One Skill You Must Master To Become A Great Writer

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Supreme Court Justice and life-long overachiever, Sonia Sotomayor was a C-student until she decided she wanted to do better. Disregarding questions of talent and opportunity and what was expected of her, she simply went to the top kid in her fifth grade class how she got all those gold stars. And then Sotomayor listened as the girl taught her how she took notes, studied and used tricks to trigger her memory. From then on, Sotomayor was a straight-A student.

Until she reached Princeton and a professor gave her a C.

Once again, she asked for help, listened to the answer and then (and this is crucial) took action to correct her defects. She spent her summer at a bookstore, teaching herself remedial grammar. Each year she faced a different challenge and worked with her professors to overcome them[1. This story comes from a couple of interview with Justice Sotomayor by NPR’s Nina Totenburg. You can find them here and here].

And now she’s a justice in the highest court in the US, where telling a compelling story and choosing the right words are perhaps more important than in any other job but that of a writer.

Believe That You Can Improve

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking writing can’t be taught. Of course it can.

Every time you read a great book you’re learning how to write. Every time some great author talks about writing, you pick up a thing or two.

True, Sonia Sotomayor was not striving to write great literature, but she was willing to learn from people who knew more than she did. We must be willing to do the same.

Examining Your Writing Will Not Scare Away Your Muse

We’ve all experienced that magical moment when everything is flowing and it seems like the words are coming to us from some mystical well. We can start to believe that if we look too closely at what’s going on we’ll blow the whole thing.

But if you’re to make any progress, you must discover and internalize a simple truth that makes all the difference between the ‘wannabe’ writer and the seriously satisfied writer:

You must be willing to believe that writing can be taught.

And when I say ‘taught’ I simply mean that more experienced writers than yourself can share tips and techniques that help you find the fastest path from ‘beginner’ to ‘accomplished’.

Even more importantly, you must believe that you can absorb these lessons and put them into practice.

Sonia Sotomayor (no matter what you think of her judicial views on any subject) demonstrated an attitude and a pattern of behavior we should be racing to copy.  If you’re not writing brilliantly now, figure out what you’re doing wrong and what you need to do to change it. Then work on making those changes.


This post is part of the Becoming A Better Writer series. Find the other parts here or buy the ebook and help support StoryADay May:

Becoming A Better Writer Pt. I: One Skill You Must Master To Become A Great Writer
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. II: How To Ask For — And Deal With — Feedback
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. III: Learn From Your Writing Heroes
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. IV: Practice Makes Perfect (Or: Write More!)
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. V: Adjust Your Expectations