Do Writers Get Better?


Recently I heard an author give advice I’ve heard many authors give: “Just keep writing, and you’ll get better.”

Is that true?

I can think of painters who got better over time, like Picasso and Van Gogh.  I can think of bands and composers who got markedly better, at least for a while, like Beethoven, the Beatles, Leonard Cohen, Pink Floyd, and Sting.  But I can only think of a few writers who got better with time: Mark Twain, Jack London, and Tom Stoppard.  Bookplayer, GoH, and toafan say Terry Pratchett has improved, and I defer to their authority on Pratchett, so add him too.  This is still so few that the most likely explanation for their improvement is chance, or poor judgement on my part.

I can think of plenty who wrote an early breakout work and then never rivaled it: Lorraine Hansberry, J.D. Salinger, S.E. Hinton, Stephen Crane, Jorge Luis Borges, Douglas Adams.  I can think of plenty who wrote consistently over their careers from the time they published their first book: John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, C. S. Lewis, Ray Bradbury, Tom Clancy.  I can think of many who got worse: James Joyce, E.E. Cummings, William Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov.  The first story Robert Heinlein ever wrote was about as good as anything he ever wrote.  John Kennedy Toole won the Pulitzer for his first (and last) novel.

More writers get worse than get better once they’ve been published.  Why?

My theory is that people don’t get any better at anything than they have to be to stop being confronted with failure.  This is why Keannu Reaves is still a bad actor, and so many athletes and beautiful women are poor thinkers.

Writing isn’t like juggling or riding a bicycle.  You can’t tell whether you did it well.  Maybe it’s like non-contact martial arts.  You can spend years kicking the air, but if you never hit anybody, you might be doing it all wrong.

In writing, I’m trying to strike you, dear reader, though not always to hurt you.  The comments let me know what I hit.  Most writers stop workshopping and reading reviews of their works soon after they get published, and they hear little from their readers, which may be why they stop getting better.

But even when I do hear back it isn’t enough for me.  Even where I can detect that I’ve failed I don’t know how to improve.

There are four basic learning methods:  Example, logic, gradient search, and evolution.  By example means you watch someone else and do what they do.  It’s fast!  Logic means you model what you’re doing to predict things that might work better.  It’s not quite as fast.  Gradient search means you can tell whether changing things a little more one way or the other along one dimension will make things better or worse.  It’s quick to improve along dimensions that you’re already aware of, but seldom produces anything surprising.  Evolution means you change things randomly and splice together combinations of things that worked well.  It’s super-slow, but is the most powerful, if you can tell whether something is good or bad.

I use all four methods to try to improve my writing.  I feel like I’m learning all the time.  But mostly, I’m learning how to do better the things I already do well, like plotting.  I’m aware of those; I can see whether I failed or did well.  The things I do poorly, I don’t improve on, because they’re a mystery to me.  Even when I see where someone else has done it well, I can’t put my finger on what makes it better.

The stories I write now are much better than the ones I wrote 20 years ago, but not obviously better than the ones I wrote 15 years ago.

It’s hard to tell because they’re dead to me.  I re-read part of one of these stories, and it seems fake.  The dialogue seems forced; the settings like scenery drawn with markers on cardboard for a grade-school play.  Same for some of my more recent work.  I can see the strings on my puppets.  I can’t laugh at my comedies or feel anything from my sad stories.  The main reason I think they’re any good is that people whose stories I like sometimes tell me they are.  Another is that I keep reading books on writing, and have the naive faith that they must be doing me some good, though when I try to recall what they said I usually can’t remember.  (The third reason is my enormous ego.)

Can writers get better?  If so, how?


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