[AKN #72] Become A Good Writer In 10 Days And A Great Writer In 10 Years — Writing Advice From John Romaniello
LAUGH: Bad Game Show Answers, LOVE: John Scalzi’s Writing Process
A bit of fun news to start this edition of the newsletter…
I am featured on Substack’s Home Page.
Pretty lit fam! All because I said positive things to people who positively influenced my life.
As a baseline hater, I rarely have something nice to say and actually say it. However, this holiday season, I am going to work on saying more nice things out loud — especially to people who deserve it.
I imagine I will start to look a little something like this:
On that note, I wrote a rather lengthy post about writing advice I applied from one of my favorite writers, John Romaniello, over the last couple years.
If you are trying to start writing or looking to become a better writer in the New Year, I recommend taking a read through.
But if writing advice isn’t your thing, I recommend making your way down to the ‘Laugh’ section to watch Bad Game Show answers. The level of stupidity in some of the answers is awe inspiring and will fill you with joy on this gloomy winter Tuesday.
On to the newsletter!
LIVE: How To Become A Good Writer In 10 Days And A Great Writer In 10 Years — Writing Advice From John Romaniello
Learn to write well—I mean really, really well—and you’ve given yourself the ability to improve everything in your life and career by orders of magnitude.
— John Romaniello
In 2012, I was a chunky new grad with self esteem issues.
Like all straight white men looking to address confidence issues, I went searching for the answers to my problems on online fitness forums.
If you were trolling the Interwebz for fitness advice in 2012, then you certainly came across John Romaniello.
In 2012, John was at the top of the fitness world. Like the tippity top. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote the foreword to John's provocatively named, New York Times Best Selling fitness book.
But strangely enough, John’s work sounded nothing like the rest of the machismo fitness industry.
While other fitness articles focused exclusively on the mechanics of going from teletubby to genetic muscle lobster, John pulled you in with stories about growing up on Long Island and Legend of Zelda references before hitting you over the head with the answer to your fat loss problem.
I loved reading his work. It had a distinct voice.
It never felt like a fitness article. Instead it felt like you were shooting the shit with your buddy.
Through reading his work, I felt a certain kinship (consanguinity, if you will) with him despite us two Long Islanders never having met before — it’s a deceptively long island!
Since my initial introduction to John’s work, he left the fitness world and redefined himself as a writer on a slew of different topics unrelated to fitness.
Through his new content, I find myself learning more than I ever did through his fitness writing.
Nowhere is that more clear than what I have taken away from his advice on writing.
From following his advice, I have:
Produced 70+ consecutive weeks of content for this newsletter
Learned a consistent, repeatable process for how to edit my work
Constructed a roadmap for getting better as a writer week over week
Those results give me the warm and fuzzies (W&Fs).
In the off chance you are interested in similar W&Fs, I would like to share the wealth and summarize the best lessons I learned and applied from John.
The Treasure Map
Category 1: How To Become a Good Writer In 10 Days
Lesson 1: Overcome Writer's Block
Lesson 2: Edit Your Fucking Writing
Category 2: How To Become a Great Writer In 10 Years
Lesson 3: Find Beautiful Sentences And Learn From Them
Lesson 4: Find Your Voice
Each lesson will cover several quotes from John weaved together with my own prose. Additionally, I will leave you with further reading on the subject if you want to go deeper and a case study on how I applied this advice in my own writing.
I hope you find his teachings as valuable as I did.
Note: Any quote that is not explicitly given a call out should be attributed to John. I found it very awkward to keep attributing quotes to him throughout. Please accept my dearest MLA citation apologies (Rapp, 2021).
Category 1: Become A Good Writer In 10 Days
Advice you can apply in the next two weeks to immediately improve your writing.
Lesson 1: Overcome Writer's Block
There’s no way to avoid writer’s block, but there are strategies to defeat it.
John’s article: One of My Go-To Strategies to Overcome Writer’s Block
Why Writer’s Block Happens
The concept of writer’s block needs no introduction since everyone has dealt with it.
You sit down to write an email, article, book, presentation, poem, joke, text message, or haiku, and the words don’t come out.
You can’t perform.
In the moment, you feel inadequate and uniquely broken like only you suffer from this problem.
However, the truth is every human struggles with writer’s block and the root cause is the same.
Writer’s block is about judgment: feeling like whatever you produce won’t be good, or worth reading, or even worth writing.
