Matt Forney
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How to Become a Better Writer

Writer

One of my friends once asked me something to this effect: “How did you learn how to write the way you do? Any tips?” I gave him a semi-facetious answer involving alcohol and hanging out with drug addicts, but it’s a good question.

How can you become a great writer?

Here’s my thoughts on the matter.

1. Just be yourself.

I hate that phrase, as does most every man who’s ever made the mistake of asking a woman for dating advice. It’s airy-fairy claptrap that sounds nice but has no practical utility… or does it?

Going back to my buddy’s question, Tucker Max once had an FAQ on his website in which he answered a similar question—“How can I learn to write like you?”—along the lines of “You can’t, but you can learn to write like yourself.” You can’t learn to write exactly like me or Max or anyone else because you’re not us; you haven’t seen the things we’ve seen or done the things we’ve done. This is my ironclad rule for good writing:

Write what you know, and make sure what you know is interesting.

Unless you’re a pasty-skinned fat boy playing video games in your parents’ basement, chances are you’ve seen, experienced and learned things that are unique to you. You may not have had adventures in third-world countries or bedded entire cities’ worth of girls, but maybe you once worked a really demeaning retail job. Maybe you’ve had bizarre acid trips with your friends. Maybe you’ve been in the military, gone snowmobiling in the Rocky Mountains, or had an abusive mother growing up.

That is what I mean by “just be yourself”: use your life story as the basis for your literary career.

When I was in undergrad and my less-literarily inclined friends were asking me for advice, one of the lines I gave them was this: “A great writer can write about the dumbest shit imaginable and people will still love it.” Even if you haven’t had an epic life so far, a lot of authors have become famous and/or rich for writing about the seemingly mundane:

  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: Hunter Thompson and his buddy get hammered on every drug known to mankind and spend most of their time freaking out in their hotel rooms.
  • The Old Man and the Sea: An old man goes out to catch a big fish and doesn’t really succeed.
  • Heart of Darkness: A bunch of white guys head up the Congo River to retrieve a colonial official who’s gone native, and he dies on the way back.

See what I mean? Again, assuming that you aren’t a fat virgin shut-in, people will find your life story enthralling if you tell it the right way.

However, this is where the second half of my rule comes into play: you need to be constantly expanding your horizons. One book about your drunken misadventures at the University of Casual Sex and Booze will razzle ’em, another one might dazzle ’em, but you’re going to eventually drive away your audience if you keep rehashing the same tired themes.

This narcissistic unwillingness to get out of your comfort zone is a big part of the reason why “real” literature these days is so terrible. Novelists like Jhumpa Lahiri and Jonathan Safran Foer basically repeat themselves ad infinitum in every book they publish. Even the good writers are afflicted by this provincialism. For example, one of my favorite contemporary novelists, Gary Shteyngart, is a Jew of Russian descent who grew up and lives in New York City. Here’s a brief synopsis of his novels:

  • The Russian Debutante’s Handbook: His debut. The protagonist is Vladimir Girshkin, a nebbish Russian Jew living in New York who later visits a fictional ex-Soviet republic.
  • Absurdistan: Released in 2006, it’s about Misha Vainberg, a nebbish Russian Jew living in New York who later visits a fictional ex-Soviet republic.
  • Super Sad True Love Story: Shteyngart’s most recent book, it’s about Lenny Abramov, a nebbish Russian Jew living in New York. In the near future. No fictional ex-Soviet republics are involved.

A not inconsequential part of the provincialism of modern writers is due to the unwillingness of big publishing houses to take risks. Per usual, corporate America sucks the joie de vivre out of everything it touches in its never-ending quest to make everything bland, safe and appealing to overweight soccer moms who watch Dancing with the Stars. As a blogger working on your own, with no corporate backers or rich sponsors, you don’t have to worry about this, but that’s no excuse to rest on your laurels.

“Well okay Matt, but is there anything I can do right now that’ll make me a better writer?”

Yes. Yes there is.

