively from the books we devour:
I don’t think you could become a good writer unless you spend a lot of time immersed in text allowing you to soak up thousands of idioms and constructions and figures of speech and interesting words, to develop a sense of writing at its best. Becoming a writer requires savoring and reverse-engineering examples of good prose, giving you something to aspire to and allowing you to become sensitive to the hundreds of things that go into a good sentence that couldn’t possibly be spelled out one by one.
And then, as William Zinsser explains, you can take it to the next level. Study the books you love and imitate them.
Writing is learned by imitation. If anyone asked me how I learned to write, I’d say I learned by reading the men and women who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and trying to figure out how they did it.
Does this mean you’ll just be a second-rate version of the writer you love most?
Anything you write is going to get filtered through your perspective and your vocabulary. You’ll pick up some of the strengths of what you’re imitating but what comes out will be your own.
(For more tips from “Seven” screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, click here.)
So you’ve made sure what you’re doing is interesting, and you’re reading and writing. But what’s the #1 thing that makes writing seem like it was done by a pro?
Tell A Dirty Joke
No, not literally. But hold on to that idea for a second…
What we’re looking for here is structure. Andy says that’s the sign of someone who knows what they’re doing:
When I’m reading something, what lets me know if I’m in good hands or not is whether there’s a sense of structure to it.
Whether it’s a screenplay or a PowerPoint presentation, does it have a clear beginning, middle and end? Or is it a rambling mess of ideas? And that’s where dirty jokes come in…
Playwright extraordinaire David Mamet says the dirty joke is the best model for telling a story. It has a beginning, middle and end, it doesn’t waste time telling you more than you need to know, and it uses everyday language.
From Mamet’s On Directing Film:
Remember that the model of the drama is the dirty joke. This joke begins: “A traveling salesman stops at a farmer’s door” — it does not begin: “Who would think that the two most disparate occupations of agriculture and salesmanship would one day be indissolubly united in our oral literature? Agriculture, that most solitary of pursuits, engendering the qualities of self-reliance and reflection, and salesmanship, in which…”
And how do we maintain a good structure in the muddy middle of any piece of writing? UCLA Film School professor Howard Suber (whose most popular class is called “Structure”) says it’s all about the word “but.”
To keep the reader interested you want to keep them on their toes with surprises. Twists. Saying, “This happened, but…” keeps people wondering what is coming next.
But most writers structure their stuff around the word and. “This happened, and this happened, and this happened…” Booooooring. Here’s Howard on what the greatest stories have in common:
The word “but.” Which is to say inexperienced or poor storytellers structure their material with the words “and” or “then.” So “They did this, and then they did that, and then they did this, and then they did that,” which produces an episodic structure that doesn’t build on anything, and there’s no relationship between what came before and what came after… So, in “Apocalypse Now,” “The Godfather,” “Casablanca,” — you just run off the names of the memorable films — any statement you make about the central character has to be followed by the word “but.” So Michael Corleone is a cold-blooded murderer, but he does it for his family. Rick Blaine sticks his neck out for nobody, as he tells you three times, but then he does, and sacrifices the only thing he’s ever really loved for the cause.
(For more tips from Howard on how to be a better storyteller, click here.)
So we’ve covered a lot of high level stuff… But what about the actual sentences and words that make up writing? Those are kinda important. What do you need to know about them to keep people reading?
Somerset Maugham said, “To write simply is as difficult as to be good.” And David Mamet agrees. You need to ruthlessly cut away everything that isn’t focused on your story or the point you’re trying to make.
From Mamet’s On Directing Film:
A good writer gets better only by learning to cut, to remove the ornamental, the descriptive, the narrative, and especially the deeply felt and meaningful. What remains? The story remains. What is the story? The story is the essential progression of incidents that occur to the hero in pursuit of his one goal.
But it’s not merely an issue of cutting. It’s also an issue of simplicity. Clear beats clever. Stephen King says you need to stop trying to sound smart. Be accessible.
One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes.
And we’re not just talking fiction here. If you want those reports at the office to actually be read, focus a little less on impressing and a little more on relating. Cool it with the jargon, says William Zinsser.
You only have to remember that readers identify with people, not with abstractions like “profitability,” or with Latinate nouns like “utilization” and “implementation,” or with inert constructions in which nobody can be visualized doing something: “pre-feasibility studies are in the paperwork stage.”
