The laborious, seven-stage process of becoming a good writer
I was asked by Mars Dorian yesterday how I learned to write so well. My answer was basically: I started young and practiced a lot. I also had the fortune of learning to do some things which many writers don’t, but should. I’ll cover those in another article. What’s interesting is that when I look back, I can see seven clear stages in my development as a writer. I suspect that most writers must go through a similar process.
1. Obsession with structure & aesthetics
I started out consumed with what writing looked like. With its structure and aesthetics. With what word to choose for which occasion. Having no experience of my own, this essentially meant that I tried to copy the styles of other writers I admired. I tried to put words together in the same way they did. It goes without saying that I was terrible at it.
2. Awful realization of craven imitation
Eventually, I started to get a feel for how to put words together. At about that time, I realized that I was basically imitating other people’s styles, and trying to do a better job of being them than they did. I realized that I hadn’t really learned to write so much as ape other writers. Everything I “created” was entirely derivative.
3. Earnest search for own voice
Determined to be more than an imitator, I started to try to inject my own style into my words. Not having any idea what my own style was, I essentially wrote in whichever way seemed most picturesque, poetical, or profound. Suffice to say it was none of those things. After a while I stumbled onto the depressing revelation that anyone unlucky enough to read my prose was choking on the petals of my overwrought verbosity. This discovery only really sank home when I was exposed to my own work after a few months of detachment. After throwing up in my mouth, I was faced with the grim choice of cutting on my writing, or cutting on myself.
4. Gradual discovery of alleged voice
They say admitting to a problem is 90% of the cure. For several years I quietly, determinedly worked to refine how I put words together so I could be happy with the results. I did this with the melancholy awareness that every other piece of writing I’d produced during this time had been a masterpiece when I wrote it—and had displeased me very much when I re-read it a few months later. The silver lining was that I could vaguely sense the amount of displeasure gradually decreasing. Eventually I reached a kind of equilibrium, where I was familiar enough with how to put words together; comfortable enough with how to use language; that I could be confident I had my own style…but uneasy enough with its quality that I was always pushing to improve. I settled into the confident belief that I had discovered my voice, and was now merely developing it.
5. Shocking realization that words are not the point
Shortly after this, I finally made a discovery which I fear most writers never make (and so they remain permanently mediocre). I discovered that how I use words isn’t the point. A story is like a pearl. Developing a “voice” in which to write is like learning to craft stained-glass windows with which to make a display case. The more beautiful and unique you try to make your work…the less of the pearl you can see behind all that gaudy glass.
6. Resigned commitment to learning to really write
Knowing there was nothing else for it—I wasn’t turning back now—I started up the long, steep path of learning to refine my writing. Refine it until the words became invisible and the reader was left only with the story. It was hard. It’s in the nature of any artist to be self-indulgent. To draw attention to himself. He wants people to pause and marvel over his words. It’s hard to come to terms with the idea that perfect writing is where your reader doesn’t notice your words.
7. Achievement of sufficient success that people ask how it happened
Eventually, people with more Twitter followers than me started to ask how I became as good as I am. I assume this is the foot of the summit. Rather than being rewarded for all my hard work by soaring with the weasels to new heights of brilliance, I’m going to be progressively less satisfied with my skills, and find improvement to come harder and harder, in smaller and smaller increments. Such, I can only suppose, is every writer’s life.
D Bnonn Tennant
‘The Information Highwayman’