For regular readers of this blog, what I’m about to write is going to seem strange. Last week, I wrote about not feeling qualified to give writing advice. Today, I’m going to give some writing advice. Let’s roll with it.
How do you get to be really good at something? Not just average; more than a novice? How do you truly master a skill? It could be any skill, but let’s assume you want to write and your ambition is become a masterful writer. You want your stories to drawn readers in. You want your metaphors to sing and your dialogue to pop. You want to be one of the greats. How do you accomplish such a daunting task?
Back in college, I took a Humor Writing class as an elective toward my Journalism degree. The class met at night in the largely empty Communication building. Fifteen of us would gather after dinner to read and write jokes. And it was in this unlikely place that I learned the secret to mastering the art of writing.
“If you want to master something,” our professor said one night. “You have to do it a million times.” If you want to be a great baseball player, you’ve got to pitch a million times. If you want to be a great cellist, you’ve got to play a million notes. Talent might be something you’re born with, but skill can be taught and mastery comes only with practice and perseverance.
To master writing, you’ve got to write a million words. That advice has stuck with me. To write a million words, you’ve got to write everyday for years and years. Since getting that advice a few years ago, I’ve probably deliberately written about 100,000 words (in blogs, short stories, plays, novellas and novels-in-progress). I’ve still got a long way to go before I understand all of the nuances of the craft. The million number isn’t a hard deadline of course — it might take me five million words or ten or twenty — but the point is that we have to invest significant time and dedication to reach that level of excellence. Not every word will drip with brilliance. They won’t even necessarily get better as you go, but the more you do something, the more you’ll grow to love it.
It takes a million words to become a great writer. That’s the simplest advice anyone will ever give you. The only way to learn is to do it. You have to try, fail and try again over and over before you can reach your potential. That may sound overwhelming, but anyone can do it, if they have the will to see it through and the openness to learn from the process. Your million words starts now.
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Jonny Eberle is a writer in Tacoma, WA. You can find his thoughts on Twitter, but he’s not sure if they count toward his writing mastery goal. What writing advice do you rely on? Share it in the comments. Thanks for reading.
4 responses to “The Secret of the Masters”
How did you derive your lifetime word count estimate. I am really interested.
It’s really just an educated guess from the last 3-4 years since I took the class. So, excluding my whole life of writing, I have a vague sense of how long some of my major works have been and then rounded to a nice number. 100,000 might be conservative, but I think I’m close enough for blogging purposes.
Ray Bradbury once wrote about writing: First, just blurt it out. Then edit, edit, edit.
His simple thought helps a lot of people overcome writer’s block.
It can be hard to stop editing as you go, but when you do let yourself blurt it out and worry about making it nice later, it really is liberating.