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The Secret of Great Writing

From Bryan: This is a guest post by Nick Thacker. Nick is a blogger, writer, and self-declared “life hacker” who enjoys writing novels, and has recently finished his first novel, The Golden Crystal, available now. He runs LiveHacked, and has a totally free course called How to Write A Novel.

I recently finished editing my first novel, The Golden Crystal. I’m excited — thrilled even — that it’s finally going to be ready for readers.

But let me back up a bit…

Provided by Dreamstime

I started writing the book in 2011. My goal was to finish a novel for my dad, and give it to him on Christmas morning. I wrote, stopped, wrote some more, got stuck, completed a NaNoWriMo that November, and gave my dad a hot-off-the-press hardcover from Lulu.com Christmas Day, 2012.

I was done, right? 


Any writer will tell you that your book is most certainly not done when you finish the first draft. Far from it. Your book has simply reached the “first draft” stage — and then it’s time to rewrite.

And rewrite again.

And edit. Maybe rewrite one more time?

All of this rewriting, editing, cutting, and reworking isn’t fun. But it’s part of the process. 

New writers like me tend to think they’re “done” when they reach “The End” for the first time. At that point, the work is ready to be released, and they’re either a “good” writer or a “bad” writer.

The problem, of course, is that most books — if released at that point — will not be good.

“Great writing” isn’t something people are born with. Sure, there’s talent, the “gift” of writing well, and sheer luck, but many writers we deem great are writers who worked to get their books to the superstar level.

And because writing a great book is something to strive toward, here are the three things that help the most (in my mind, at least) to elevate your writing to the next level:

1. Planning

There’s a huge debate going on in the writing world that will probably continue to rage for decades or centuries to come: should you “plan” your novel, or “pants” your novel (write from the “seat of your pants”)?

I’m on the fence — I think planning AND pantsing — to an extent — are important, and I believe both are crucial to my writing. However, there’s something to be said for having even the simplest of outlines.

An outline can help you plan the “story arc” throughout your work. The “Three-Act Play” structure (which is really four acts, but more on that elsewhere) is something just about every piece of long fiction includes. You’ll do yourself a favor by at least recognizing it for what it is.

Plan out your scenes and sequels in sequential order, and decided before you write what your main character is like. You don’t have to plan every detail, but you should at least plan the basics.

2. Editing

I seriously underestimated how important editing is to the writing process. I thought I would be the exception; the outlier — a writer who didn’t need his work to be edited.

I was wrong.

You need to have your work edited. Preferably after you’ve “self-edited.” Having a fresh set (or two, or three) of eyes on your work is going to bring your writing to another level immediately. You might have a killer idea for a story, but your prose can use some work. Or, your prose might be as flowery and elegant as a Bronte sister’s, but your story sucks.

Both of these problems — and many others — can be easily resolved by hiring a professional proofreader and/or editor. Believe me, it’s the best investment you can make in your book!

3. Craft

If hiring an editor is the best investment you can make in your book, constantly focusing on improving your craft and understanding of the writing process is the best investment you can make in your writing career.

Craft is a long-term, “no end in sight” sort of goal, so it makes sense to not worry about “getting there” or “finishing” your writing knowledge. It’s like golf, fishing, or chess — you can always be improving something about your writing, up until the day you die!

I work on craft by reading books on writing craft, editing and grammar, and pretty much anything that interests me. Reading books written by authors who seem to have mastered their craft is inspiring, helpful, and motivating. In addition to reading, you can pick up many tips and tricks by subscribing to magazines like Writer’s Digest, blogs and forums, and attending writing and critique groups.

In a nutshell, I think craft is such large and looming subject that just about anything can help you learn it. Taking a walk through a park, talking to someone on an airplane, or just meditating alone can improve your ability to string words together into cohesive, concise sentences and build characters we feel like we know.

Writers work

If there’s a single takeaway from this post, it’s this: writer’s work.

We work to write great stories with great characters and great plots, but we also work to hone our skills and make each subsequent release better than the last.

We work to edit our writing down the bare essentials, cutting “10%” — as Stephen King would say — and even deleting whole chapters, striking them down with our red pens, because that’s what needs to be done. 

And we work to plan our stories in the first place — figuring out what needs to happen, who’s involved, who lives or dies, and many other things — before a single word is written.

Call it a manifesto, call it what you want. Writing is work, and we’re willing to do it. We need to do it.

Are you ready to get to work? Share in the comments.

~Nick Thacker

About Bryan Hutchinson

I'm a positive writer and when that doesn't work, I eat chocolate. I help fellow writers overcome doubt and thrive! In my free time, I love visiting castles with my wife, Joan. Join me on Twitter and Facebook.

  • Renia Carsillo

    Nick, I love this! With my first book I did hire an editor but sent her the first draft and instructed her only to fix grammar problems. Silly me! Love to know I’m not the only one! Thank you for sharing your experience.

    • Thanks Renia! That’s funny — hopefully we’ve learned our lessons now, and will let editors do their FULL job! Ha.

      Thanks for commenting, and stopping by!

  • Della R. Law

    I think that the best thing a writer can do is invest in a desk so they don’t have to sit crossed legged on their bed.

  • Love the truth here, Nick! So far writing the first draft of my current project has felt like a job and not a creative joyride. It takes discipline to stay with it.

    Thanks for the encouragement!

  • Jesse Daggett

    So true, Nick. I am on my sixth draft of my latest project, after a friend of mine edited it (she’s good!), and I left it alone for a few months. Like you said, get others to read your work will only make you a better writer. Even putting a story aside for a while brings a different perspective and excitement. To me it’s like starting a new story only most of it is complete; helps me get through the dreaded editing phase. Patience is difficult to acquire, but can benefit us authors.

    Thanks for sharing and congratulations on completing your novel!

  • This is great motivation, thank you!

  • Church_Johnson

    I Love this Thank you

  • There is no doubt in my mind about the foregoing post! The first of my books (and incidentally the one that seems to get more readers/interest) has gone through at least three re-writes since I originally conceived it. In fact, in some ways, it looks nothing like the original except perhaps for the “skeleton” of it, the core arc. And that one started in 1989, when I was in high school, but it did not get published until 2010. Granted, I didn’t spend ALL of that time working on it; there were giant gaps of time where I let it sit on a figurative shelf then came back to it with “fresh” eyes. Still, thank you for this post.

  • Elena Tinga

    I do a lot of planning. I love planning a book. The real problem is to fill the gaps between the chapters! Along the way, as I start the real writing I do many adjustments, and if the story begs to take me to a different direction I am open to listen. My planning is not really an outline, it’s more like a synopsis of what I
    think it would happen and some more detailed sketches of the
    characters. When I know who they are and how they think and act,
    certain things fall into place anyway.

  • Alex Myers

    What a great reminder about the process and how to keep it in perspective. Every time I think I’m “done” with something, it really means: let it sit for a bit, then give it another revision. I’ve learned now to be wary about that “finished” feeling. The next step for me will be to take your advice and instead of resignation feel engaged positively with revision.

  • I have actually grown to love the “self-editing” process. As I have not written a book or anything longer than a blog post – excluding papers in college and a goofy little unpublished script – I have not needed to employ an editor. I look forward to the need.

    The problem I run into is in the originality of my story ideas. When I come up with something I like as I start to brainstorm ideas I find way too many similarities with other books/movies.