The 30-Day Writing & Publishing Project, Day 24: My Four Favorite “Rules” for Becoming a Better Writer

Two of the books I’ve read again and again over the years are Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, and Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

It occurs to me that if you took the most instructive kernel of writing advice from each of these two books, you’d have all the guidance you need to succeed as a writer.

Let’s start with Anne Lamott.

After reading her book multiple times and considering what Lamott calls “the two single most helpful things I can tell you about writing,” I wrote the following on an index card and put it on my desk:

Short assignments + shitty first drafts = MAGIC.

Short assignments: Lamott tells us that to avoid the sense of overwhelm we often feel when working on a writing project, to simply write about what we can see through a one-inch picture frame. Instead of sitting down to write with the notion of a big, looming expansive project in mind, all you have to do is write about what you see through that one-inch frame at the moment, and you’ll get the writing done, and all will be fine.

She says:

Say to yourself in the kindest possible way, Look, honey, all we’re going to do for now is to write a description of the river at sunrise, or the young child swimming in the pool at the club, or the first time the man sees the woman her will marry. That is all we are going to do for now. We are just going to take this bird by bird. But we are going to finish this one short assignment.

~Anne Lamott, from Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Shitty first drafts: As Lamott says, “All good writers writer them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.”  She goes on to tell us that of all the great and talented writers she knows, not a one of them writes elegant first drafts.  She says, “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”

What a relief. It’s so much easier to get the work done when we know the first draft is just about getting it down, and if it’s shitty, as it no doubt will be, that’s a natural part of the process.

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts,” she says. “You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something – anything – down on paper.”

{When I decided to write and publish 30 blog posts in 30 days, for example, I knew I didn’t have the bandwidth to write a shitty first draft, a good second draft and a terrific third draft of each post I published during the project, so I committed to simply writing a shitty first draft, tweaking it a bit, and getting it up on the blog. Letting go of perfectionism this way has been challenging, excruciating really, but it’s helped me to just get the damn writing done, and that is the point.}

Stephen King’s writing advice is no less powerful, and I love it for its simplicity and its brevity.

No need for me to scribble this quote down on an index card and put it on my desk. It’s easy to remember, and always on my mind:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

~Stephen King, from On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

And there you have it, my four favorite “rules” for becoming a better writer.

What would you add? Let me know in the comments below.

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