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Ask the Editor: Can I become a better writer?

Q: Every rejection letter I get says there’s something wrong with my writing. Can I really get better at this?

A: Yes, you can!

Having edited hundreds of writers, I know for a fact that even the most seasoned, successful writers read, study, revise and rewrite, use a professional developmental editor, and continue to polish their craft.

Tom Robbins: It takes practice, patience and intense focus

When I worked with Tom Robbins years ago on Jitterbug Perfume, he told me he rewrote passages as many as 40 times and could take five years to finish a book.

Here’s what he sent me recently on the question of becoming a better writer.

“I look for a pitch next to madness. A talented writer can, with practice, patience and intense focus, always improve.  So can an untalented writer. Look at that woman who wrote Fifty Shades of Grey. She’s no more adept at writing than a cat is adept at swimming, but she’s purring and doing the backstroke all the way to the bank.”

Tom’s early novels Another Roadside Attraction and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues are revered as iconic works of the sixties culture. Each of his subsequent books – Skinny Legs and All, Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates has become weightier and more profound, in my view.

Garth Stein: It’s not a question of ‘either you have it or you don’t’

“Of course writers can get better,” says Garth Stein, author of The Art of Racing in the Rain, now 156 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

“And they should always strive to get better. For those who say ‘you either have it or you don’t,’ I suggest that the ‘it’ is inspiration, which can be elusive for sure, but you can teach the other aspect of writing, and that is craft.

I’ve noticed that I’ve been able to write with more economy now than I was with my earlier books. I can do more with less.  Most of that is trusting myself, and having faith that what I’m trying to do is actually getting done.”

Barry Eisler: I don’t ever want to stop being a student

“Not that I have much choice in the matter,” Barry told me recently. “The day you think you don’t have anything new to learn is the day someone’s going to teach you a lesson the hard way.”

Barry, a bestselling writer of political thrillers in a seven-book series featuring a freelance assassin, the latest one titled The Detachment, is also a one-man support team for writers through his website and appearances at writers workshops.

Here’s more Eisler wisdom on honing your craft:

“Recently, I’ve been working on a screenplay, the storytelling confines of which enforce the old “show don’t tell” rule with exceptional rigor. Of course, there are times to tell, and times to show. The reason for the general admonition is because beginning writers tend not to know the difference and resort to “tell” much less judiciously than they ought to.”

Just present the facts and let the reader figure out what it means. Why? Because of how we’re wired as humans: we tend to trust our own conclusions, intellectual and emotional, far more than we trust those of others. So if you want someone to feel something (certainly a goal that’s essential to all art), you can’t explain it – you have to make the reader feel it using indirect means, like significant detail.

What’s significant? I think part of the writer’s job is to get to the essence of things, big or small: the essence of a place, of a character, of what it means to be human. One way to develop this skill of the significant detail is to practice (shocking, I know).

When you’re in a place, ask yourself what is essential to that place – what quality, if removed, would mean the place was no longer itself. How do you know when you’re in Tokyo and not somewhere else? It could be the room, the layout, lighting, furniture ambience, a character. What is the defining element that sets her apart from everyone else? A writer wants to zero in on these significant and essential details.”

Famous writers who tripped on their first novels

Many famous writers produced first novels they’d rather forget. But they learned to correct their early mistakes, and produce the work that established their reputations.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel The Romantic Egoist was rejected by Scribner, So he revised it entirely, until they finally published it in 1920 as This Side of Paradise. Though a big hit, it wasn’t very well written or meaningful, nor was his next book The Beautiful and the Damned. Five more years of honing his craft on short stories, however, finally produced his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby.

Virginia Woolf struggled with her first novel for years, constantly revising until it was published as The Voyage Out in 1915, when she was 33 years old. It took another ten years of experimentation and innovation for her to produce her great books Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and beyond.

Norman Mailer’s first novel The Naked and the Dead made a big splash but was crude and derivative and is rarely read today. His second, Barbary Shore, was skewered by the critics. With nearly no sales at that point, his third attempt, The Deer Park, was rejected by seven publishers before finding a home and some literary recognition. This encouraged him to keep working and he produced a succession of increasingly successful best-selling books, including An American Dream, The Executioner’s Song, Armies of the Night, Ancient Evenings, Harlot’s Ghost and others.

Hilary Mantel’s first attempt to write a novel was put aside and only published years later as the highly revised and regarded A Place of Greater Safety. A prolific short story writer, critic, essayist, and journalist, her novel Wolf Hall, won the Man Booker Prize in 2010 and its sequel Bringing up the Bodies, won another Man Book Prize in 2012.

Learning from Juno Diaz: The importance of reading

Juno Diaz won the Pulitzer Prize for his best-selling first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He spoke recently at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California about his process of learning to write over the past two decades.

