Want to Be a Better Writer? Stop Writing.

“While I might start with a prompt, good writing doesn’t just answer a question; it offers readers ideas worth thinking on.”
Amelia Gray

I’m a baby writer.

Sure, I studied Communication Arts when I was in school and I’ve been writing for Amenable for a few years, but, honestly, I think of myself as a beginner.

Luckily for me, the creative field doesn’t function quite like other industries. If I wanted to be an engineer or a doctor, I’d need a degree (or two or three) and years of experience before I could be an expert. For a writer, those things are only helpful because they give us more opportunities to write—like the reps that form a great athlete.

However, great writers aren’t those who’ve merely “put in the hours” to hone their craft. There’s a quintessential part of writing that comes from not writing—from diverse life experiences. Shakespeare’s education lasted through grammar school. Hemingway gallivanted around the globe, serving in World War I, working odd jobs at times, and bullfighting. Tolstoy’s childhood was filled with grief and death, first both of his parents, followed by his guardians.

The path to great writing seems unpredictable. Perhaps, the skill of great writing isn’t developed and honed merely by writing.



When I first sat down to write this blog post, I wanted to ask the question, “what makes great writing?” so I hopped on the internet to do some research.

The good news is that, throughout time and space, people have been asking and answering this very question countless times. There’s a wealth of knowledge—books, ancient archives, conferences, courses, entire degrees, and far too many LinkedIn posts—devoted to the question of what makes great writing.

I found lists compiled by strangers on the internet of what they thought were the greatest books and essays of all time. I asked a few friends what they thought it entailed. I even stumbled into the fountain of all disreputable knowledge—Reddit—to uncover the wisdom of the virtual masses there.

I read a lot of ideas, but when I tried to write, I kept getting hung up on the word “great.” After all, I’m a baby writer—how am I supposed to know what great writing is?

In my own writing process, the desire to create “great” work gets me stuck. I want a certain end result—something great. I look at writings—my own or those of my favorite authors—that took hours, days, weeks, or years to craft and don’t know why all the words on my Google Doc read like silly, incoherent babble. There’s a gap between my work and where I want it to be. In a coarsely worded, yet thoroughly insightful essay, writer Anne Lamott dubs this tension “the fantasy of the uninitiated.”

I don’t know if I can answer my original question absolutely. But I do know what makes my own writing better—better thinking.



This hypothesis of mine came to me in a conversation with Brice (another Amenable writer). We were talking about some writing we’d read recently that used a lot of big words, but didn’t really say anything at all. Yet, there are other writers out there that use the same exact big words and say so much that we dub their work a “classic.”

Over the past few years of writing, the surprise I’ve found is that what is written is far less important than the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of it all that lies under the surface.

Typing is easy; writing is hard. I believe the difference is the thinking that happens in between. All of the advice about the writing process that I’ve received boils down to helping me think better. Here are a few examples—

  • Get off your phone (because the distraction will stop you from thinking).
  • Read widely (because a diversity of other people’s thoughts will grow your own thoughts exponentially).
  • Take a shower or a break or a walk (because working nonstop will stop you from deep thinking).
  • Know what time of day works for your brain (because it’s hard to think when your brain isn’t working).

The short of it is, if you want to write better, you need to think better. Here’s my shortlist of best practices for better thinking.


My own writing process used to be somewhat simple—research, organize, write, edit. Now, it’s still simple, but I do a lot more thinking before and after each step. Giving yourself space is physical and chronological. Everything I write starts with a walk. Changing my environment gives me physical space while setting aside a specific “event” (walking) gives me a set apart time to think well. I don’t take walks as a break from work but to work—by giving myself time and space just for thinking. While I might start with a prompt, good writing doesn’t just answer a question; it offers readers ideas worth thinking on.


I like to play Bananagrams. In case you’re unfamiliar—it’s like Scrabble’s speedy cousin. You have a big pile of randomly-drawn letters that you’re racing to turn into a crossword quicker than any of the other players can finish their own piles of letters. When someone finishes their crossword, everyone is given a few more random letters to integrate into their existing anagram puzzles.

Here’s my strategy: I shuffle around my pile of letters and start building words—no matter how small or sad they are—as quickly as I can. I’m tempted to try and find one big word to get off to a good start, but the truth is, sometimes you’re dealt a bad hand. When I’m almost done with my puzzle, I see it—a really good word. The catch? I’m going to have to demolish all of my progress up to this point to use it. The stakes are high, but I don’t care. Once I see something good, I have to act. Most games, I start from scratch around 4-5 times. My family thinks I’m crazy for all the rebuilding frenzy that I go through, but I usually win.

I started taking this approach in my writing too. In business, there’s a concept called the sunk cost effect. If you’ve already invested resources you can’t get back, it’s harder to back out of something. For example, one of my family members’ small business stayed open far longer than it should have because he’d poured thousands of dollars and a few years of his life into it. On a different note, a few months ago, a friend and I had bought tickets for a concert. The day of, both of us were so worn out from our week that we knew we wouldn’t even be able to enjoy the show, but it was too late to resell our tickets. So, instead of taking the night off to enjoy and rest, we still drove two hours each way to watch a concert neither of us really wanted to be at.

My approach to both bananagrams and writing combats the sunk cost effect. If I ramble on for 500 words and find a few small ideas throughout my work so far, it’s worth the effort to ditch all the okay ideas for one good one. By not attaching myself to the mediocre words I’ve written already, I can clear space to actually think about what needs to be said. Many things could be said, but what needs to be said?


Throughout my time as a writer, I’ve had some great editors. Others were just great proofreaders. Some of my best editors weren’t people who considered themselves writers or creatives. Oftentimes, I’d beg my friends—especially the ones who were athletes or bad spellers—to read my work over dinner and talk to me about the parts they didn’t quite understand. I could use spell check later; I needed a real human to connect and push back and offer their own take.


Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Tolstoy didn’t become great writers through their education. Whether through adventure, grief, or any other manner of life in between, it turns out that great writing is all about great thinking. The technical aspects such as the words you use or the tone you adopt are really only about translating your thinking to the world of your audience.

Recently, I’ve felt bombarded with the message that it’s a necessity to rest from work to embrace our humanity. Yet, I believe there’s also immense value in resting for our work. These days, my time is mostly filled with winding yarn to make rugs (my latest hobby) or trips to Home Depot for DIY building projects. I haven’t spent much time on my writing—much less, this blog post. But coming back, today, to words I wrote almost a month ago, I can finally see my ideas clearly. It turns out, all I needed was a good think.

Amelia Gray
Amenable Alumna
Amelia loves connecting with people through language by finding the right word for the right moment. She hopes that sharing her creative process will help other people be confident in their own. In her spare time, you can find her birdwatching or developing her Spanish.


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