When You Want to Be the Best Writer You Can Be

Let’s be real: some people write because they like it and they think they’re good enough to be published, but when you download some indie books you find a load of errors so distracting you can’t read past them. I’ve experienced it plenty of times. The author caught me with a good cover, but then the writing just wasn’t engaging. This is part of the dilemma we indie writers have, isn’t it? Do I pay for the great cover so people will click, or do I pay an editor to fix my errors? Do I pay a marketer, or do I pay the fees for my website and email subscription service? Honestly, my belief is that the writing should be the number one concern if you’re hoping to publish anything. A cover is a big deal, too, but only if you’re writing is solid. No one likes feeling cheated by a snazzy cover that hides poor writing, so I vote for paying the editor.

Over the last 30+ years I have been a practicing writer, I have worked with many other writers who were published, both traditionally and as indies. I took as many workshops and tutorials as I could in order to learn everything I needed to know about the craft. If you’re calling yourself a writer, and you believe deep in your bones that writing is what you’re meant to do, you probably do the same. If not, I suggest you find mentors, seek out experts, indulge in readings, visit libraries, and take as many classes as you can. When you work hard on your craft, it will uplift your talent and separate your writing from the mediocre.

Aside from taking workshops or classes, I would also suggest seeking out those authors who have successfully published in the genre you write. Go find their books in a library and check them out, not just to read, but to study. Take them apart line by line, paragraph by paragraph. Study the arc of the plots, the characters, the dialogue. Make notes. Write down passages that astound you and rattle you to the core because the writing is so profoundly good. And when I mean good, I don’t mean commercial; I mean finding those authors whose prose is written with a clear eye for beauty, imagery, or even poetic overtones. Discover those well-loved classics again to understand why we read such books as Their Eyes Were Watching God or The Mockingbird over and over, generation to generation.

When I was in college, I was lucky enough to enjoy a class with a wonderful professor who taught us a lesson I remember to this day. I have never really connected with William Faulkner as a reader, but this day our professor had us pull out a copy of “The Bear.” Truly, I was not excited to dig into the lesson, but I trusted my teacher because she had already opened my eyes so often. We broke into groups to pull apart single paragraphs of the work. Have you ever done this? If not, go find a copy of “The Bear” and do it. See what genius you discover there. Even though I still don’t really enjoy reading Faulkner, I am possessed of a deep respect for his craft after this lesson. The man took his work so seriously he built his paragraphs with sentence structures in order from simple to compound-complex and back again. Go look if you don’t believe me. Diagram the sentences and see it for yourself. Every single paragraph.

This very simple task of dissection becomes a meaningful lesson in attention to detail. How many writers do you know who would go so far as to structure paragraphs like Faulkner? Of course, you could always go back to Shakespeare to discover those gems all over again, too. Have you ever taken the time to really notice how carefully The Bard created every line he wrote in iambic pentameter, or have you actually mapped out the complexity of one of his plots? What about really studying his symbolism? I know lots of scholars have done this work, but have you? If you’re a writer and you want people to become raving fans of your work, you may want to take the time to get out your literary forks so you can pull apart the meat of some of the best writers the world has ever seen.

Something I used to do in my youth a lot more than I do now is copy by hand poems or passages by authors I read. My notebooks were full of pages of writing I wanted to preserve when I discovered a particular piece of writing that struck me as astonishing. As I wrote their words into my notes, I carried with me the spirit of their dedication everywhere I went. Leonard Cohen, e.e. cummings, Robert Bly, Ntoshake Shange, Maya Angelou, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson became narrators in my head. They informed me constantly when I wanted to try my hand at a poem, a snippet of a conversation, or a whole story. It reminds me of something one of my writing teachers, Peter Murphy, once said about literary masters: copy them. Indeed.

I don’t mean literally copy them when you publish, but while you practice you can certainly copy their words in order to get a feel for their rhythm. Trying on the coat of a masterpiece gives you a peek into the world of what it looks like when writing is reaching a pinnacle of achievement. If you want to get there, try writing a story in the style of your favorite author, like fan fiction. Or you could do what others have done and type an entire novel word for word if you have the patience and time; imagine what you would notice by doing that! How many details slip our notice because we read so quickly?

Years ago I discovered a wonderful author named Jeffrey Lent. The first novel I read was called A Peculiar Grace, and I fell in love with his poetic prose in that book. I was impressed until I found In the Fall. It became one of my favorite books, right up there with e.e. cummings (my favorite of all). Every paragraph reads like a love poem, and the story aches in your chest while you digest the intense imagery. If you haven’t read Lent’s work, I suggest reading In the Fall. You won’t be able to put it down if you like historic fiction, and even if you don’t it’s good enough to suck you in anyway. Such treasures await us between the bindings of few books, because the honest truth is most writers don’t go that extra mile to craft with such care.

Thus, I leave you with this notion yet again that if you want to be successful and memorable, you must make the craft your highest calling. If you’re a logophile, treat yourself to a weekend of diving into literary greats to unravel the mysteries behind the narratives, or plan to set aside a certain afternoon once a month to learn from the masters. If you have a logophile friend, even better. You can nerd out in the library together, huddled in the aisles like giddy kids surrounded by forts made of books. Get after it, writers. Be the best at what you do, and nothing can stand in the way of your success.