How to Write Well: The Guide to Finding Your Unique Voice
“How to write well.”
That’s a bit of a loaded phrase, eh? Who’s to say what makes great writing?
You have many different styles, genres, and voices.
Do they have a common element?
Can you learn how to write well regardless of how much natural talent you have?
Is writing something anybody can do?
All of these questions boil down to one thing, really.
You want to know if you have the goods. You want to know if you have the seeds of greatness to grow into a bonafide wordsmith. Odds are, you’re still in the aspiring phase. You want to become a writer, but when it comes to the writing, erm, you don’t necessarily do it very often.
Well, when it comes to writing well, the point of origin is always the same.
Get Out of Your Head and Onto the Page
Since you’re a human being, you spend a lot of time in your head. Like, a lot.
If you’re a writer, or even a wannabe writer looking to turn pro, then you really spend a lot of time in your head. I mean, why wouldn’t you? The ideas come from your head, don’t they? Shouldn’t you be super introspective to get the right thoughts to put on the page?
I can tell how much a writer is in their own head instead of focused on their audience by the way they write. It’s very self-centered. You can tell the writer is trying to alleviate some insecurity in themselves with the writing instead of using the words as a vehicle to help the reader.
It’s always about the reader. Even when you write about yourself, it’s about the reader. Of course, writing can be a cathartic experience for you and a way to help you become a better thinker. It definitely serves those purposes for me.
But there’s a huge difference between crystallizing your thoughts with prose and using it to mentally masturbate. So often, each time I write about writing the message is very similar before I dive into tips themselves.
Stop thinking of yourself as the center of the universe and just write. At the same time, don’t just write whatever the hell you want.
Focus on the audience to get the words out of your head and onto the page while also meeting your needs at the same time.
I have guides on these:
- How to Write About Yourself (Without Boring People to Death)
- The Only 3 Types of Writing People Actually Want to Read
- 11 Pieces of Writing Advice for the Stuck and Frustrated Aspiring Writer
Writing, just like anything else in life, usually comes to you much easier when you’re not so wrapped up in your own ego, self-image, and “vision for yourself.” Fuck your vision. What’s your audience’s vision? Start there.
Now for the nuts and bolts.
How to Become the Writer You’ve Always Dreamed of Becoming
If you’re an aspiring writer, you have a set of writers you look up to. If you want to reach their level one day, start by “stealing their swag.” At the beginning of my writing career, I copied the styles of many of my favorite writers.
First was James Altucher. He writes very vulnerable and descriptive stories about his life and then offers some tips and suggestions after the story section. I emulated this for a while. I realized sharing as much as he did wasn’t my style, but I still stole the framework of opening with a story.
Ryan Holiday was another one. Ryan writes heavily quoted and cited work, often based on historical figures and philosophy, mainly stoicism. He uses an elaborate note-taking system he learned from his mentor, Robert Greene, and will often pour through tons of books to write a single book or article. I tried the note-taking system for a while and it did help me find great quotes to use, but this still wasn’t exactly my style. I did take away the power of using quotes, though, and I often use ones I draw from memory.
Three’s work best, so I’ll end with Nassim Taleb. Taleb wrote the Incerto series, which are basically the best books I’ve ever read. His counterintuitive thinking on topics like risk, luck, success, etc changed the way I think about the world forever. Now, I loved his ideas, but his prose isn’t something I wanted to emulate. So while his ideas influence my writing, my prose is nothing like his.
In the inspiration phase, you’re looking for writing that inspires you for a number of reasons. The prose itself could inspire you. Or the ideas. Or the genre. Whatever.
The end goal? Find writers you want to model yourself after. Find writers you look up to and wish to have the same level of success as one day.
Hero-worship gets a bad rap. No, you don’t want to idolize anyone to the point of literal worship, but using other writers as your muse can motivate you. Just make sure to evolve.
In the emulation phase, you’re copying styles. You’re throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what works. Too many writers focus on finding their unique and original voice. It’s much easier to swipe people’s voices and try them out for a while.
