Monday, October 20, 2014

What Nine Out of Ten of the Best Writers I Know Have in Common

My reaction to finding out today is National Day on Writing:  

                                   Image courtesy of           

Malala Day is one thing, but National Boyfriend Day was October 3rd? Can September 17th or 18th be International Fizzy Water Day? That’s around the time, one year ago, I started falling hard for the stuff.

At least a few times a year, and most recently last Wednesday, people ask me for specific writing advice. What makes a good piece of writing? How can they improve their own writing? They’re not aspiring creative or professional writers as much as those who have come to realize that strong writing is as marketable a skill as tech-savviness.  

I give them a few small practical tips, such as getting rid of all unnecessary words and sentences to help keep the final product as short and streamlined as possible. I can think of several good books that could have been great books if the total word count had been chopped in half; and dozens of brutally rambling e-mails I would have taken more seriously if even two paragraphs had been knocked out.

But here’s my #1, big-picture, tip: avoid “how to” manuals on becoming a better writer and become more of a reader in general.

Many say those with solid liberal arts backgrounds (lots of coursework in English, history, philosophy, etc.) make the best writers – and, from my experiences, these people usually do write noticeably well. But one of the most effective writers I know is a former trophy wife who didn’t make it past the 7th grade and grew up on welfare. She’s just always read tons of great books, short stories, essays, and articles, which is why: she has impeccable grammar and storytelling chops; her vocabulary could match that of any Oxford don; and it’s upsetting to think of how many more opportunities would have come her way if she also brought formal “coursework” to the table.

Ninety percent of the most talented writers I’ve personally known would put reading for pleasure toward the top of their list of hobbies. They’re rarely without reading material during subway rides and might listen to the audio versions of books while driving long distances alone. They read during commercial breaks and long customer service hold times. They read to calm down and to rev up. It’s how they’ve rolled for years, if not for the better part of their lives, to the point where they have gradually absorbed what strong writing looks and feels like, producing strong writing of their own becomes second nature, and “National Days on Writing” become four more unnecessary words. 


  1. What a lovely posting, Roving Retorter. One of the nicest things in my childhood was that I lived one block from a library in Indianapolis, and at that time it was considered safe for me to walk there by myself, even in the early evening. I spent hours roaming in the stacks and read whatever came to hand. My mother allowed me to have an adult library card, and I probably read some books that would have upset her. But I simply read everything and got a wide view of the world. When my daughter was little, I read to her all the time, and in due course, she herself became a strong reader. But she was never afforded the opportunity to spend hours at the local library here in New York. I had to walk her there and back, and I could not stay for hours for her to roam at will. I will always feel that she missed something in her childhood because of that. Luckily she had a library at her school, so perhaps that compensated.

  2. I'm with you. Unless you're writing a book on how to be vague (or a politician), be focused and concise. Talent helps and can't be taught.