That’s right. The primary issue is psychological.
A problem which grows in size as we inflate the importance of the piece we are writing and demand ever more greatness from ourselves.
It would be lovely to just never deal with this problem, but here is the harsh reality:
Writer’s block is unavoidable and — if left to feed on your insecurities — will cripple your writing productivity for days, months, or even years.
The only solution is to face it head on.
But how do you slay this psychological beast?
How To Cure Writer’s Block
The strategy you will use to defeat writer’s block is as follows:
Paradoxically, the easiest and most effective way to overcome writer’s block is to just start writing.
Now, if you are like me, after reading that you entered a rage.
Like “oH rEaLlY, tHe SoLuTiOn To NoT bEiNg AbLe To WrItE iS jUsT wRiTe…thanks, asshat.”
First of all, super rude that you’re hypothetically talking to me like that, but we’ll come back to that later.
Secondly, seriously. This is the solution and it works if you just stopped being a Procrastinating Penny and simply followed the advice.
The mechanics of why it works are about building yourself up.
Half of writing is being confident you’re able to write, which can be fostered by making the act of writing itself less scary.
So “just write” helps because:
Whatever winds up on the page, the key to overcoming inertia and getting into flow is to get the gears moving.
But let’s get more specific.
How do you just write?
Strategy 1: Literally Just Write
Write anything other than what you’re “supposed to be” writing.
Write everything on your mind right now.
What happened today? What are you thinking about right this very second? Just write and don’t edit.
But listen, I get it. I’ve been there when you feel so stuck that “just write” doesn't help.
So to overcome that concern, use Strategy 2.
Strategy 2: Prompted Writing
Sometimes you need someone to remove the decision for you and tell you what to do.
That is where writing prompts can come in handy.
Prompted writing help you overcome writer’s block in two ways:
Firstly, it solves the problem of not knowing what to write about. Narrowing the field of focus fosters greater ease of creation.
Secondly, assuming the topic isn’t your bailiwick, it allows you to be creative in a safe and pressure-free way.
How I Apply The Lesson
I utilize both strategies in my daily journaling.
Every morning I sit down and do the following two exercises:
15 minutes (1 handwritten page) of “Just Write”
I use Morning Pages aka stream of consciousness journaling.
15 minutes (1 handwritten page) of Prompted Journaling
Currently, I use Robert Greene’s book “Daily Laws” to serve as a prompt generator. I riff off of a daily half page meditation he gives you.
As I do this day over day, I struggle less and less with writer’s block on my other projects — like this newsletter and joke writing — for three reasons:
I am developing the habit of writing when I have nothing to say.
I am lowering the expectations of my writing sessions. Rather than sitting down and demanding genius every morning, I now realize that most of the things I write will suck and that’s OK.
I am warming up. This journaling exercise is the equivalent of stretching at the gym. It gets me mentally primed to write.
This daily hand journaling process helps me get words down on the page whilst providing a slew of other benefits.
However, getting words down on the page is half the battle…
Which leads us to Lesson 2.
Lesson 2: Edit Your Fucking Writing.
Whatever's written is only half done. Remember: half done is still very much not done, and there are no rewards for half slain dragons.
Great Writing Requires Editing
“The first draft of anything is shit…I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”
— Ernest Hemingway
Mark Twain did not sit down and type out “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in one sitting.
No beautiful sentence just appears on the page without significant rewriting.
All great writing is heavily edited.
Believing you are above this reality will hold your writing back.
In fact, John says the most common mistake he sees when reading other people's content is they don't edit.
Not just some simple typos either.
We are talking about how if you edited this article, the words would flow differently. The way you think about it would be different. The content itself comes out jumbled, with poor structure that clouds the message.
How To Edit
Congratulations on overcoming writer’s block! This is good progress!
However if you want your piece to resonate the way you want, you need to realize your job is half done.
Now you must edit.
The rough rules of editing I have picked up from John’s writing are:
Separation of Church and State
Do not write and edit at the same time. Writing is creating words, editing is crafting words.
Distance Creates Clarity
Before editing a piece, you have to get some distance from it. Put it in a proverbial drawer for a day and revisit it when you aren’t so attached to everything you wrote.
Fun mnemonic device to remember this: “Let it sit, then trim the shit.”
How You Write Should Sound How You Talk
Speak what you wrote out loud. You will find clunky sentences. Rewrite those.