You’ll realize that you like some, but not all, of what the writer has to offer in terms of prose, idea, and structure. You’ll develop an attitude where you take what you like and discard what doesn’t, which is a great ethos for learning in general by the way.
You do this often enough, and eventually, you have a style of your own.
And this is also the phase where you know whether or not you have the goods. Because not all writers do.
How do you know?
You know when you’re willing to write 100 blog posts without quitting. And also without practicing lazily — meaning you keep writing the same way even if it doesn’t work.
If you have the ability to practice, implement feedback, and iterate over time, you have the skills to become a writer. If you can’t do these things, you will fail. It’s really that simple.
In the separation phase, you’ve found your voice. Mind you, this comes through doing the work and trying out tried and true techniques, not sitting in silence until a daemon comes to sit on your shoulder.
Something happens when you spend enough time copying, remixing, and adopting styles of other writers. You develop your own style. But also, over time, you don’t look up to them as much. You still love their work, but you come closer and closer to feeling like you’re on a level playing field.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be a legend or anything like that. But I’m pretty sure I’m a pretty damn good writer. I’m pretty sure I can be great. But I wouldn’t have gotten there without doing the work. The basics.
Even Michael Jordan had to learn how to do a bounce pass for the first time. He didn’t invent the basic skills of basketball, but rather, he took them to the next level.
This is how you should think of practice in general. Quit trying to reinvent the wheel. Learn the principles of your craft then evolve into your unique self.
How To Practice the Right Way
Remember the first time you did math?
What was the first equation you learned?
Likely 2+2 = 4.
Now, did learning that equation means you actually understood how addition worked? Not necessarily. You just memorized the equation. The path to learning a concept often starts with getting a superficial understanding of it.
This is a good way to think about writing techniques. See, there is a bag of tricks you can use to improve the prose itself. At first, you practice the skills awkwardly without knowing why you’re doing them, per se, and then they make sense to you and become second nature.
Take “active voice” for example. I remember when I first learned the concept, I tried to jam it into every sentence, e.g., I wrote an article once about making money and said something like “Your bank account won’t fill itself with millions of dollars.”
Technically, I used active voice, but it was awkward and unnecessary to say it that way. Now, in general, I use active voice more often but not consciously. And not always. Does that make sense?
Here are some great guides on writing techniques you can add to your tool belt. Practice them awkwardly, use them regularly, and watch them become second nature:
- How to Write Good Opening Paragraphs
- The Ultimate Guide to Writing Irresistible Subheads
- How to Use Transitional Words and Phrases to Make Your Writing Flow (with Examples)
- 79 Power Words to Create Striking Content For Your Blog
- Active vs. Passive Voice: The Complete Guide
If you got really, really, really good at the instructions from these posts, you’d be in the top five percent of bloggers easily. But that’s not sexy, right? Getting really good at the fundamentals isn’t glamorous, but it’s how you become a champion.
After the basics, you simply take your game to the next level.
Understand This Counterintuitive Truth On How to Write Well
I just sent the draft of my third book to an editor — an editor that I paid ten times as much as I’ve ever paid an editor before.
Oh, and I spent ten times as much time and effort editing the book beforehand as I did the first two
And, I’m going to spend ten times as much money on the launch and time on planning it.
See, when it comes to writing well, or doing anything well, it never gets easier. As you get better, your tastes get better. You’re not locked in a state of paralysis by analysis, but you are more critical of yourself in a healthy way because you have higher standards.
After you put years in the game, you develop more respect for the craft. You almost have a masochistic joy that comes with trying to reach a ceiling you know you’ll never get to. And the ceiling always evolves.
My writing compared to five years ago is like comparing chicken shit to chicken salad. Who knows what it will look like in five years? I have no idea. But I know it will be better because I will be better.
Because I won’t stop, ever. I’ll write until the day I die. I genuinely know this at my core. Once you get there, writing well is quite literally just a matter of time.
…you should start today.