2. Start reading.

If you don’t read, you can’t write. It’s like trying to play guitar without having ever heard a single note of music. And I don’t just mean reading other blogs, I’m talking about the titans of literature: Homer, Shakespeare, Byron, Twain, Hemingway, Thompson, as well as more recent authors that don’t suck. There are two ways to learn new things: experience them yourself or read about them in books.

Since you’re never going to experience everything the universe has to offer, the bookstore is your next best bet for learning about the world beyond your podunk town in Arkansas.

Reading is also important because it gives you a basis on which to structure your own writings. It’s a cliché but it bears repeating: we are all standing on the shoulders of giants. Not a single one of us is or ever will be sui generis: we are in part a mishmash of the artists and literati we’ve read, digested and loved.

Finally, reading books gives you a sense of what makes great literature. As a kid, I spent an inordinate amount of my time reading. Winding through the likes of Austen, Byron and more made me realize that a great deal of “classic” literature is garbage. I challenge any man to read Wuthering Heights from cover to cover, for example. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember a single thing about that book after I finished it, it just was so contrived and dull. Oh wait, I remember one thing about the book; a snide anti-American jab Emily Bronte made in one of the early chapters. That’s it.

Mark Twain once quipped that a classic is a book people praise and don’t read; if more people read the classics, they’d realize that too many of them are crap.

3. Start writing.

In the same vein, you need to start writing yesterday if you aren’t already. You may not have a blog yet, but you have a computer with Microsoft Word or another word processor installed. That’s all you need.

No one ever pops out of their momma’s nethers able to play the piano, hit a baseball or do anything other than cry and shit themselves. Even if they inherited talent from their parents, they had to practice for hours upon hours to reach their level of skill. Most famous musicians began playing when they were in elementary school; their talent is the result of countless man-hours trying, failing and trying again. Even Mozart, who started composing at age five, had to learn the basics and practice.

As I mentioned before, I’ve been writing in some form or another since I was old enough to hold a pen. A funny thing happens when you do something repeatedly for a long time: you get good at it. My blog articles are great because I spent the previous twenty some-odd years of my life trying, failing and trying again, learning something new each step of the way. Yeah, I likely inherited some of my aptitude from my parents, but if I had spent all that time watching Barney the Dinosaur or playing on the swing set instead, I’d be a drooling idiot today.

Artists, athletes and musicians master their crafts through hard work; there’s no shortcut and no way around it. Whatever pointless activities you presently use to kill time right now, drop them and start writing.

Instead of playing World of WarCraft, write.

Instead of watching Big Bang Theory reruns, write.

Instead of going to see the latest factory line Hollywood rom-com with your skanky girlfriend, write.

Write short stories, essays, poems, notes on whatever book you’re reading, but write something. Every second of your life is a step towards Death. You don’t have time to waste.

4. Learn spelling and grammar.

This seems like a no-brainer, until you realize how truly dumb most people are these days.

For example, my college required all students to take a basic course in English composition, ENG 101, as a general education requirement. However, you couldn’t take it right away; you had to qualify for it by taking a remedial composition course, ENG 100. Fortunately for us non-idiots, you could pass Go and collect $200 by taking a test at orientation. If you impressed the instructors by writing a good-enough essay, you could go straight to ENG 101.

Naturally, I chose to take the test. As we assembled in the student union, the proctor bellowed out, “You will be writing an essay with a thesis, introduction, body and conclusion. If you don’t know what any of those things are, just leave the room and sign up for ENG 100.”

I learned what a thesis is and the different components of an essay back in junior high.

None of us are perfect. We make spelling and grammar mistakes all time. I’m cognizant of several of my most deeply ingrained bad habits. I overuse semicolons; I use dashes when I should be using em dashes; I sometimes write in the passive voice. And of course, there’s an army of pedants who leap down my throat whenever I use the word “irregardless,” which as they are fond of reminding me, is NOT! A! REAL! WORD!

