On Becoming A Better Writer

I often ramble on about sports here (and even more often delete the drafts). There’s a few reasons, not least I really like sports.

But one of the major ones is there’s a lot of sports writers who talk constantly about getting better at the craft – the coaching guys, the analytics geeks, and so on – and do so in a very direct, ecumenical, inspiring way.

Of course, there’s plenty of writers who talk about their craft. It’s a staple of what I share.

There’s a difference in approach however, that has sports coaching writing making me think where as writing advice often doesn’t. Writing advice seems to be about specific thing. “I had this problem and here’s what I did about it”.

A lot of the sports writing I see is less about fixing a specific problem – although plenty of that – and more about building the tools and mindset to solve whatever problem comes.

It makes sense. An athlete is faced with split-second decisions with no ability to ask for advice. A writer can wander off.

But it feels like a missed opportunity. Time spent wandering off is time not spent writing. Yes, we can’t write endlessly, but how much can we get done when we can arrive at answers quickly?

To me, one of the major aims of writing advice should be to instill good answers to writing problems as such an instinctual level they cease being problems. You can do that by taking in lots of “X to Y” answers, but is that as quick as learning how to generally solve problems quickly? Not to mention, every writer works differently, and sometimes we need “X to Z” instead – but how do we figure that out before we take in the answer?

I’ve been reading a lot of Jack Han’s hockey posts recently. Here’s one on Methods of Work that I think has a lot of relevance to writing. He lists four ways of working on a skill; working harder, working smarter, working earlier (i.e. beginning before others), working longer. His working smarter example is about using a compass to walk in the right direction. How long do writers spend wandering around?

There’s another post I like that has relevance – How To Build Elite Players – and there he talks about three pillars of success.

Background Knowledge

  • What you do consider ‘good’ to be?

Depth of Skill

  • How well do you combine the fundamentals to produce complex movements?

Awareness

  • Can you problem-solve game-like situation?

The pillars intertwine. They’re a triple helix. Are these worth stealing for a writer?

I think so.

You can’t be a consistently good writer if you don’t know what good work looks like. You’d wandering around lost. Good taste is a huge part of being a good writer.

Writing is all about combining basic things to produce something complex and wonderful. Words to sentences, sentences paragraphs, and so on. Writing stories is the same. A great fight scene becomes better for being a longed for showdown. Put a great reaction to the cost of the fight afterwards and you can have a powerful emotional scene that readers will talk about.

For Awareness, substitute game-like situations with plot holes, flat scenes, and so on.

The more you build your ability to solve those problems, the sharper your idea of what good writing looks like will be. You will be spotting how put solutions in early and elegantly, and that are maybe unusual. This in turn will allow you to combine elements better, because you’re spending less time on hammering out one.

And in doing so, your ability to solve problems – and therefore take on more ambitious work – increases.

Does this make sense to anyone else? It makes sense to me at least. It will do absolutely nothing for your writing ability in itself but by coaching yourself to see these connections, and actively consider our ability to do these things, maybe we’ll become instinctively better writers.

That’s the goal after all.

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