Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words. — Mark Twain
I don't often publish guest posts here on It Starts With, but occasionally I meet a fellow writer with a story and a message that matches our audience. Today, I'm delighted to share the work of Isaiah Hankel.
Isaiah is a speaker, author, and Ph.D. scientist who recently released the book Black Hole Focus. Long before getting his doctorate, Isaiah was a sheep farmer in rural Idaho who struggled in school and was diagnosed repeatedly with ADD and ADHD. He survived college and barely made it into graduate school—but in graduate school, he was put on academic probation and worked as a janitor while sleeping in a friend’s basement to make ends meet.
We talk a lot about what it takes to write well — and when Isaiah shared what he had written with me about remembering this list of things that great writers don't do, I couldn't wait to share it with you. Here's the list—and Isaiah:
The first draft of anything is shit. — Ernest Hemingway
Pandering — and 9 other things great writers refuse to do.
By Isaiah Hankel.
After I wrote my graduate thesis I realized I was a horrible writer. It would have been nice to know this a little earlier. Like before I turned 30. Oh well.
The funny thing is that I thought I was a really good writer. I thought I was a smart writer. I used big words and academic transitions like “moreover,” and “furthermore.” I referenced the hell out of everything. It turns out all of this stuff is good for getting an article published in an academic journal that a handful of people will ever read—but not much else.
I started my first blog right around the time I started writing my thesis. You can tell because a lot of my first blog articles have the word “moreover” in it. Awful. My first few articles were short and talked about other people and other people’s ideas and basically just reworded blog articles that I read on the Internet that week. I’d see an interesting topic online and think “I agree with that!” and then start writing the same article.
I hadn’t found my own voice yet and was too afraid to tell any personal stories so I just regurgitated other people’s stories. I’d take someone else’s idea and then try to repackage it as my own. If you’ve done this too, don’t worry. Everyone does. Even Mozart’s earliest compositions contain lines from other composers like Johann Sebastian Bach.
Over time, I got better. It took a few years, and a lot of mistakes, but I eventually found my voice. And I found my audience. I started having my own ideas and using other people’s work to back it up (instead of the other way around). I refused to just regurgitate information anymore—and I learned a few other rules about writing.
10 things great writers refuse to do:
There are a few other things that I refuse to do now, too. Like sacrifice clarity for cleverness, or get gimmicky and preachy. Great writers refuse to do a lot of things. I’m not a great writer. I’m just average. I only refuse to do a few things. But great writers refuse to do A LOT of things. Here are 10 things that great writers refuse to do:
1. Pander to their audience.
People who sacrifice their identity to success will end up with neither.
As soon as writers start sacrificing their voice and their true nature in hopes of getting more book sales or article clicks or likes or fans or whatever, that’s the end. It’s the end of the writer’s unique self.
A lot of authors who have success early and then miss on their second offering have the urge to go backwards. Instead of creating something new, they try to repeat the past, causing them to lose their edge. Some try too hard to go back that they end up spiraling downward. They get desperate and pander or start begging their audience to like them again.
Great writers refuse to do this. They’d rather go through a slump than stop creating original material that speaks to them personally.
2. Sacrifice clarity for cleverness (or smartness).
"If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." — Einstein.
Einstein nailed it with this quote. Too many writers are trying to be clever when they should be trying to be clear.
I love the line in the script for the movie Fight Club when Tyler Durden turns to the Narrator and says, “Oh I get it. It’s very clever. How’s that working out for you? Being clever?”
Cleverness is overrated. Clever titles don’t get clicked and they don’t sell very well either. Clear titles get clicked and sell. Great writers refuse to sacrifice clarity to cleverness.
What made Earnest Hemingway such a great writer?
Hemingway chose words that were common, concrete, specific, Anglo-Saxon, casual, and conversational. He rarely used adjectives and abstract nouns and always avoided complicated syntax.
You don’t need to try to sound smart. You don't need to use a larger word when a smaller word will do. And all of those dumb little transition phrases that your high school and college teachers taught you—like “firstly” “secondly” “finally” “significantly” “interestingly” and, of course, “moreover”—delete those.
3. Sacrifice success to art.
Success sometimes means something worked well—build on that.
I know, I know, this seems to contradict #1. It does. But that’s because there needs to be a balance. You can’t sacrifice your art to success AND you can’t sacrifice success to art.
A lot of authors hold too onto the idea of originality too firmly. They refuse to stick with what works. This is admirable—but what good is your creative piece if no one ever reads it?
Play with your voice until you find something that other people respond to. And, when they respond, don’t be afraid to stick with what works. Tim Ferriss wrote The 4-Hour Workweek, then The 4-Hour Body, then The 4-Hour Chef. Gretchen Rubin wroteThe Happiness Project and then Happier At Home. J.K. Rowling wrote seven Harry Potter books. And then there are the 50 Shades of Grey, Hunger Games, and Twilight series.
Success means something worked well. You don't need to shun success—it's okay to use your voice and to build on what works.
4. Forget about the hero’s journey.
If you forget that we're all heroes on similar paths, your story will fall flat.
