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How to Become an Exceptional Writer

Demian Farnworth is a freelance writer who hustles the finer points of copy at the blog The CopyBot. Here are some humorous but true  pieces of advice to you, budding writer!

A man and boy sit in an old house crowded with furniture, sunlight, and dust.

The man stomps his foot on the hard-wood floor. He’s wearing a white shirt, black jacket, and black derby hat.

The boy is wearing the identical outfit. A guitar rests on his tiny knee. Tiny fingers grip the strings. Tiny fingers pluck the strings.

The man is nodding, rocking as the boy plays.

The man is Jack White — of The White Stripes, The Ranconteurs, and Dead Weather fame.

The boy is his son.

Jack White is one of our best living guitarists. And he is teaching his son how to play.

This scene is part of the documentary It Might Get Loud. Jack White is the youngest of three generations of guitarists showcased.

Jimmy Page and The Edge are the other two. It doesn’t matter. The best part of this film happens in this old house crowded with furniture, sunlight and dust.

It happens when Jack White is teaching his son how to play his guitar. It happens when Jack White says, “You have to fight the guitar …”

And you have to win.

Some of the best writing advice … ever

That’s an incredible piece of advice for playing guitar.

For writing. For life. It’s back alley wisdom. A tip you might get from an older brother in a vacant lot before your first fistfight.

You have to fight. And you have to win.

If Jack would’ve said, “You have to fight the guitar,” and stopped there, then the mood in the room might have been grim.

Leaving it at fight the guitar and the lesson was this: it’s just the boy against the guitar. And my money is on the guitar.

In other words, there was no hope. You could win. More than likely you could lose. Yet, he said, “And you have to win.” In other words, fight until you win. There is hope, but you have to fight.

It could take three months. It could take three years.

But it’s not enough to just fight. You don’t become one of the greatest living guitarists without a little strategy, technique, knowledge and flair. These are things that make guitarists’ world famous. And writers legendary.

So, let’s look at how these four categories can help you become an exceptional writer …

1. Strategy

Always start with the why.

Why do you want to become a writer? Do you have what it takes? What does it take? Here are some signals to look for:

Drive for Supremacy — Exceptional writers believe that they have to be the best. They have a sense of destiny. They will put a dent in the universe. They will be a pioneer, champion or master. They map out grand visions and risky projects. They shoot for monumental victories, and they are not satisfied with the attention of thousands. They want millions, even billions. And more often than not they succeed in some capacity.

Capacity for Solitude — Exceptional writers are comfortable being alone. They prefer the library over the coffee house, the office over the swimming pool. Their involvement in social, political or religious communities and affairs are low. To be active in these realms is to take time away from work. Work above all else.

Special Talent — Exceptional writers can write. It’s usually the only thing they do well. It’s natural that they become servants to that talent, seeking ways to express and master it. They look for opportunities to study under top teachers. They read and write obsessively.

Listen, while everyone on the planet can and should be able to write, it doesn’t mean they can do it well. There are reasons why you shouldn’t be a writer.

Perhaps you don’t know if you were meant to be a writer. Perhaps you’re not sure you want to devote your life to the craft. If that is the case, then you could always tackle a writing project for 30 days. At the end of 30 days evaluate your feelings.

Did you enjoy it?

Did you have trouble staying on track?

2. Technique

Now we’re into the mechanics of the thing, actually punching the keyboard.

This will probably absorb most of your time since mastering technique is what has made the greats the greatest.

This is hard work. This is daily work.

If you’re a dandy or a princess, then this lifestyle is not for you. Wrestling with a 2,000 word essay is not unlike birthing a calf. A life is at stake here. Your job is to make sure it survives.

Your job is to sit in the cold and mud and pull until it comes out.

Park your bottom in front of the keyboard — Do I need to explain?

Practice — Even when they are not writing, exceptional writers find ways to practice. They write emails, tweets or Facebook posts. They journal in the morning and in the evening, and whether they are running over hilly trails or lying beneath the clouds, they are writing and rewriting in their heads. Furthermore, their practice involves a clear purpose: they are trying to improve a certain element of their writing. It could be first sentences or calls-to-action. And finally, this practice is repetitive. The goal is to make it an instinct.

Adjust — Exceptional writers are the best and worst critics of their own work. They pull out old letters and blog posts. They re-purpose recent emails after they’ve ruthlessly edited like David Mamet. And they are always asking themselves: “How could I have written this better?”

Ask for feedback — Exceptional writers scheme their way into relationships with honest professionals who can give them the kind of input needed to improve. Your purpose is to become a pit bull on paper — but that won’t happen unless you are willing to adjust.

Experiment — Exceptional writers look for new angles. They study a list of the best first and last sentences. They wonder if an article would be better if they injected humor, shared a racy illustration or opened with a quote. Anything to break new ground.

There are endless ways to practice and master technique. You are limited only by your imagination. And if you are an exceptional writer, then that imagination will be deep.

3. Knowledge

There are two kinds of knowledge: general and specific. General knowledge is three miles wide and three inches deep. Specific knowledge is three inches wide and 3 miles deep.

