Thanks to the internet, people are reading and writing more than ever. But is it me, or does it seem like the quality of that writing has gotten worse?
However, this can be a good thing. These days, solid writing really stands out. It can be a competitive advantage in anything you do.
Want to know how to improve your writing? Or have you ever thought about crafting the next great novel or screenplay? Want to know how to write like a pro?
Me, too. So I called my buddy Andy.
Andy was also a writer on many other big projects including Sleepy Hollow, The Hire, and Fight Club (you might notice in the credits that the three cops who attack Edward Norton are named “Andrew”, “Kevin” and “Walker.”)
His new book is Old Man Johnson.
Below you’ll learn:
- The thing that immediately tells readers you’re a good writer.
- How to surprise your audience.
- The mindset you need to write like a pro.
- The secret to effective collaboration.
- How to make readers feel something when they read your work.
And much, much more. Alright, ramblers, let’s get ramblin’…
1) How To Improve Your Writing
Andy recommends two things you can do to vastly improve your writing — whether you’re writing an email, a presentation for work or a screenplay for Hollywood. What’s the first one? Here’s Andy:
Do you have a beginning, a middle and an ending? Does one build on the other? Is there a sense this is going somewhere? Does it seem like you have really thought this through? Here’s Andy:
And other experts agree. When I interviewed UCLA Film School professor Howard Suber, he said structure was vital.
Good stories are built on the word “but”, not the word “and.” This insures that there are twists and turns, and a relationship between what came before and what will come after.
What’s the second thing you need to do? Revise. First drafts are never final drafts. Here’s Andy:
When I spoke with Harvard professor Steven Pinker, he said the same thing. Here’s Steven:
(To learn the good work habits that all geniuses have in common click here.)
Structure and revising will definitely improve your writing. But what gets the attention of an audience, especially in this age of zero attention span? You gotta surprise ’em. Here’s how…
2) How To Surprise The Reader
Surprise is about defying expectations. So to do it you must first know what your audience expects from the type of writing you’re doing. This is true for everything from PowerPoint presentations to creative essays.
Know your “genre” and what your audience expects and you’ll know what you need to do to surprise them. Here’s Andy:
That shocking moment (NSFW) is here:
And UCLA Film School professor Howard Suber says this sort of surprise is essential to creating engaging writing. Here’s Howard:
(For more on how to be a great writer from Harvard’s Steven Pinker click here.)
Okay, so you’ve got structure, you’re revising your work and incorporating surprise. That can definitely improve your writing. But what does it take to write like apro?
3) How To Write Like A Professional
Are you enjoying putting those words on the page? Is it making you smile? Congrats, you’re screwing up. Here’s Andy:
Sound crazy? Research shows that experts emphasize the negative. They have to. If you aren’t continually identifying what isn’t working you can’t make it better. Here’s Andy:
We’ve heard a lot about “flow.” Flow is pleasurable — but it doesn’t make you better. As Georgetown professor Cal Newport explains, it’s “deliberate practice” that improves skills. And that means you’re always working at the edge of your comfort zone, not in a blissful state of flow.
Okay, so you’re focusing on the negative…
But you also need to stay optimistic.
I know what you’re thinking: Huh? How the heck do you embrace negativity and also be optimistic?
If you keep emphasizing the negative, you get depressed and you quit. Research shows pessimism kills grit.
And with all the rejection and criticism in Hollywood, it’s too easy to give up. So while you have to focus on the negative while you’re writing, you need to keep some optimism cooking when you look at the big picture. Here’s Andy:
Does this sound crazy? Here’s what’s interesting: the schizophrenic mindset Andy’s describing is the same one seen in elite athletes.
It’s what Andy calls “the manic-depressive requirements of writing.”
So how does he do it? How do you hold matter and antimatter in your head at the same time?
Andy keeps that ruthless perfectionism brewing… but he makes sure he feels he’s making progress on a regular basis. Here’s Andy:
Bestselling author Dan Pink has written about the power of these “small wins” to keep us going. Teresa Amabile’s research at Harvard shows nothing is more motivating that the feeling of progress. By building this into his schedule, Andy is able to keep going even with a mindset that is deliberately focused on the perfectionistic negative.
(To learn how Navy SEALs build grit and learn to never give up click here.)
But in many work environments writing can be a collaborative process. Hollywood is no different. So what if others are doing the writing and you need to give feedback? How do you help them improve — without insulting them?
4) The Right Way To Collaborate
Because Fincher is a master at suspending his ego when giving feedback. Here’s Andy:
And the secret to writing well when you’re part of a team is to give others that chance to contribute in the areas where they know more than you do. Here’s Andy:
It’s only when great writing, great directing, and great acting come together that you get moments (NSFW) like this:
(For more on how to make people like you — from an FBI behavior expert — click here.)
We’ve learned a lot about solid writing. But, in the end, nothing is more powerful than moving people emotionally. How can you do that? Andy has an answer.
5) How To Make Readers Feel Something
It all comes down to one word. Here’s Andy:
That’s what made Seven work. Now Andy didn’t literally follow the old advice of “write what you know.” He was never a cop… or a serial killer for that matter.
But the script was honest regarding what he was feeling about New York City while he was writing it. Here’s Andy:
(For more on how to tell great stories from a UCLA Film School professor click here.)
Okay, Andy’s told us a lot about how to be a better writer. Let’s round it all up — and learn how we can apply it to any career.
Here’s what Andy had to say about how to improve your writing:
- Structure lets readers know they’re in good hands. And finishing a draft is just the start. Writing is rewriting.
- Surprise comes from knowing the expectations of your audience — and then turning them on their head.
- The best writers know how to balance the negativity of perfectionism with the optimism that keeps them going. Making sure you have “small wins” can help.
- Collaboration is about suspending your ego. Stop thinking about yourself and focus on what would objectively make the piece better.
- Making a reader feel something is about honesty. You don’t have to come from the future to write science fiction but there does have to be something of yourself in the story for that emotion to show through.
And these ideas don’t just apply to writing. You can be an artist at anything if you take the mindset of an artist and strive to be great at whatever you do. Here’s Andy:
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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.