I Asked the Best Writer I Know How to Write Better: This Is What He Said

You have to do something else first.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

— Maya Angelou

Most of us have read something and then thought that the words were beautifully written.

Most of us have been moved by writing — either moved to tears, or moved to laughter, and sometimes both.

Sometimes we can read something and be moved to action. Our beliefs can be changed. Our entire world can change — from one well-written book, article, or even passage.

Even though we live in a digital age, where pictures, video, and music have dominated nearly every aspect of our lives, written words can still be effective and powerful.

But what makes good writing? Or, phrased slightly differently, what makes a good writer?

I know many reading this have probably asked that exact question. For me, I write every day. As a lawyer, my job depends on my ability to write clearly and effectively. Moreover, one of my purposes in life is to share the truth through stories, and in order to do that, I need to write effectively.

Not long ago, I approached the best writer that I know and asked him how to become a better writer. This man is nearing the end of a brilliant legal career, and he offered some incredibly thoughtful advice that I feel compelled to share.

This is what he said.

Improve This First

“Most bad writing starts with bad thinking. If you want to be a better writer, improve your thinking first.”

The first piece of advice surprised me.

Some bad or mediocre writing is not bad because the person is a bad writer. Some of it is bad because the writer has bad thinking.

Bad thinking causes more bad writing than anything else. The first step to writing well is thinking well.

If our thoughts are not clear first, then our writing never will be.

Improved writing comes from improved thinking.

Never Stop Learning

“Be humble enough to learn from everyone.”

This brilliant writer, with more than 40 years of experience, asked me to review his work.

I was amazed and humbled at the same time.

The person with the most miles traveled can always learn from the person just starting the journey. That was his message to me.

He also told me a story of how he learned this lesson.

He was 15 years into his career. He had traveled to a conference to participate in drafting a document with two other people. At that time, he thought he was a very good writer. But the other two people drafting the document with him had decades more experience than him. As he participated, he realized that even though he thought he did not have much to learn, his writing was well below these other two individuals.

Ultimately, he learned that the problem was not being a good writer or a bad writer. The problem was thinking that you cannot learn from anyone else.

Be willing to be bad, then good, and then better.

Re-Writing Is More Important

“Re-writing is just as important as writing.”

Don’t compare your first draft to someone else’s 15th draft. I’ve heard many writers share this same advice. The first draft is supposed to be bad.

But what surprised me the most was this man’s willingness to re-write even normal correspondence. He told me that he might revise a thank you letter over a dozen times. He cares so much about communicating in the most effective way possible that he is willing to revise until it is perfect.

His advice reminded me of a story I heard about Henry Kissinger, a prior United States Secretary of State.

A new analyst had started at the state department. She spent an incredible amount of time drafting a research report. After working hard, she left the report for Mr. Kissinger. Later that day, Kissinger had left the report on her desk, with only a question in red ink on the front of the report:

“Is this the best that you can do?”

The analyst was surprised at this comment, but also challenged. She reviewed the entire report. She spent hours revising to make it even better. Then she handed it back to Kissinger.

The next day, she arrived at her desk with the report sitting on her desk. On the report was the same message in red ink.

“Is this the best that you can do?”

Now she felt more than challenged. She was angry. How could she do any better? She put everything she had into this report. But she wanted to impress her new boss. So she dug even deeper into the document and spent an entire day revising and improving the report. Again, she left the report for Kissinger.

Yet again, the report was waiting for her on her desk, with the same message in red ink.

“Is this the best that you can do?”

Finally, she had enough. She could not revise this report anymore. She walked into Kissinger’s office, unannounced. She slammed the report on his desk.

“Yes, this is the best I can do,” she said.

Then Kissinger said, “Good. I will read it now.”

Our best work will only come from writing and then re-writing and revising. Nothing less.

The Servant Writer

“A writer is a servant.”

This was the most surprising advice I heard.

This writer views himself as a servant to his audience. His goal is to communicate his thoughts to the audience, whether the audience is one person or many. He views his job in communication as a giver.

He always asks, “What serves the reader best?” He is constantly thinking about the reader and how he can help him, her, or them.

As a writer, you can be a servant to your audience.

This mindset is powerful. What is the best way to communicate so I can help the reader? What is the best way to communicate how I can add value? What is the best way to improve the life of the reader?

A writer is a servant.

Falling in Love

“You have to fall in love with writing.”

He said that if you want to get better at something, you have to fall in love with it.

This man loves to write. He is passionate about it. He enjoys it.

He is willing to re-write a handwritten note — multiple times — before he sends it.

When I asked this man to give me advice that would make me a better writer, I thought I knew what he was going to say.

Active Voice.

Brevity.

Structure.

Grammar.

Word Choice.

Verbs, Nouns, Pronouns.

But what he said was so much more impactful.

  • He taught me that I need to work on my thinking first.
  • He taught me that I can learn from anyone.
  • He taught me that I need to re-write to get better.
  • He taught me about the servant mindset.
  • He taught me that I need to fall in love with writing.

He showed me the right way to write well.

I only write about what I have done: no theory. Writer, Attorney, Entrepreneur, Movie Producer, and more… the ONLY 3 ways to reinvent: goo.gl/S1Lu6x

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