How to learn from great writers

We all have authors we admire. But that’s no reason to act the way they do.

Which nonfiction authors do you think are awesome? My list includes Malcolm Gladwell, Mary Roach, Daniel Pink, Jay Baer, Michael Lewis, Bill Bryson, and Isaac Asimov.

And I have no desire to emulate their writing habits.

Isaac Asimov wrote when there was no internet and no Google. His research was mostly in books. He wrote continuously, even on vacation. And he avoided air travel at all costs.

I have no desire to do any of that, nor would it improve my writing.

Maybe your favorite author gets up every day to write from 5:30 to noon with no breaks. If you’re a night person, that’s not going to help you become a better writer.

Stephen King writes with heavy metal blaring. I prefer complete silence.

Some say draft drunk, edit sober. I can’t imagine writing effectively while drunk.

Your favorite writer probably has an assistant or two who can do much of the research for them. They have another assistant who protects their time so they can concentrate without interruption. I can’t afford that; can you? A writer who does his own research won’t work the same way as one that has helpers.

Michael Lewis can get any sports figure, CEO, or Hollywood studio to return his calls. That’s a superpower I’d like to have, but I don’t, and neither do you. So you’ll need a different technique for lining up interviews.

Emulate writing, not writers

Doing what great writers do won’t make you a good writer, any more than following Scarlett Johansson’s makeup routine or Chris Hemsworth’s workouts will make you look like they do.

Don’t look at what they do. Look at what they write.

Do they use more vigorous verbs and fewer flowery adjectives? Try that.

Do they follow a longer paragraph with a single short word for emphasis. Worth a shot.

Do they make their writing more engaging by saying “you” a lot? That could work for you.

Do they write in active voice? Engage you with stories? Start those stories in the middle, not at the beginning? Use humor slyly, rather than as a cudgel?

Frankly, I can’t tell you which of your favorite writers’ writing techniques to emulate (or, if you want to put a finer point on it, steal). So let me make it simple.

Read books.

Notice what you enjoy and what what excites you about them.

Ask yourself, “What did she do that engaged me?” Figure out exactly what got you going.

Try it yourself; meld it with your own style and see how it fits.

Get an editor and get some feedback on whether it’s working.

That’s how you learn from great authors. Not by copying their sleep schedules and diet; by copying the way they wield their words and making it your own.

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  1. No doubt that I’ve learned a great deal about how to write from some of the folks you’ve mentioned. I’d add, though, that I’ve learned almost as much from poor writers—as in how not to write. I can think of a few business prominent authors who flat-out suck at writing and many an academic confused me as a grad student.

  2. So true! We’re fascinated with the “process” of the great writers, yet most of the time their process makes no sense for us. As human beings, we are simply too different. Be fascinated by their words and language, but not by how they got there.