Want to be a Great Writer? Don’t Focus on Writing. (Do This Instead)

“Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!” — Henry MillerClick To Tweet

Do you want to be a great writer?

To create stunning works of art that people can’t stop reading?

To craft brilliant articles that touch hearts and change lives?

Maybe being a great writer has been your dream since you were barely old enough to scribble on the walls in spaghetti sauce.

Or maybe you’ve been trying for years to get your writing career to “take off,” with no luck.

If so, you’ve probably already imbibed lots of writing advice. Everything from “write every day!” to “Sit down at the keyboard and bleed.”

Forget all that.

The key to writing well isn’t to focus on writing.

It’s to focus on your writing system.

Hemingway was an American journalist, novelist, and short story-ist whose brevity and inimitable style influenced an entire generation of  writers.

Stephen King is a prolific writer who has sold hundreds of millions of books, many of which have been made into movies and comics.

A.J. Jacobs is a journalist, lecturer, and editor at large for Esquire magazine.

You know what all these successful writers have in common?

A honed writing system.

Hemingway, King, and Jacobs didn’t just throw words on paper whenever they felt like it. If they did, they wouldn’t have become great writers and we would never have heard of them.

Hemingway always wrote in the morning, as soon as the sun rose. 

Stephen King writes 2,000 words a day, rain or shine. 

Jacobs writes ever-more-detailed outlines-that-turn-into-books while walking on a treadmill.

So if you want to be a great writer, don’t focus on great writing. Focus on creating and sticking to a great writing system.

The Three Parts of a Writing System

What does a good writing system consist of? Three things:

  1. Gathering material
  2. Writing
  3. Honing your craft

These three are interlinked, but they are also separate, like the three legs of a three-legged stool. You need all three to create a solid system that will propel you to writerly stardom.

Step 1. Gather material

You can’t write if you have nothing to write about. All writers need material. And lucky for us, writing material is virtually limitless!

You just need to know where and how to gather it.

Where to gather writing material

  • Mine your life history for ideas — look through your journal, search your memory banks, etc. (if you don’t have a journal, start one now!)
  • Mine other people’s life histories for ideas — talk to your relatives and friends and ask them lots of interesting questions. Then listen. Really listen. Not only will this help you come up with ideas to write about, it can improve your relationship with the person (everyone likes to talk about themselves, and there arwn’t enough listeners to hear all the stories).
  • Read books and articles. A lot of them.
  • Keep an eye out for interesting day-to-day happenings. (Ex: I was blessed to have hilarious teachers back in high school, and I wrote all of their jokes in my notebook. Several of those incidents inspired me to write semi-true stories.)
  • Follow other writers (don’t copy their work, just let their ideas trigger your own).
  • Hang out with your “ideal audience,” ie, the people you want to write to and/or about. You can do this in person, or by checking out online spaces where these people naturally congregate.
  • Read the comments people leave on your and other writers’ works. They will tell you what readers are interested in and what questions they have.

How to gather writing material

  • Keep a journal and write in it regularly. Ideally at the beginning and end of the day so you can catch all those great ideas that come when you are waking up from your dreams or winding down and relaxing.
  • Keep a notebook and pencil in your purse/pocket at all times to write down ideas that come to you throughout your day. You can use your phone, of course, but technology can be finnicky at times. Use at your own risk.
  • Keep one or more “swipe files” somewhere in your workspace (virtual or physical) where you organize ideas, quotes, thoughts, articles that resonate with you, or that you want to use.
  • When you read, take note of interesting quotes and ideas by highlighting, dog-earing, or otherwise marking your book.
  • Then, transfer those ideas into an organized physical or virtual filing system. For an example on how to do this, you can borrow Ryan Holiday’s note card system.

For more ideas on this topic, check out this article:

5 Ways to Come Up With Ideas When You Have Nothing to Write About

Okay, now you’ve gathered dozens of journals and God-knows-how-many gigabytes of ideas, information, and data. Now what?

It’s time for stool leg #2:

Step 2. Write

It ought to go without saying, but sometimes folks need a reminder:

It doesn’t matter how much material you’ve gathered if you don’t actually sit down and WRITE.Click To Tweet

Writers write. People who don’t write aren’t writers. It’s that simple.

Once you’ve gathered ideas to write about, you need to put in the work to turn those ideas into concrete articles, stories, etc.

But how do you write?

