11 Rules for Better Writing

The other day I was asked to take part in a MOOC.  If you haven’t heard the term yet, you will soon. MOOCs  — Massive Online Open Courses — are speedily revolutionizing higher education, because they have the capability to deliver top-level teaching via the web to thousands of people, for free.

Anyway, this particular MOOC, taught by Professor Denise Comer of Duke University, is entitled English Composition I: Achieving Expertise. Seventy thousand people signed up, from Mongolia to Massachusetts, wanting to develop their skills. All of which got me thinking about writing, which might be the world’s most misunderstood talent.

Here’s the basic problem: people think that writing is this:


When in reality, it’s more like this: channel-curation-featured-large

This happens to be Proust, but it could be Orwell or Austen or Whitman or Hemingway, who wrote no fewer than 47 different endings for A Farewell to Arms. Point is, writing isn’t wizardry, and good writers are not superhuman. Building a story is not magic. It’s more like building a piece of furniture: you need quality wood, basic design skills, and lots of sandpaper.

So with that in mind, I’d like to offer the following carpenter’s rules that I’ve developed over the years. Some have to do with structure, others with practice, and all of them are 100 percent unscientific.

  • 1) Know the difference between a topic and a story, which is this: A topic sits still, and a story moves. A topic is an answer, while a story asks a question that connects to the reader’s heart and mind. For example, I got fired from my job yesterday is a topic. I got fired from my job yesterday and this morning I began planning my revenge — that is a story.
  • 2) Don’t fly solo. Find the best writers who’ve written in this vein and study them like a detective. Figure out how they attacked the problem. They are your coaches.
  • 3) Figure out what your subjects/characters want — what they really, truly, deeply want — put it up top, and and let that question — will they get it? —  fuel your narrative.
  • 4) Inside the narrative, obstacles are your friend. The bigger the obstacle, the better the story.
  • 5) Seek out opposites. For example, if you were describing something rough and crude, you should use images of elegance and refinement (i.e. “the abandoned Chevrolet was a lacework of rust”). Or, if a 330-pound defensive lineman enters a room, focus on how delicately and balletically he walks. Sentences are like batteries: opposites create energy.
  • 6) Outline like crazy, and revise those outlines constantly. I use two kinds of outlines: big and small. The big outline is for the entire narrative arc; the smaller outline is for each chapter. Like construction blueprints, outlines sound dull, but in fact are the opposite: the place where the most important creative moves happen (Check  J.K. Rowling’s outline for chapters 13-24 of Order of the Phoenix.)
  • 7) Figure on a 10:1 efficiency ratio — that is, 10 pages of rough drafts and notes for every one page of quality writing. Which you’ll have to revise over and over again, of course.
  • 8) Read like a thief. Underline good stuff, and read it over and over again until you figure out how they did that. When you find a passage, image, or description you love, write it down on a card and keep all those cards in one place.
  • 9) Ignore small criticism.
  • 10) Listen intently to big criticism. If someone doesn’t “get” your writing, it’s not their fault. It’s yours.
  • 11) If you get stuck, get busy. Revisit outlines. Seek out new material. Keep plugging until something clicks. “Imagination” is overrated; creativity comes from making fresh connections.

A couple weeks, along with several hundred Ohio middle schoolers, I got to attend a writing competition called Power of the Pen. It works like this: students receive writing prompts, then have 40 minutes to write a piece, which is then judged. There were four rounds, and it felt like the NCAA tournament, partly because the kids write really well, and partly because there’s a team vibe, but mostly because the kids are not trying to be artists. They’re just building lots of stories, over and over, in a way that reveals the real nature of writing. It’s not an art; it’s a sport.