Unless you’re filthy rich, you’re not going to be able to have someone proofread everything you write. Spellcheck is your best friend, but it only goes so far; it can’t detect more subtle grammatical errors. Do yourself a favor and pick up a style guide so you can refresh yourself on the basics. My personal recommendation is A Writer’s Reference by Diana Hacker, a short, breezy book long on explanation and short on editorialization. Strunk & White’s Elements of Style is popular with college professors, but I recommend you avoid it because it will castrate your writing ability with its illogical claims and stuffy, Beigeist sensibility.

5. Learn from your mistakes and get over them.

The good thing about our modern era is that there’s no barrier keeping you from sharing your limitless talent with the world. The bad thing is that there’s no barrier keeping you from making an ass out of yourself to the world.

As much as it pains me to admit it, the pre-Internet era of publishing had some big advantages. Chief among them is having someone else (an editor, a publishing executive, a lawyer) to keep you grounded and less likely to do stupid things. Usually they’re doing it out of concern for their reputation or bottom line, not because they care about your well-being, but still. Think of these individuals as dams holding back the flow of retardation into the public sphere.

Now imagine that dam bursting, flooding us all in a tidal wave of bullshit.

Actually, you don’t need to imagine it; you’re living that doomsday scenario right now. A world in which morons flagellate themselves to the jeers of a hostile crowd. Chris-chan, Jessi Slaughter, and every other meme and viral video of the week is a testament to humanity’s bottomless capacity for self-humiliation.

Now, I assume you’re not an autistic virgin or an 11-year old girl. You’re a normal, self-aware human being, not given to filming yourself dancing like Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs. But just because you’re not screeching about how gingers have souls doesn’t mean you aren’t going to do something you’ll regret later.

Face it: sooner or later, you are going to fuck up.

Not on a nuclear meltdown level, but you’ll write something that will make you feel stupid. You’ll cross a line you shouldn’t have.

This is fine. People who play it safe and always follow the rules never get anywhere in life. You can’t err on the side of caution one hundred percent of the time, and you shouldn’t. If you want to succeed at blogging, you will have to push the limits of what is acceptable. So how do you deal with your mistakes? Simple: acknowledge them, make amends (if necessary), and move on.

For example, a while ago, I wrote an article entitled “How to Rape Women and Get Away with It,” which I intended to be a satirical swipe at feminists who politicize rape and exaggerate its prevalence for self-serving reasons. While my friends and I thought it was amusing, and I tried to make it obvious that I wasn’t being serious, the article went viral and hurt people who had been the victims of real rape. I don’t believe in victimizing the already victimized, so I pulled the article and issued an apology.

That’s not the only mistake I’ve made in my blogging career, far from it. My portfolio is littered with all sorts of stupid statements and pompous chest-beating. I’ll sometimes browse through my old stuff wondering to myself, “What the fuck was I thinking?” or “I wrote this crap?”

Warren Beatty once remarked that if you make a lot of passes at women, you’ll get slapped a lot, but you’ll also get laid a lot. In other words, the only way to achieve success is to risk failure. Cliched, but it’s the truth. I’ve written a lot of shitty articles, but I’ve also written a lot of great ones. I’ve inspired countless men and women with my work. I have a large readership because I’m willing to take risks and go where other bloggers won’t.

There are common sense limits to risk-taking, but unless you’re willing to toil in obscurity, you’ll have to be daring and brave.

If you’re worried about your readers abandoning you if you go off the reservation, don’t worry about it: most people are incredibly forgiving. This goes quadruple when you’re the new kid on the block; your fuck-ups will be chalked up to youthful inexperience. If you repeatedly fuck up, yeah, they’ll give up on you, but you really have to work at being stupid in order for that to happen.

And just as important as recognizing when you’ve dun goofed is putting it behind you. Don’t mope like a emo dork over your every screw-up. Scar worship is a noxious side effect of our Oprahfied culture; numerous con artists from James Frey to Misha Defonseca have made millions of bones selling phony confessions to a credulous nation. It’s sickening, it’s irritating, it doesn’t score you any points with anyone who matters. Acknowledge your mistakes and move on.

Read Next: Why You Should Start a Blog

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