Secrets of Success

After decades of teaching, writing, and editing, I’ve devised three rules that I would recommend to anyone who wants to be a successful writer:

1.  Have something to say.

Good ideas generate good writing. If you don’t have much to say, you’re not going to write sparkling sentences and provocative prose. Why do so many students write badly? The number one reason is getting stuck with a weak topic.

Finding a good topic, alas, is not easy. Think about the gaps in experience and interests between, say, a 17-year-old college student and a 45-year-old literary critic. Is it surprising that so many students hate to write – and that teachers dread reading their essays?

One solution is what’s called “service learning.” As part of their coursework, students perform writing tasks for community organizations. They keep journals about their volunteer experiences and make a presentation about what they’ve learned. Suddenly students find that they have a lot to say, and the door to powerful writing begins to open.

If you’re out of school and free to write about anything, you’re in luck. Cultivate stimulating ideas, experiences, and friendships. Develop your analytical thinking powers. Observe. Ask questions. Good writing has little to do with grammar (you can always get someone to fix your commas) and everything to do with what you know.

2. Ask someone to check what you’ve written.

In school, getting help with a paper is sometimes considered cheating. In the larger world, getting help with a writing task is considered common sense. No competent person in business would dream of submitting an important report, for example, without having a colleague check it first. My husband and I (both professional writers) always check each other’s work. I edit for friends, and they do the same for me.

I would offer this advice to anyone who wants to be a successful writer: Make friends with at least one person who knows a lot about writing. Wine, dine, and flatter that person. Consider marriage if the person is really competent. That relationship is going to be invaluable as you navigate the perilous waters of a writing career.

3.  Revise.

One afternoon I sat down and wrote a 1,000-word reflective piece for a local paper. “This can’t be any good,” I thought. “I spent hardly any time on it.” Nonetheless I submitted it to the local editor, who promptly sent it on (unbeknownst to me) to a national publication, where it was published and even generated some fan mail. It remains one of the best pieces I’ve ever written – I reread it the other day and was astonished at how good it was.

Here’s what I learned from that experience: Anyone can be struck by lightning once; I’ve had my magical moment, and it’s unlikely to happen again. So everything I’ve written since has gone through endless drafts and revisions. I know I’m not going to get struck by lightning again. Maybe you’ll get your turn too – but maybe you won’t. Best not to risk it. Endless revising and polishing are the surest path to writing success. 

(If you’re wondering why that one piece was so successful for me, go back and reread Rule 1.)

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