Why do Adam Sandler movies suck now? It’s because he stopped following Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.
Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore are classic stories because the main character, Sandler, is the unassuming protagonist who is thrust into a plotline that he wants no part of. He is an average Joe who hesitantly takes on a burden and starts a difficult journey. He gets knocked down over and over again but then, against all odds, comes out on top, gaining wisdom and power in the process. This is essentially the same story that is told in everything from Leo Tolstoy’s War & Peace and Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, to Harry Potter and Katniss in the Hunger Games.
The problem is that Sandler’s recent movies just have him playing the same guy over and over again — someone who is kind of funny and has a few weird things happen to him. There’s no burden, there’s no hesitating (flawed) hero, there’s no real journey out through the other side of a transformation at all.
Great writers never lose the hero’s journey. No matter what you’re writing, fiction or nonfiction, your work can include a hero’s journey. If you’re writing fiction, remember to have your protagonist follow a hero’s journey. If you’re writing non-fiction, include personal stories that take the reader along your hero’s journey, or better yet—show them how you fit into their own hero's journey. Use vulnerability and confidence in equal parts to be relatable and to create the effect of going on a journey where you come out better off than you were before.
5. Ignore their creative process.
Everyone has a creative process but not everyone’s process is creative. The only way to be truly creative is to turn the negative voices in your head off.
One of the biggest mistakes that mediocre writers make is keeping their internal editor always in the “on” position. This is a super fast way to kill your creativity.
One way to do this is by dividing your creative process into three phases: a creative phase, a realistic phase, and a critical phase. This is also known as the Disney Method, named after Walt Disney who designed it.
During the first step, you should write like no one will ever read what you’re writing ever. Just write like you’re a kid. Jump all over the page. Experiment. Go on tangents. Revel in complete creativity. For the second step, review what you wrote realistically – clean your creative work up so that it makes logical sense. And for the third step, get critical and cut out anything that doesn’t fit with the overall piece.
6. Always keep their favorite lines.
You have to be willing to delete large portions of your work in order to make it punchy, powerful, and clear.
After you've created massive amounts of work, next, become an editor. (But not at the same time). Equally important is the critical phase of the creative process.
Often, you’ll have to cut out your very favorite line in order to make the larger piece as good as it can be. You might even have to delete the line that sparked the entire article or book in the first place. Great writers are okay with this. They refuse to sacrifice the larger piece to smaller parts that they’re in love with.
Don’t let your ego get in the way of creating the best overall piece of work possible. You can always use your favorite lines in your next article or book.
7. Forget about feelings.
“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou.
I love this quote from Maya Angelou. It’s so true.
When I read The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss, I feel free and mobile, like I can leave all my obligations and possessions behind and still be happy. When I read The 40 Laws of Power by Robert Greene, I feel bold and confident and eager to try my hand at taking over the world. When I read The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin I feel happy, reflective, and grateful for what I have. Pride and Prejudice makes me feel romantic and hopeful, Anna Karenina makes me feel sad and nostalgic, and The Fountainhead makes me feel intelligent and industrious. I’ll never forget how these books make me feel.
Great writers never forget feelings. They craft their stories to impact not only their reader’s thoughts and actions, but their feelings too. A story sweeps us up into the feeling within the writers mind.
8. Or... only focus on feelings.
On the opposite end of this spectrum is the writer who treats his reader like emotional punching bags—dumping their problems and pains all over the page without adding anything productive.
There are literally thousands of blogs written by mediocre authors who are pumping out article after article of nonsense. They rant and rave and complain without offering anything constructive in return – no solutions, no good questions, no actionable takeaways.
Great writers refuse to be martyrs. They talk about their problems openly and are intensely vulnerable but they never whine. Their writing is of service—to a greater art, to an idea, to an audience—not a platform to stand and complain.
9. Get gimmicky and corny.
Great writers never use gimmicks. Instead, they build an authentic rapport with their readers. They stay real with their audience, not fake.
One of the first short stories I wrote was very gimmicky. For starters, I ended every chapter with a corny transition like, “Alex walked over to the bushes that were interwoven with the park’s metal fence and...”
Then, the next chapter started with, “… picked up a handful of white rocks.” Or whatever. It sucked. I wasn’t the first person to use a gimmick like this and, unfortunately, I won’t be the last.
Gimmicks are a turn off. Readers shut down when they think they’re being played. And they get annoyed by corniness.
10. Get preachy.
The only thing worse than being gimmicky is being preachy.
Yes, writers should have their own point of view. And you should take a stance on whatever topic you’re writing about, especially if it’s an opinion piece. But if you righteously put yourself on the moral high ground, this will make your readers hate you—no matter how nice you are in person, or how right you are about the subject.
Lead your audience from within, not from above. The imperfect teacher is a more effective teammate than dominator. This is a much more effective way to rally support for your ideas.
Great writers embed their philosophical ideals very deeply in their work. Whether it’s a nonfiction or fiction piece, these writers use stories, not sermons, to make their points. When it comes persuading your readers, a Trojan Horse is more effective than a battering ram.