Well, aside from literally just sitting down and typing (or writing longhand, if you prefer), here are a few tips to help you create a system and environment that compels you to write, instead of dithering about how to get going:

  • Come up with a daily goal: Stephen King, for instance, makes himself write 2,000 words per day, every day — no ifs, ands, or buts. You may also choose a word count goal
  • Choose a start time and stick to itHemingway always wrote in the morning, right after first light, because he loved the peace and quiet of the early hours. He would write until 9am or 12pm, at a point where he “still ha[d his] juice and kn[ew] what w[ould] happen next.”
  • Limit yourself: Bestselling novelist Jodi Picoult once said, Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands. If you have a limited amount of time to write, you just sit down and do it.

These are just suggestions. You may want to imitate one, some, or all of these ideas, but whatever you decide, just pick one and get started. Time’s a-wastin’!

Step 3. Hone your Craft

Writing is a craft, and like any other craft, it has rules and recognized levels of proficiency. Not everyone who picks up a pen or types words on a keyboard is a good writer.

You’re probably no Seth Godin at the moment (if you are, Mr. Godin, I’m honored that you took the time to read this!) but that doesn’t mean you can’t become a great writer as well. You just have to get better at writing.

And there are so many things you can do to get better at writing.

Most people simply use the “read and write a lot” strategy. It’s the automatic, no-brainer, easy-peasy method that all of us resort to when we’re not thinking to hard about it.

And you can just read a lot of good writing and write a lot and become a better writer by osmosis.

But there are problems with this kind of mentality:

  1. The people who think they are reading and writing “a lot” often aren’t.And:
  2. There are faster ways of improving at writing (they’re just harder, which is why most people don’t do them)

If you want to get good at anything, you need to learn how to learn. This is true in writing too.

So how do you do that?

If you prefer to have some guidance, you can take a writing class and DO THE HOMEWORK.

If you’re more of a maverick, you can study writing by:

  • Reading books on writing: 
    Strunk and White’s Elements of StyleStephen King’s On Writing, and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird are well-known writing classics. 
    Lisa Cron’s Story Genius is a must-have for novelists, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well is the nonfiction writer’s manual, and many bloggers have written a lot about the craft AND business of writing, like Jeff Goins (Real Artists Don’t Starve).
  • Creating a system to study specific aspects of the writing that you want to do. (Aspiring bloggers, for instance, need to study headline-writing. So a blogger could practice writing 100 headlines a day, like Smart Blogger CEO Jon Morrow did when he was starting out.)
  • Conducting an in-depth analysis of a book, a blog, or a writer’s portfolio.
Analyzing a popular Medium writer’s portfolio
You won’t become a good writer if you only “write a lot,” just like a child learning the piano will not get better if s/he mindlessly plays the same pieceover and over again. 
You need mindful, deliberate practice to improve. But knowing WHAT to practice deliberately depends partly on what you’re writing.
Of course, all writers need to get a few basic things down first: grammar, spelling, and the like.
Another important skill all writers need to hone is the ability to think clearly.
Writers are teachers, which means we need to be able to think logically from point A to point Z, and show others how we came to that conclusion. But after that, it depends:
  • If you’re a novelist, you have to figure out the components of novel-writing and work on those (ex: characterization, novel structure, themes, etc.)
  • If you’re a poet, you need to study writing elements specific to poetry: poem structures, rhyme, meter, etc.
  • If you’re a blogger, you need to work on headlines, blog structure, formatting, etc.

Learning how to hone your craft is a topic that I could probably write hundreds of articles on, so for now, I will leave it at that.

My Writing System: A Case Study

I’ve always enjoyed writing, but in the past, it was only for fun. I wrote when I felt like it.

No wonder I made no real progress as a writer.

But everything changed when I started using a system. I wrote a novel, a musical, and over 200 posts in less than a year. I gained over a thousand followers and became a top writer in 8 categories on Medium.

And the ball is still rolling — because I am still honing my system. For now, though, here is what I’ve been doing:

How I gather material

I read, on average, three books a week. On various topics. I also read comments and articles online. I start and end my day by reading, usually a couple hours .

I highlight interesting ideas, type notes and thoughts in my ebook, and send emails to myself or use my Notes App whenever I come up with an interesting potential idea.

Where I find my material:

  1. I keep an online book-wish-list using my library account. I borrow 10–20 books at a time and skim through the introductions of each book to figure out which ones pique my interest. Whenever I hear about an interesting book, I immediately put it on the wish list and as soon as I have space in my book queue, I skim it to see if it’s worth reading.
  2. I subscribe to multiple writers’ email lists and also have an Excel spreadsheet listing the names of writers that I’m interested in following. When I don’t know what to read, I pull up my list and go looking for those people to see if they’ve written anything new.
  3. When I find a new blog or interesting writer, I often skim all of their article headlines, reading anything that catches my attention.
  4. When I am doing household chores or other mindless activities, I listen to audiobooks, podcasts, or other audio content.

