If you ask someone that question, they'll look at you funny.
"How do you get better at writing?" they repeat. "Just write. And read. Read as much as you can."
But are they right?
It's the approach most writers take to improve: write a lot and read a lot. It's the approach I followed for almost 1 million words of fiction. I wrote my first book, then my second, then my third, fourth, fifth, and sixth without ever coming up for air, and I read like a man possessed. By the time I was 22, with the "write a lot and read a lot" advice playing on loop in my head, I had written six novels and countless short stories. I sound like a regular ole Paolini, don't I? My craft must have been at mastery level after all my writing and reading. Right?
I tested my progress.
When I finished book six, I decided it was time to gauge just how good I was. I had read about Andy Weir self-publishing The Martian and winding up with a Matt Damon movie deal, so I figured I could do the same. After all, I'd done a certifiable *ton* of writing and reading, and that's the key to greatness. Or so I'd been told.
I self-published my sixth novel, 2084, and fully expected to have my door busted down by publishers begging to offer me a deal. But when I clicked publish, no one broke into my home. No, not even Matt Damon.
Matt Damon photo by Georges Biard
The reviews on the book were decent, but I had begged a lot of family and friends to give me five stars, so the reviews didn't paint an accurate picture of reader opinion. I looked instead to reviews from people I didn't know, and they were harsh. "No character development." "Contrived plot twists." "Non-existent setting." It was a slaughterhouse, and I wasn't the butcher.
I tried to make sense of the negative feedback.
That's just Amazon, I told myself. People are trolls on the internet. Maybe I should get a more educated opinion.
I found a freelance editor online named Steve Adams (a Pushcart-winning author in his own right, and an all-around great human), and sent him my manuscript, which was still available on Amazon. My plan was to debunk the uncultured opinions of the internet trolls, reassure myself of my greatness, and maybe polish up some prose as a bonus. Steve had a different plan. He tore my writing to shreds. "There's no character development." "These plot twists don't make sense." "I just can't picture the setting." It all sounded familiar, only Steve wasn’t a troll lurking under the bridge of the internet. He knew his stuff, and he was telling me mine wasn't good.
This was a blow. I thought I was a great writer, that I deserved to be great because of all the writing and reading I had done. It didn’t make sense until I pulled out my old manuscripts.
Here was my thought process: "Maybe I just haven't given my 'write a lot and read a lot' method enough time to work. Maybe I'm not at the magic 10,000 hours yet, and after some more work, another hundred thousand—or million—words, I would finally reach mastery." I had expected my skill to increase indefinitely as a direct function of how much time I spent doing it. The graph would look something like this (indulge me ... I was a math major).
In comparing my novels over time, though, that's not the trend I uncovered. It held true for my first few novels: #2 was better than #1; #3 was better than #2; #4 was better than #3. But going from #4 to #5, I didn't see much improvement. And in going from #5 to #6, the novel I had just self-published and that had been torn apart by editor Steve, there was less improvement still. The graph for the trajectory I was on, compared to the one I thought I was on, looked more like this
I tried to understand the plateau.
You see that flat part in the upper right corner of the graph? That's a plateau. It's when, for every unit of time you spend practicing something, you don't really get better at it. In economic terms, it's the realm of diminishing returns. This is where I was.
All the writing I did during my first four novels (amounting to about 500,000 words) was tremendously helpful. At that stage in my development, there was no better teacher than experience, than doing the thing. But only doing the thing became far less effective by my fifth novel. For the last thousand hours I’d spent writing my fifth and sixth novels, I’d been spinning my writing wheels in the mud. Why?
I went back to my manuscripts, examining them more thoroughly, and I found the answer. The bad habits I had developed from books 1-3 became entrenched by book 4, and they held me back all through books 5 and 6, preventing me from improving past a certain point. I call this, ominously, “The Write-Read Plateau”, and I couldn’t see any way to elevate my craft beyond it.
How do you get past the Write-Read Plateau?
If you’re wiser than 22-year-old me—a low bar to beat—you might already know the answer. In fact, you might have wanted to throttle me with common sense during the above story. I wish you had. Instead, deprived of your wisdom, I did what any self-respecting millennial does when faced with a question he doesn’t have the answer to: I asked the internet.
So, how do you get better at writing?
I asked a version of that question in as many places online as I could, mostly writing groups on Facebook, subreddits, and writing groups on Goodreads (check out the full list of links). Collecting over 1,000 answers and analyzing the trends, I saw 7 main categories, seven main recommendations for how to get better at writing. I call them the seven drills.
Let’s look at each drill in more depth, then we’ll talk about where I went wrong, and where the rest of us—even those wise folks doing all seven drills—are going wrong as well.
Where I went wrong
First off, I want to say thank you to all the writers who took time to answer my seemingly simple question. Without you, the header of this section wouldn’t be in the past tense—I would still be going about things wrong.
When thinking about how to improve my writing, I followed the conventional wisdom: “Write a lot and read a lot”, and I followed it to a T. That was my problem. I didn’t get feedback. I didn’t study the craft. I didn’t do much editing. And the only art I enjoyed was my writing, which, after a while, I didn’t even enjoy, because it was the centerpiece of a life that consisted of little else. I was ignoring five of the seven drills, and I had plateaued because of it.
Where most of us go wrong
Maybe you’ve already intuited the 7 Drills, and you’ve incorporated them into your routine. That’s fantastic. You’re already eons ahead of my initial strategy. Still, you might be missing something. There’s one last piece to the puzzle that can accelerate your progress with the 7 Drills, increase your confidence, and push you toward greatness.
A fork in the road
If you feel confident in your ability to grow with the 7 Drills, I’m ecstatic for you, really. I know how frustrating it is to feel like you’re not getting better, not getting closer to publication, or to an agent, or to five-star reviews and downloads on Amazon. So if you’re ready, go forth, train, and I’ll see you on the shelves.
But, if you want an extra edge, if you want some structure to guide you along the way, read on.
My video series, book, & PDF worksheets will put your writing on steroids--for free
I began studying the emerging “science of expertise”, studying how high performers in all fields got to where they are, and I latched onto two books in particular: “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise”, by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, and “Mastery”, by Robert Greene. “Peak” is from the researcher who coined the 10,000-hour rule, the idea that if you practice a thing for 10,000 hours, you’ll become an expert at it (the rule, as you learn in “Peak”, is not that at all, but thanks to the simplifying and popularizing of Malcolm Gladwell in “Outliers”, a rule it has become (also, I love Gladwell … I just think he went a little far with this idea)).
Combining “Peak”’s idea of Deliberate Practice with “Mastery”’s phase framework for pursuing greatness, I created a system to help fiction writers improve their craft. It starts with a video series and ebook/audiobook, and culminates in a PDF worksheets. It’s a two-step deal: learn the strategies, then apply them. My content will help you with both, and it’s all free.
Claim your free practice bundle
The videos, ebook/audiobook, and PDF worksheets will teach you how to make the most of the 7 Drills, accelerate your progress as a storyteller, and drive you toward your publishing goals.
If you’re ready to take your writing to the next level, to be confident in your stories, and to share your voice with the world, enter your name and email, and we’ll start training.
What do you think of this approach? Is it possible to achieve greatness through practice or do you have to be born that way?