How does one get good at writing? The commonsense answer is to both write and read more. The more someone writes, the better, naturally, they become at writing. The more someone reads, the more ideas and techniques they’re exposed to. Writing more and reading more will absolutely make someone a better writer. This isn’t debatable.
What is debatable is whether writing more and reading more are the best ways to become a better writer. I don’t believe they are. I believe the best writers are the best because they are good storytellers.
Don’t misunderstand me. Things like syntax and style are crucial to a story. In some cases, they‘re the reason a reader reads a particular work. Studying how to write well is essential. But I think they’re secondary to creating a good story. When we read more and write more, what we’re really improving are things like syntax and style. As I said, these are things that are worth improving.
But improvements in creating a good story occur tangentially, if at all, with the aforementioned routine.
You might object here and say that if you’re writing a story, then you’re getting better at writing stories. That might be true… if you know what makes a good story a good story. Most people unfamiliar with the craft think they know what makes a good story good… until they try to define it.
It would be analogous to me thinking I could write a song because I’d heard songs all my life. And while I might know, unconsciously, just by listening, whether a song is good or not, I wouldn’t be able to recreate a good song on my own. I might be able to say “I really liked this solo” like a person might say “I really liked the part where he saved the princess”, but I wouldn’t be able to make my own musical solo that fits within the framework of the song it belongs to any better than I’d be able to create a sequence of events leading to the strong emotional payoff of the prince getting the princess.
Within one of the craft’s greatest books, Story by Robert McKee, McKee poses a question:
“What is the ‘substance’ of story?
In all other arts the answer is self-evident. The composer has his instrument….the dancer alls her body her instrument. Sculptors chisel stone. Painters stir paint. All artists can lay hands on the raw material of their art — except the writer. For at the nucleus of a story is a ‘substance’, like the energy swirling in an atom, that’s never directly seen, heard, or touched, yet we know it and feel it….
For just as glass is a medium for light, air a medium for sound, language is only a medium, one of many, in fact, for storytelling.”
The best way to become a good writer (of stories) is to learn what makes a good story and then practice making good stories. I recommend Story — McKee is brilliant.