How I gather my material:

  1. When I read a book, I highlight quotes that jump out at me and take notes if any thoughts come to me.
  2. When I finish reading, I pick the most useful books and write detailed book notes. These have double uses: 1) I can share helpful information with people 2) they form a cache of quotes and info that I can easily find and pull from to support future writing.
  3. I have a notes app on my ipad which I use to jot down notes as soon as they come to me. If I can’t access the app, I email myself ideas and file them.
  4. I have a “swipe file” folder where I save the URLs of fascinating articles and web pages.
  5. I keep multiple Excel spreadsheets listing articles, writers, etc. in my niche and out of it, complete with links and notes.
  6. I also have a separate Twitter account just to store quotes. I don’t have many friends or followers on that account, and don’t use it to interact with people. I just use it to keep quotes I like in an easy-to-access place.

How I write

I have my entire writing system written out on a document that I adjust as needed (see below).

I write at about the same time every day, and although my focus is Medium, I have a couple other side projects that I work on to avoid burnout/boredom. When I sit down to write, I:

  1. Turn on my writing music (classical music and hymns, usually)
  2. Write/finish/publish my “required” writing, pulling from all the material I have previously gathered.
  3. Then I practice some aspect of writing, and do something fun, like read a book.

If, while working on one article, I come up with an interesting idea for a future article, I write it down immediately and then return to my current project. That way I always have a stash of ideas in various stages of completion to work on.

How I hone my craft

  • As a blogger, I recently incorporated headline writing into my daily writing routine. I’m not quite at 100/day, but working on it.
  • I regularly read books on writing.
  • I analyze other writers’ works. For example, I once analyzed a Carl Hiaasen novel by handwriting a one-line summary of every scene in the book, organized by chapter. I also gathered headlines and stats on all of Ben Hardy’s articles (see above).
  • I really enjoy writing analyses, actually. If I didn’t have to, you know, actually WRITE & PUBLISH something every day (per my current writing system), I could probably spend all day just analyzing writing.

Write Your System Down!

Here is one last tip I leave with you:

Whatever your writing system is, write it down. Post it somewhere you can see it regularly and FOLLOW IT.

For instance, this is an example of an old writing system:

A screenshot of my writing system 😉

I keep this document open while I’m writing. When I forget what I’m supposed to do next, I check it. If some part of the system isn’t working anymore, I change it.

Of course, I don’t always follow this schedule to a tee, and life includes plenty of unexpected events. But writing things down make them more likely to happen.

By writing down my system I am holding myself to it. When I’m tired or “uninspired,” or feeling frazzled, I have something to look at to remind me of what I must do.

It keeps me accountable, and helps me to keep writing no matter what.

What Is YOUR Ideal Writing System?

A lot of people make the common error of reading/studying/thinking about writing without actually sitting their butt in a chair and actually, you know, writing.

On the other hand, there are people who do the opposite, writing anything and everything that comes to mind (stream-of-consciousness style) and then wondering why no one is paying attention. (hint: because the writing isn’t good enough to attract attention…yet)

To avoid both errors, you need to come up with a writing system.

Of course, systems vary from person to person. What worked for Hemingway may not have worked for King. What works for me may not work for you. You need to develop your own system, usually through trial and error.

Just remember to include ALL of the three components above: gathering material, writing, and honing your craft.

You need all three legs to form the foundation that will help you to achieve your writing dreams.

Great Writers Write

Sometimes it seems like those writing giants are so far beyond us poor peons. They seem to have access to some great writing secret that the rest of us aren’t privy to.

They do. Here it is:

True writers write even when they don’t “feel like it.

It’s a pleasure and privilege to write, of course — but it still requires discipline and hard work, just like everything else worth pursuing.

You can’t be a writer if you don’t write, write well, and write consistently. And you can’t do any of those things if you don’t have a system for writing.

A system not only makes writing easier (if you’ve gathered material and honed your craft beforehand, you won’t have such a hard time knowing what to write and how to write it), it also makes it more likely that you will persist.

And in the end, that’s what turns Writing Wanna-bes into Real Writers: stick-to-it-ivity.

As the great Jack London once said:

You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.Click To Tweet

Your writing system is that club.

Great writers aren’t born that way, they become great by practicing and constantly improving. You can do that too.

So stop waiting for your muse to come along and magic you into becoming a brilliant writer. It ain’t gonna happen.

If you really want to be a great writer, use a writing system:

Design your 3-pronged system that fits your life. Test and adjust it until it works. Then write it down, and stick to it.

And whatever you do, don’t give up.

Greatness awaits.

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