As a professional web writer my specific knowledge plunges into the depths of writing, persuasion, content marketing, advertising, negotiations, SEO and social media.

My general knowledge ranges from mountaineering to morality — from Christianity to chess. I enjoy reading about gravity, content marketing, dying, Theodore Roosevelt and libertarianism. There is no end to my curiosity. And all of it feeds the beast.

So how do you build this knowledge? Here are seven approaches. I recommend them all.

Build a wicked vocabulary — Words are your currency. Do you know how to wisely invest in words? Read blogs, books and speeches. Read wide. And read the unorthodox to build that wicked vocabulary.

Become an anti-scholar — Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, coined this term. It refers to the person who focuses on the books he or she has NOT read. It’s not so much how much you know, but how much you don’t know — and how to find out that information when you need it. Ben Johnson, while scanning the book spines of a fellow’s library, said knowing where to find the information is just as important as having the information in your head.

Memorize — Recall in writing is critical. I have a pretty good memory. Not photographic, but I can remember most memories in detail. This is why I try to memorize chunks of text, handwrite a compelling page or listen repeatedly to a line in a speech. I want it for recall. But I also want to impress the cadence, vocabulary and style into my mind. So pick your favorite writers, and then start.

Travel — Reading is not the only mode of learning. Actually going through experiences, meeting new people and seeing different parts of the world will build your knowledge base. It’s what Jeff Goins calls the discipline of travel. And it’s an excellent educator.

Sit in a classroom — These days this doesn’t mean you have to enroll in school, load your backpack with paper and pencils and roll up to the community college on your bicycle. Most major universities are giving away their courses online. MIT, Yale or Stanford. Just look up your favorite university and I’ll bet you they are giving away courses. Tip: my favorite course I listened to was Shelly Kagan’s Death.

Educate through writing sprints — From late October to July of this year I wrote over 220 articles in nine months for a client. These weren’t push over posts. These were technical and an average of 1,400 words per article. That’s five day a week. This is break-neck speed, an accelerated course in SEO, social media, marketing and start ups. And, of course, writing. I got really good at predicting which article would do well, and where.

Follow a blog like Gangrey — The guys at Gangrey are on a mission to “prolong the slow death of newspapers.” So they hunt down and share some of the best long-form reporting online. You can trust that each story they find will have this in common: great openers, sublime conclusions, and beautiful storytelling in between. Whether it is about a marathoner fraud or the death of a semi-pro football player, these articles rock.

Like technique, the ways you absorb knowledge are only limited by your imagination. What methods do you use to build your specific and general knowledge?

4. Flair

Listen, one of the hardest things for a writer to uncover is her voice, style and flair. Why? Lack of confidence, which comes from a lack of experience. And the best way to cure a lack of confidence and experience is to practice.

See, churning out page after page day in and day you will slowly uncover who you are. You’ll begin to recognize your voice and flair.

But there are other clues you can look for, too. Here are five.

Find the source of your compliments — Think back to the last time you shared something you wrote with someone. What did they compliment you on? Did they say you were funny? That you have a way of telling a story? When you start to see a pattern in the compliments you receive in what you write, then you can start to identify your voice.

Find the feeling that is you — For many people writing is a process of becoming a different person. Joan Didion said, “It’s the only way I can be aggressive.” Didion is a petite woman who wears dark sunglasses. Anyone who’s read her work understands her carnal severity. The confident voice she uses in her world. The courage to catch hell. What kind of person does writing allow you to become? Find it, and then dwell in it.

A Personal Seal — The work of exceptional writers — whether blogs or books — bears a distinctive seal. Hugh McLeod is the darling of meaningful work. Leo Babauta is the spokesperson for minimalism. Douglas Adams is the skeptical comic. C. S. Lewis, the rational fabulist. Here’s the lesson: identify with what you do. View it as a personal extension of yourself. Invest a personal stake in your writing. And make it big.

Be an iconoclast — Exceptional writers are usually at odds with someone. The State. The Culture. A person or process. Their style is confrontational, wild and sarcastic. Before his death, Christopher Hitchens was one of the most feared rhetoricians. George Orwell noted that his work was lifeless when it wasn’t political. Are you bucking the trend? Or are you intentionally parroting the status quo? Look for ways to stand out. To confront. And make it appear natural.

Milk your dysfunctions — Regret. Bitterness. Pain. These are the usual responses to awful experiences. But have you ever thought of being grateful for these experiences? That because of what you have suffered you are now perfectly suited to help other people cope and fight through those same situations? Flannery O’Connor said that if you survive the first two decades of your life then you’ll have a lifetime of writing material. However, you can go too far in this regard. Exhibit A: Cat Marnell.

Have you found your voice? How did you find it? Please share.

I saved the best for last …

I need to come clean with you. After reading this article you might think I’m a curmudgeon. That I view the writing life as a Spartan affair full of suffering.

Not true.

I love to write. I think it is a joy. A celebration. Yes, it’s a fight. But it’s not work. I love to climb into that ring every morning and manhandle words. It can be painful and a drudgery at times, but it never really feels like I’m suffering.

To quote Ray Bradbury …

The moment it feels like work, stop and do something else.

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