How I Apply The Lesson
Rather than talk through theory, let’s walk through the exact creation of this post to demonstrate my editing process.
Step 1: Consumption of John’s content
I pulled up all my notes from John’s articles and dumped them into a blank note.
Step 2: Outline
After immersing myself in those notes, I structured an outline of the main lessons I learned so I could better communicate them to you.
Step 3: Shitty First Draft
I started officially “writing” this piece on Wednesday December 8 by fleshing out the outline aka dragging and dropping my notes into the appropriate place and rewording them into something vaguely coherent sounding.
I officially finished my “shitty first draft” on Friday December 10.
Step 4: Marination
On Saturday, I let sleeping dogs lie and didn’t touch this piece at all.
Step 5: Editing
On Sunday, I began editing.
While editing, I am looking for four big buckets:
Structure: Does it have logical flow? Am I introducing ideas at the right time?
Edits made in this piece: I originally started with six lessons, but I realized I could condense into four and combine those into two major categories.
Concision: Could I say what I said with less words?
Edits made in this piece: Believe it or not, there were originally 1,071 more words in this post! Yes. I counted. Because here at another krappy newsletter we bring the data.
Sound: I read it out loud to find clunky bits. If it sounds stiff, I rewrite it.
Edits made in this piece: I reword several cases where I get hella academic sounding and find a few key moments where I can inject my voice.
Readability: I break up paragraphs for readability and use italics to emphasize words. See what I did there? It doesn’t even make sense to italicize that word, but it makes me feel good.
Edits made in this piece: I obsess over reformatting font sizes, italicizing, and adding a table of contents to make the reading experience more enjoyable.
Step 6: Fucking Send It
Coming out of two days of on and off editing, I feel like the piece is in the best shape it could be…and I still hate it.
I consider holding off on sending this piece and polishing it for another week, but convince myself this is actually just Resistance talking.
Honestly, you never feel like it’s good enough, but the only way you are going to get better is if you get it out into the world.
In other words, you gotta SEND ITTTTT.
If it interests you to be on the other end of me just sending it, feel free to subscribe to receive my newsletter every Tuesday.
Category 2: Become A Great Writer In 10 Years
Advice you can apply over the next 10+ years to grow as a writer.
Lesson 3: Find Beautiful Sentences And Learn From Them
From a Q&A with John: Quick tips for becoming a better /engaging writer?
“Read more books. Primarily fiction. Write down beautiful sentences and learn from them.”
My Recommended Reading:
Beauty Is In The Eye Of The Beholder, Or Some Shit
Great writing is subjective, but you can objectively get better.
However, “progress” can be ambiguous when there is no agreed upon definition of “the best” writer.
Therefore, the first thing you need to do is define for yourself what samples of “the best” writing look like.
You do this by collecting sentences you find beautiful. Then, once you have these sentences handy, you can read them over and learn why you like them so much.
Strangely enough, simply through this process of exposure to great writing, you become a better writer.
Studies indicate that simply consuming examples with an underlying structure leads you to detect their patterns, even when you’re not consciously trying to learn a thing.
As an example, in the book BADASS by Kathy Sierra, she covers how the gold standard training process for learning to determine the gender of a newborn chicken is to simply give people the job of assigning a sex to the newborn at random and then having an expert tell them if they got it right or wrong. As the guesser gets more and more feedback, they begin unconsciously picking up on specific, extremely subtle cues to sort male from female. As a result, they score better and better. But they don’t know why. They begin to perform as an expert without consciously recognizing the cues (hat tip: Tim Grahl for the find here.)
Our brains are astounding machines which learn simply by perpetual exposure to excellent examples.
So be sure to feed it great examples!
How I Apply This Lesson
Over the last year, I read more fiction and captured beautiful sentences whenever I came across them.
For example, here are some of my favorite quotes from my favorite fiction series the King Killer Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss.
From “Name of the Wind”: "It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”
From “The Wise Man's Fear”: “In many ways, unwise love is the truest love. Anyone can love a thing because. That’s as easy as putting a penny in your pocket. But to love something despite. To know the flaws and love them too. That is rare and pure and perfect.”
By providing my brain with examples of great writing, I find myself picking up on subtle patterns of great pacing, language, and unique styles of different authors.
Slowly I seem to include these structures in my work — something I only notice when I go back and read my old writing and compare it to my newer stuff.