“I move at a glacial pace. Before anything, I put in 20 years of work reading short stories and novels, so by the time I got around to thinking about writing in these forms they were a part of my life in ways I couldn’t even imagine. I write in honor of my reading.”

As a professor of creative writing at MIT, Diaz said “The worst thing on earth is the cowardly creative writing teacher. Nothing keeps you more ethical, more committed, than your students’ raw unadulterated genius.”

A tip you might try

Garth Stein leaves us with this suggestion, an exercise he found surprising and effective with an early novel.

“Go through your book and cut the last sentence of every paragraph.”

The advice had come from a writer friend who’d read the manuscript for his novel How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets.

“I looked over my book and realized he was absolutely correct.  In most of my paragraphs, I had accomplished what I’d set out to do, and then, because I didn’t trust myself or my reader, I said it one more time, just to drive it home.  So I believe I’ve learned to trust myself now, and trust that the reader will go with me.”

What about you?

As a developmental editor I believe every writer can learn and improve their art and craft. What do you think? What’s worked for you?


  1. Michael Cairns says

    Thanks for the great blog. I’ve only just started to seriously write but already I can see the progression in what I’m creating.
    The feedback I’m getting from my editor is making a huge difference, in both word choice and overall structure and defining the characters.
    I’m excited about where I’ll be as an author in 5 and 10 years time. It’s always a work in progress!
    In short, if you aren’t improving then you’re probably doing something wrong.

  2. says

    One of the things I’ve really been focusing on lately is looking for what’s already in the story and listening to what it tells me. I can’t outline, and my drafts are often messy. I’ve had trouble getting character conflict and subplots into the story. In the past, I’ve tried inserting it and had the story fail, so I would remove it. Now I’m having to look carefully — sometimes, it seems with a magnifying glass — for what did get into the story because I’m likely to have underwritten it. Then I tease it out and it fits better into the story and doesn’t feel like I used a shoe horn.

  3. says

    Great article, full of good ideas and inspiration – often just keeping going is hard enough.
    I think an important thing to remember is that no matter how good you think what you’ve just written is, a review in a month’s time will show you it isn’t.
    I had this experience recently as was shocked at how bad my first chapter was. It was if someone had re-written it while I wasn’t looking. A real lesson, not nice, but never forgotten. :)

  4. says

    I would agree that every writer can improve. However, after having attended a writing conference last year I learned a thing or two about rejection. Most agents won’t reject a book due to the writing (obviously, if it’s terribly written an agent will pass on it) but agents want something they can sell to publishers … especially publishers they have a relationship with. So, this panel of agents were all in agreement that if they think a book will be too difficult to sell to a publisher they will pass on it using the “it doesn’t work for us” all purpose phrase. Writers have to understand this. It doesn’t mean their writing stinks. The best way to improve writing is not only to write but also to read. I’ve learned so much about writing by reading the work of David Morrell I can’t thank him enough. The same goes for Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury and countless other authors. At the same time when I read something poorly written I can spot the poor writing (and these are books that have been published by mass market publishers). So, follow the many suggestions in this article but do so with a grain of salt. One doesn’t have to rewrite a paragraph 40 times to get it right. For some that works. For others it just bogs down the flow of the narrative.

  5. says

    Writers have a tendency to use pet words and pet phrases and names too often, especially in dialogue. I catch myself doing it all the time as I march slowly through the drafts. Then I give the manuscript to my editor and she points out more of my foibles. Writers should consider themselves part of a team–with your editor. Together you can produce a publishable novel. I just finished the process with my latest novella, adapting a screenplay into prose. What did I learn all over again? Everything I mentioned above. My novella trimmed down to 30,000 words and it reads like the wind. It’s so much better for the extra effort. So,I just put SWEEPSTAKES on the Kindle and now I’m waiting for the readers to discover it and hoping for the best. What else can we writers do? Promote up to a point and then go back to writing. The writing part is what defines who we are, first, last and always. Speaking of writers’ pet words, one of John Updike’s pet words was: plume. It’s almost laughable how many times he used it a novel I read of his. I have to ask: Why didn’t his editor point that out to him?

  6. says


    Not everyone can be as great as David Moreell, Richard Matheson, or Ray Bradbury, but I believe authors should always hold themselves to a high standard, and try to make their writing as good as possible. If that means rewriting a paragraph 40 times, do it. If the revision bogs down the flow of the narrative then it needs to be rewritten again…

  7. Jamie Heppnr says

    Of course you can get better. I just opened on of my very first works after well over a year and my first thought was…I can fix this…yes, it was that bad.

