There is a lot of writing advice out there. Hundreds of books on literary craft and creativity. There are essays, quotes, classes, critique groups, conferences and on and on. I’ve delved into all of these things. All of them have been helpful in many areas of my writing whether on craft or business, but there are three teachers that have topped them all:

Trial, error, and other people’s genius.

I don’t believe great writing skills are anything that can be acquired by reading about them; I believe it is something that we mostly acquire through trial and error also by studying other writers’ work. Not their advice. Their actual writing.

A lot of writing skill is about balance. Some advice is good in one situation and totally wrong in another. Skilled writers know when certain rules and advice apply in one instance and not at all in another. They know when to expound and when to pull back. They know when to show and when to tell. They understand the critical pacing of exposition. They understand the right words to describe the villain, the heroine, the comic, and they can feel when other words are getting in the way of what they’re really trying to say. They learn all this, I believe, primarily by their own experience. Through trial and error.

When I’m tired of trial and error, I go to my favorite writers and feed off their genius. I study their words, characters, story structure, and analyze why they are so effective for me. Then I go back to my own words. I keep writing and revising. I let others read and ask them to tell me where they were bored or confused or drawn in and excited. I do this until I reach my goal.

The goal is to say what I mean and mean what I say and for other people to understand what I said and what I meant. (And hopefully entertain in the process.)

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