If you read a lot of essays on writing advice there are two core "musts" that appear over and over again:
- Write, and write some more. In fact, just keep writing.
- Become a better writer.
There is an absolute wealth of other "musts" that exist on the periphery but it boils down to those two.
Write and become a better writer.
The first is obvious but what makes us (or our writing) better? How do we define success?
Well, I've already followed one golden rule: outline the premise to your argument in the introduction and use the rest of the post to discuss or prove it. Even if readers only skim the beginning before clicking away they've still got the crux of it, right?
Actually, I've followed two rules. (I'm starting to feel nauseous.)
Headlines, we are told, are everything and the success of a post can literally hang on those few short words. A plethora of headline analysis tools litter the web aiming to improve this one line above all others.
With more content (on even one site like Medium) than any of us could ever hope to read there needs to be a reason to pick yours over all others.
The headline to this post (purely a satirical experiment to test the response and not something I would ever normally consider using) scored 71 in one such tool.
Is that good?
I suppose so; it scored more than my original idea "The two simple things every writer must do" which came in at 68.
I could have gone with "How to succeed with these powerful writing tips" reaching the heady heights of 76 but I think I would have actually thrown up a little.
Headlines that don't follow a recognised formula or trope are deemed generic and we are steered, full rudder, from them.
In a time when we decry the incessant use of clickbait, why are headlines such as these still ruling the roost? We hate seeing them and I'd argue they are the generic ones.
So, what actually makes us better writers?
With most things there is definitely value in turning up every day - the more we practice the better we get but, there's that word again: better.
It is so subjective.
When writing, does it mean that we have a wider vocabulary or more constructive use of analogy and metaphor? How about that aforementioned adherence to rules? Do we need to always open a vein and bleed on the page?
Yes, and no.
All of them and none of them.
Quantity alone does not make us better, at least publishing quantity. We can post every day, twice a day, more, and still never improve.
Turning up, however, opens us to exploration, inspiration, flow. Turning up allows us to channel our words more effectively - we get used to ourselves and our thoughts, our quirks and faults, and recognise them for what they are.
Being a better writer is being a better conduit, an effective pathway for what's on the inside to reach those on the outside.
It is not just about the rules and mechanics of language but how effectively that language is used to convey thoughts and ideas. Being a better writer is being able to translate thought to word, to emotion and response.
Being a better writer is putting in the work learning, researching, and hooking into the prevailing psyche of society.
Being a better writer is having the ability to impart meaning and promote understanding; to take the reader inside our head so they can see what we see, know what we think.
The mark of success
Writing more will probably lead to an increase in views - it's only natural. 10 clicks each on 10 items is always going to feel better than 10 clicks on 2; it's that dopamine hit we get from social media.
But is that really success? It's just numbers? How do we judge it?
Consider Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, who waited 55 years before publishing another book which turned out to be a first draft of its predecessor.
Lee didn't turn up again and again, in fact she retired from public life. Maybe it's because she didn't need to. She got lucky that her first novel captured the zeitgeist and went, what we would now call, viral.
Success is not predicated upon, nor necessarily indicated by, quantity.
Forget what you've read. Forget the endless litany. Forget the optimisation tools. There are only, really, two keys to writing success:
- hard work, and
By working hard and turning up we can actually become better writers then maybe, just maybe, have an influence on that all important second factor.