Getting better in one year

Most writers I know feel burdened by the amount of material they have to produce. This load ranges from a Singaporean magazine writer, who asked me how anybody could expect him to write well when he had to produce one piece a month, to some newspaper reporters cranking out eight pieces per day. Nobody can write eight good pieces a day.

Writers who feel overwhelmed often ask me how they can get better under their particular load. Three ways: tune up your writing process, magnify strengths, and selective effort.

This whole blog (and book) show you how to tune your process so that your collection of techniques makes you fast and accurate and powerful and confident. You get rid of bad habits and assumptions, and substitute ways that work for you.

Second, most people think you improve things by getting rid of bad (other) people or mistakes. But here’s the secret of improving anything:


Figure out what you’re really good at, and magnify those things. I’m good at memory and decisiveness, so I ask how to use my memory better. I put a premium on speed, so I ask how to make good decisions faster. Actually, my memory is beginning to fade, so now I’m figuring out how to buttress it by using memory devices, taking more and sharper notes, and devising a faster way to capture ideas and things I want to use later. For instance, I often think up a little bit of a larger piece that I want to incorporate eventually. Formerly, I would have depended on remembering it and writing it later. Now I jot down a quick, good-enough draft and store it.

Third, you can improve your writing over a period of about a year by apportioning effort. Let’s say you have to write one piece a day, five a week. You can probably figure out the week ahead roughly what the subjects will be. Then you decide which one of the five subjects has the possibility of being written better if you devoted more effort to it. Let’s call the stories a, b, c, D, and e. You estimate D will be better if it gets a little more time and effort. So you reduce your time and effort on a, b, c, and e, by ten to twenty percent each, not doing them badly but quicker. Then you invest the extra time and effort in D.

Writers who have tried this trick typically gain about five or six hours added to D. Then the next week you do it again: select the likely candidate and transfer a little effort from the others. At the end of a year, you’ll have maybe fifty better pieces. Actually, you’ll have more than that because the other four stories will gradually get better.

One more technique magnifies this process. At the end of the week, ask yourself why the better story is better, and then ask how to make it better still.

[Got any anecdotes about jumping in quality?]

Published in: on December 26, 2009 at 5:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

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