Lesson 4: Find Your Voice
A writer’s voice is their entire experience of the world, made manifest and put on the page.
John’s article: Understanding Writing “Voice” (How I Teach It)
What Do You Sound Like
Have you ever read a quote and known immediately who said it?
You can almost hear the person saying it and you can’t imagine anyone else saying it in that exact way.
There is something about the word choice, the punctuation, the sentence structure, the rhythm, the grammar, hell, there is even something about the way in which they didn’t say it.
That is voice.
Voice is the way in which a writer chooses to say a certain thing in a certain way.
Or as John says it “choice makes voice” and choice comes down to life experience.
Every book you’ve ever read, every experience you’ve ever had, every song you’ve ever heard, every movie and tv show and play you’ve seen, every person you know, every meal you’ve eaten, every conversation, dream, fantasy, achievement, failure—everything that’s ever happened to you has, in some tiny, infinitesimal way, shaped you. Slowly, by degrees.
And all of those things come together to form your worldview, the lens through which you see all of existence—including and especially the things about which you want to write.
Your voice is uniquely you.
But how do you know what you sound like?
While I cannot speak to a fool proof way to discover your voice, from John’s writing, I’ve noted that his voice shines through most when he delves into his experience.
For example, John’s article on his struggle with depression is a piece where you can really see his voice come through. No one else can write that article in that way.
How I Apply This Lesson
I find that journaling and publishing help me hone in on my voice.
Journaling is my daily practice of trying to listen to what I have to say.
I rant. I curse. I write letters I would never send. Then I re-read and find what I am proud of and what I need to fix.
Publishing is my weekly practice of listening to what people thought I said.
As I release more work, I get more data about what felt right, what resonated, and where people specifically said "I could hear you saying that as I read it."
That is the ultimate feeling. Like you left a dent in the universe.
Without fail, the pieces where people tell me “that sounds just like you” are pieces where rather than only teaching with technical expertise, I tell stories about my experiences.
For example, my articles on writing a great wedding toast or how it took me 5 years to actually start publishing my writing consistently come from my unique life experiences and struggles. Inside of those stories lives a human experience, or a voice, people can connect with. It seems to stick with people way more than when you simply give them a framework.
The Never Ending Apprenticeship
“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
― Ernest Hemingway, The Wild Years
Writing is hard.
Whether it is trying to overcome the psychological blocks involved with getting started or the excruciating feeling of hitting publish on a vulnerable article, it never gets easier.
I journal. I draft. I edit. I publish. I cry.
I do it again.
It sucks so very very much. But I love it because its worth it.
Because as John says:
Being a good writer is a force multiplier for everything requiring communication. Like, you know, life.
So, I mean…if you don’t like life, just keep being bad at it, I guess.
I like life, and if you do too, you should consider following these steps to get better at it.
Or, at the minimum, begin following John’s content. Cause it’s a rip roaring good time.
If you found this summary of John’s content helpful and would like to see similar posts, sign up to receive my newsletter every Tuesday here:
LAUGH: Bad Game Show Answers
I get a real kick out of dumb game show answers.
Just the purity of the moment where the person genuinely gives their best answer and it is so bad that they can’t even help but laugh at themselves.
Lot of great ones in here, but my favorite is the episode of Family Feud where the guy answers “Turkey” for three straight final round questions.
LOVE: John Scalzi’s Writing Process
I got a kick out of this Internet flame war between science fiction author, John Scalzi and the keyboard warriors who want him to know he isn’t a “real writer” because he doesn’t write all day.
I also found John’s writing process to be super interesting!
Also, yes, my usual schedule is to reserve 8am - noon and/or 2k words for physical writing (i.e., sitting in front of the computer and typing). Noon - 5pm is for other business-related stuff. After 5pm I try to keep free for family and other stuff I want to do. Reasonable hours!
No professional writer seems to do a 9a-5p type schedule.
In fact, John’s 4 hours of writing per day is on the higher end of what I have heard. For example, Neil Gaiman is nowhere close to that pace.
John Scalzi @scalziIf it makes these folks feel better to think I'm a part-time writer, fine. In which case I'm a part-time writer who doesn't have to have another job. That's actually pretty cool. Also, if typing is all you think qualifies as writing, well, okay, that's a choice you can make. https://t.co/jxzDBRYqve
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Disclaimer: Opinions expressed are strictly my own. Who else’s would they be?