(For more tips from Harvard professor Steven Pinker on how to be a better writer, click here.)
You’ve simplified your writing. But some fear this will result in boring writing or that you’ll cut important elements. So how do you make sure you’re really connecting with the people looking at your stuff?
Know Thy Reader
Who is going to be reading what you’re writing? What can you assume they know? This is a far more important question than you think.
Ever have someone say something to you like, “Remember that place we went that one time with that guy? They had that thing there. Can you get that for me?”
And you’re like, “What the hell are you even talking about? I can’t read your mind.” This problem has a name. It’s called “the curse of knowledge.” Once you know something you assume others do too.
And that leads to bad writing because we’re not putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes and thinking about what they really need to hear to understand what we’re talking about. Steven Pinker explains:
…another bit of cognitive science that is highly relevant is a phenomenon called “the curse of knowledge.” Namely, the inability that we all have in imagining what it’s like not to know something that we do know. And that has been studied in various guises in the psychological literature. People assume that the words that they know are common knowledge. That the facts that they know are universally known… the writer doesn’t stop to think what the reader doesn’t know.
So how do we address the reader? Should we assume they’re dumb? No. Imagine you’re telling a friend who is as smart as you are something they don’t know. Here’s Steven:
…imagine that you are in a conversation with a reader who is as competent as you are, but happens not to know some things that you know. And you orient the reader so that they can see something in the world with their own eyes that you have noticed, but they have not yet noticed… A symmetry between reader and writer. A conversational, informal style. A determination to be visual and concrete. An excitement about showing the reader something in the world that the reader can see for themselves, rather than concentrating on the activity of the people who have studied that thing.
And don’t forget that you want to emotionally connect with them as well. Stephen King says you should reference concrete things, events and beliefs they can relate to.
When the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own life and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested in the story.
(To learn what the words you use say about you, click here.)
So you actually finished something. Congrats! Do you just submit it immediately to your reader? God, no…
Edit, Rewrite, Edit, Rewrite
David Mamet says you should look at the sections of what you wrote asking, “What happens if I take this out?” If the answer is “nothing”, then start chopping.
From On Directing Film:
The questions that you want to ask as a director are the same questions you want to ask as a writer, the same questions you want to ask as an actor. “Why now?” “What happens if I don’t?” Having discovered what is essential, you then know what to cut.
And rewriting is another one all the experts agree on. Good writing means rewriting. Nobody gets it perfect on the first pass. Here’s Steven Pinker:
Much advice on good writing is really advice on revising. Because very few people are smart enough to be able to lay down some semblance of an argument and to express it in clear prose at the same time. Most writers require two passes to accomplish that, And after they’ve got the ideas down, now it’s time to refine and polish. Because the order in which ideas occur to a writer is seldom the same as the order that are best digested by a reader. And often, good writing requires a revising and rearranging the order of what you introduce so that the reader can easily follow it.
And rewriting doesn’t just clarify ideas. It also can make what you wrote better. Your first ideas are rarely your best ideas.
“Family Guy” writer Andrew Goldberg told me that writing “alts” (alternative jokes) allows him to survey people for which one gets the most laughs. This makes his scripts better:
I’ll often write three or four or five different alts, and then I’ll show it to friends, show it to my wife, show it to my manager, show it to a director or somebody on the project, and ask them which they think is funniest. Usually the first joke you think of isn’t the funniest. One thing that I’ve learned from TV and working in a big group is, whatever joke is there, you can always beat it. There’s always a funnier joke somewhere out there.
(To learn the work habits of creative geniuses, click here.)
Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it up and learn where the most valuable lessons in writing come from…
Here’s how to improve your writing:
- “Why would anyone care?”: If you can’t answer this question you’re in deep doo-doo.
- Actually sit down and write: Try skipping this one and let me know how far you get.
- Read: Learn rules. Break rules. Make your own rules. Then you rule.
- Structure: Tell a dirty joke. Then get rid of the dirty. Unless you’re writing something scandalous… in which case, please send me a copy.
- Simplify: (I’d be a hypocrite if I said a lot about this.)
- Know your reader: You know, the guy at that place with the thing. No, the other guy.
- Edit and rewrite: And don’t email me about typos in this post to be clever, wiseass.
These are powerful lessons. But not the most powerful lessons. As Stephen King explains:
You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.
And that means getting to work. But have some fun with it. As Oscar Wilde said:
A writer is someone who has taught his mind to misbehave.
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