You are not a great writer.
You may be a talented writer. You may a gifted writer. You may be a very good writer.
But trust me when I tell you, you are not a great writer.
And you probably never will be.
I think I’ve shared with you that I’m not a huge fan of writers writing about writing. Although I will readily admit that some people do it incredibly well and there is a wealth of helpful information for fellow writers, for me, it just seems counter intuitive for someone to spend large chunks of their time advising others about their craft rather than actually practicing it. Sort of reminds me of all those no money down real estate seminars they’re always hawking on late night television. If they’re so good at it, why are they wasting their time trying to sell you their secrets? Oh, it’s not that I think writers writing about writing are in any way dubious or trying to sell a bill of goods to unsuspecting wanna be writers, I just think we waste a whole lot of time waxing poetic (read: navel gazing) about writing rather than actually writing. There are obvious exceptions. Writers like King, Pressfield, White, Leonard and a few others have the gravitas and resumes to tell us what constitutes good writing because they’ve put in the hours. They are best selling, critically acclaimed authors, recognized, seasoned authorities in their field. They’ve done the work; bled on the page.
I read a post recently on a popular writing blog. The writer claimed that what sets the great writers apart from the good ones wasn’t skill or talent, but proper writing habits–a claim I vehemently disagree with. What separates great writing from good writing has EVERYTHING to do with skill and talent, and to suggest that all any person needs to be a great writer is proper habits belittles the craft.
Before I go any further, I will tell you that I don’t consider myself a great writer. I don’t even consider myself a good one. Heck, I barely rise to the level of mediocre except on my very best days, and even that’s a stretch, because I believe the word great when attributed to the craft of writing should be reserved for a very select group–a group I don’t even dare to aspire to be apart of.
I have no problem with someone claiming, for instance, that what sets a good sandwich apart from a great sandwich is fresh baked bread rather than store bought, because it’s just a sandwich, for crying out loud!
But if you were to ask me to provide a list of great writers, it would contain names like Hemingway, Poe, Tolstoy, O’Connor, Steinbeck, Dickens, Irving, Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, Dante, Homer…
So unless you can read Anna Karina and declare Tolstoy a hack, you could rewrite A Christmas Carol with a better ending, you could edit Dante’s nine levels of hell down to six and make them more compelling and terrifying, you are NOT a great writer, and by my definition, you never will be.
And before you accuse me of getting hung up on semantics, remind me that there are varying degrees of greatness and I’m being overly legalistic about the word “great”, consider the true greats that have blazed the trail before you, and remember that the proper use and placement of words is part of what good writing is all about in the first place.
So yes–always strive for greatness, but be humble enough to accept the fact you’ll probably never attain it. That’s okay, being a good writer is a noble and worthy aspiration not to be undertaken lightly.
“You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness or even despair–the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind or heart. You can come to the act with your fist clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.
I’m not asking you to come reverently or unquestioningly; I’m not asking you to be politically correct or cast aside your sense of humor (please God you have one). This isn’t a popularity contest, it’s not the moral Olympics, and it’s not church. But it’s writing, damn it, not washing the car or putting on eyeliner. If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can’t or won’t, it’s time for you to close the book and do something else.
Wash the car, maybe.”
~Stephen King, On Writing