Charlie Munger, the Vice President of Berkshire Hathaway (Warren Buffett’s company), is a 96-year-old billionaire.
In an interview, he narrated a story that he frequently shares with youngsters who ask for his advice on getting rich:
A young man goes to see Mozart and says he wants to start composing symphonies. Mozart asks, “How old are you?” The guy says, “22.”
Mozart says, “You’re too young to do symphonies.” But the guy retorts: “Yes, but you were 10 years old when you were composing symphonies.”
“Yes, but I wasn’t running around asking other people how to do it.”
Through this anecdote, Munger aims to highlight that if we want to achieve a goal, there’s no substitute for putting in the work.
This is a truth for every craft, including writing.
To get better at their art, many writers sign up for courses, binge-read how-to-write articles, and keep looking for new resources to learn from.
But the best teacher is not a course or an article. According to Annie Dillard, it’s The Page:
The page, that eternal blankness…… which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as your right and your daring as necessity; the page which you cover woodenly, running it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity; the page which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of possibilities; the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength: that page will teach you to write.
Nothing, not even advice from the greatest writers of all time, can match up to the teachings of The Page.
Here are four powerful lessons I’ve learned from it. I hope you find them useful:
1. Sit Down and Write
“Finally, one just has to shut up, sit down, and write.” — Natalie Goldberg
As a writer, nothing is more exciting than putting your thoughts on paper.
But when the thoughts that sounded great in your head refuse to pour out, when sweat begins to appear on your brow, the mind rebels like an adolescent. It behaves like a runner on a cold winter morning—stiff, dreary, unhappy about coming to the jog.
It drifts towards instant gratification. Like scrolling through social media, cleaning the house, and even paying bills.
But Goldberg is right. You must shut up, sit down, and write.
Write one word, then another. Words turn into sentences. Slowly, your blood starts flowing. Like a runner in stride, your thinking flows freely as you lose yourself in the work.
Then you think maybe the fourth sentence can become the second and the seventh sentence can become the third. You bang out sentences and paragraphs until you finally complete the draft.
None of this happens if you don’t sit down, stare at the blank page, and force your fingers to type out the words, no matter how jumbled or scattered they appear.
But how do you get yourself to the desk in the first place?
2. Leave Midway
It’s important to write with intent, which means writing every draft with the intent of publishing it. Which also means returning to a draft over and over again until it’s finished.
But many times, a writer finds herself stuck when she reaches the end of her thoughts and wonders what she’s going to do next. When no door cracks open, she shifts her attention to a fresh draft for another idea. Then she gets stuck again.
This cycle continues until her drafts folder brims with unfinished work, each of which held huge promise.
It’s tough to work on a draft when you feel stuck. It’s tougher to return to it when you don’t know what to do next beforehand.
To make it easier, follow Ernest Hemingway’s sound advice:
The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day … you will never be stuck.
Many authors stop halfway through a scene despite the desire to continue. This makes their subconscious mind toss the ideas and ripen them. When the authors begin their next session, they jump into writing immediately.
The more you return to the page, the more likely you are to end up with a completed draft that you’re ready to edit like a surgeon.
3. Have Something to Say
The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That’s the moment you may be starting to get it right. — Neil Gaiman
Saying something and having something to say is not the same thing.
The former is a poor curation of what others have beaten to death. The latter inspires, educates, and entertains. The former adds to the clutter, the latter cuts through it.
Cyril Connolly believed that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece, and nothing else matters.
Most of your work won’t turn into a masterpiece. But that shouldn’t stop you from performing your duty as a writer: to look closer at the world around you than others, to put into words what your readers intuitively understand but haven’t articulated.
The more time you spend with the page writing about things that apply to your readers and your readers can apply, the more you evolve as a writer.
Help your readers understand the world around them better. At the same time…
4. Make Your Reader Feel Smart
“Avoid making your reader feel foolish at all costs! You want to make your reader feel smart.” — Chuck Palahniuk
To help your readers understand the world, it’s tempting to barrage them with perspectives, partly to show off your erudition and expertise.
But making yourself sound smart often occurs at the expense of making readers feel dumb. Such readers don’t show their irritation, they simply ignore your work. No attention from your audience isn’t just a body blow to your work; it’s a death-knell.
Your readers might have little or no knowledge of the subject but are intelligent enough to catch on if you give them enough information without going overboard.
Help your readers make better sense of the world around them and feel better about themselves. Give them space to absorb the idea and experience “Aha!” moments. Use simple words to help them connect the dots and feel like heroes by doing so.
Eliminate the unnecessary so that what’s necessary tells your readers all they need to know. “Perfection is not when there’s nothing more to add,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, “but when there is nothing left to take away.”
Brevity is your reader’s best friend. Make it your best friend too. Give your readers what they want and they’ll shower you with attention and engagement.
The best writing is an expression of thoughts rather than a means to create an impression.
Do what you must to improve as a writer. Reach out to better writers, take up courses, read books and articles on the subject. But transfer all your learnings to The Page.
Try, fail, succeed, fail… keep learning and keep writing. That’s how you figure out what works for you and find your authentic voice.
Nothing can help you improve better than the frightening, blank page. So, as Natalie Goldberg said, “Shut up, sit down, and write.”