The Only SECRET to Writing Well

My favorite journalism professor, a retired war correspondent, was definite about this one thing. The secret to becoming a great reporter?

Quantity.

Write a lot. Then write some more.

There is no other secret, he told us aspiring reporters at the University of Wisconsin-Madison back in the 1970s.

Being a perfectionist, and also lazy, I didn’t really believe my professor.

Surely talent counted for a lot, didn’t it? I was pretty hung up on that. Was I a “good” writer? That seemed like the most important question.

Nope.

It’s a factor. But more important is drive, persistence, writing a lot, publishing, then writing more. Eventually, over time, your writing will get better.

Rags, as we called him (his name was Wilmott Ragsdale), was not the first person to put forth this truism. But it has stuck with me for decades, through barren periods of writing and through (not enough) stretches of productive output.

Now, all these many years later, I believe him. I know from my own experience. When I don’t write and publish and hit Send enough, I don’t get any better. Yes, I know we should post to this blog more often.

And I know from watching others who start out as so-so writers. They’re a little clumsy, maybe too wordy, not crystal clear, but they have something they want to say. They keep writing and gradually, almost magically, they become very good writers.

I include the illustrious Sam among them. He started writing his book on end-of-life decision-making for the elderly three years ago. He is a naturally gifted writer, but at first he was a little wordy, a little too doctor-y. For at least two years, he has revised and re-written, through a book proposal and acceptance with a New York publisher.

He’s now approaching the deadline to hand in his manuscript to Hachette, with publication set for February of 2018.

A feat of endurance. Go Sam!

Ira Glass of This American Life says that he wishes he had known about “the gap” when he started out. When you have a hunger to be a great writer, you start as a beginner with enough taste to know that you’re terrible.

This is the gap. “Your taste is killer,” he says, but your writing doesn’t match it (I’m paraphrasing). The gap can be a show stopper and a lot of us never get beyond that phase. How to close the gap? Keep writing.

Click here for the charming video that illustrates Ira’s comment. It’s very short.

I tell my writing clients the same thing: write and write more. Well, “tell” is polite. I beat them over the head with this advice, but in the kindest way possible. Of course, I support them along the way. That makes this phase of closing the gap bearable – and even fun.

Part of the quantity equation is that you also have to share your writing. You have to publish in order to get noticed and to develop a readership. And if you’re hammering away on the keyboard and very few people are responding, it doesn’t mean you should give up, it means you should dig deeper and try a different angle.

I notice that with this blog and with my e-newsletter. Sometimes I get a response from you. And sometimes there is silence. I cringe when there is silence. Have I made a fool of myself? Maybe. It doesn’t matter. Try again.

My dad, Frank Weil, is probably the best example of persisting and writing a lot. He’s been blogging, first for the Huffington Post and now on his own site, for almost nine years. He is prolific, as some of you know!

And the guy just turned 86. We could all learn a thing or two from him. Go Dad!

Whatever creative endeavor you are pursuing: Just. Don’t. Give. Up.

P.S. Sam and I are spending the winter and spring in Brooklyn, to enjoy our apartment and to get to know our newest grandchild, Minor Myers IV, born on Feb. 4th. We’d love to hear from you. That’s Aunt Amanda holding Minor in the photo.

4 Responses to The Only SECRET to Writing Well

  1. Eric Eggertson March 4, 2017 at 10:25 am #

    As Alice said, I give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it. That explains the trouble that I’m always in.

    We all need a reminder to set aside perfectionist tendencies and just do it. Then revise, if there’s a kernel of something worth improving.

    • Debbie March 15, 2017 at 8:48 am #

      Eric, I love this. Thank you.

  2. Robin Holland March 14, 2017 at 12:52 pm #

    I love this post, Debbie. I took just one drawing class years ago at a local community college, taught by a Stanford art professor. He said very much the same thing. He said he originally graded students on the quality of their pieces, but gradually he began to grade only on volume. Everyone’s work inevitably got better.

    I’ve got to remember this, before it gets crowded out by the voice that says it’s only worth doing if it’s done well, the voice of the perfectionist who demands it be perfect on version one.

  3. Debbie March 15, 2017 at 8:49 am #

    Robin, it was delightful to speak with you yesterday. Thanks for your comment. Yes, how easy it is to forget that perfectionism kills – even when we know better!

Leave a Reply