  8. says

    I never really keep track of how much I rewrite and edit – I just do it, play, add pages one day and not think twice about cutting that section in half a few days later, if needed. My favorite part is actually the rewriting and editing because in that process, I can just feel I’m getting closer to my goal. I’m currently driving my interior designer crazy because even though she formatted my final draft, I keep seeing ways to rephrase a sentence here or there, and I’ve been rewriting sections of the last chapters and afterword, all of which affects her spacing. But that’s just tough as I become happier with each submission. I can’t imagine ever publishing a work that hasn’t been laboriously combed through until it just feels right and you get the affirmation from your developmental editor and publisher.

  9. says

    I’m a firm believer that assuming an author had ample talent to begin with he/she continues to improve year over year. To prove this – go to the library. Find the name of a current bestselling author. Pickup their first novel and read the first 10 pages. Pickup their latest work and read the first 10 pages. I’ve done this many times while studying the work of the author’s I admire and strive to learn from. Some improve greatly over the course of decades and others less so, but with practice comes perfection. That’s most likely true with all endeavors.

    I remember reading somewhere that to master anything you have to spend 10,000 hours practicing your craft. If you put this into perspective, comparing it to a fulltime job spent working 40 hour weeks. You’d work an average of 2080 hours per year and it would take you a little less than 5 years to reach your 10,000 hours and mastery.

  10. says

    On the subject of great writers who got better: Try reading the original first chapter of The Sun Also Rises which Fitzgerald critiqued when Hemingway was basically unknown. It’s truly awful – by any standard. If you can get a photocopied proof of it with Fitz’ comments, even better.

  11. says

    Writers should visit themselves (translated:their work) every so often just for the benefit of seeing what you’ve produced over the years at a distance of time–lots of it–and I promise you will be glad you did. I’m in that process now of revising my short stories for two collections that I will put on the Kindle e-book reader. And I have to admit I’m having fun, even with finding errors, typos, etc., and with seeing where the storyline needs punching up. I’m confident that the five stories so far that I’ve rewritten have been improved to a greater extent than I thought possible before I actually started reading and rewriting. I can’t wait to get working on the other five for the first collection, and then to get started on the other ten stories for the second collection. Moral of story: writers are like mothers; our work is never really done. And so be it, since the fun part is the working part, not the finished part. We need the journey more than we need the destination.

  12. says

    Hi Alan,

    If I’m stuck or something is “not working”, I often re-read passages of other novels where I know it *has* worked.

    For example, at one point in my WIP, I was trying to write a scene with five people at dinner. It was complex because many didn’t know each other, there was sexual tension between certain characters, jealously between others, and of course the wine was flowing, which always complicates real life, never mind fiction.

    I couldn’t get it right, so I flipped through to a passage I remembered from a novel that had a similar situation. I read it closely, trying to find the rhythm of the scene as well as little hints as to how to approach the nuances. This approach was working well, though I never did finish — by the time I had come back to it for the second draft, I found that I had to cut the whole section for word count and flow.

    Still, it was a good lesson.

    I read that Hunter S. Thompson once wrote out The Great Gatsby to improve his writing style — perhaps by some literary osmosis I guess. Not sure if it’s true or just urban legend, but it sounds like a similar if more general approach to improving your writing.


  13. says


    The story about Hunter is true. After I started working with him in 1971 on Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, he told me that he typed out the entire Great Gatsby book on an old manual typewriter while living at the Chelsea Hotel in NYC during a frustrating period when his work was being rejected everywhere. He said he wanted to feel in his neurons and synopses what it was like to have those words flowing from his brain to the page.

    I think it worked. He stuck to his guns, didn’t compromise his literary style for the mass media publications (Sports Illustrated, Newsweek, and others who’d turned him down) and went on to write Hell’s Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, his finest, most beautifully crafted books.

  14. says

    An editors job is to help refine the writing so that it can be interpreted by a wider audience. It’s true the over-editing can certainly take away from the writer’s intent, which is why it is important to have a skilled editor in your corner.

  15. says

    What has worked for me is to stay humble in the midst of criticism and praise. I consider that my skill and craft will have reached its pinnacle when they lower me into the ground forevermore.

    Since I am working on my first novel, I will look for an editor who “gets me” and “knows the reader”. I think that will be the ideal relationship that will help me grow even more.

  16. Jessie says

    I am working on my first novel. I let several months go by between chapters (I am in grad school working on becoming a speech language pathologist). By the time I got to chapter 3, I was already seeing things I did poorly in chapter one, especially with “beats” and redundant, explanatory dialogue. I have found it helpful to study the work of writers that I admire…I mean really study the writing, line by line, word by word. I have found that to be more helpful than all the writers’ guidebooks that I have read…and I have read quite a few. My writing has improved from one chapter to another, and but I think I am ready for some help from a development editor. How do I go about finding one? I live in Huntsville, Alabama.

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