The great authors are great for a reason. They didn’t earn the title “Great” (appended to such Totally Badass Warriors as Alexander and Dope Kings of Judea as Herod) for nothing. They earned it for one reason, and one reason alone:
Because they’re better than you.
But hey, don’t feel bad. They’re better than me too.
The great authors are better than everyone.
Now, you already know this. I don’t have to tell you, because the fact that you aren’t J.K. Rowling or Fyodor Dostoevsky already keeps you up at night.
At this point, you have two choices.
Or starting using their greatness to your own advantage. Here are a few places to begin.
This is an obvious one. I mean, if you want to learn from them, you need to engage with them, right?
It’s not enough to talk about how you “love” Jane Austen because you read a book or two in high school. Read the whole collection! I did last year, and it was one of the most valuable things I’ve done. So much greatness, all in my hot little hand.
And once in a while, slog through something you don’t really want to read. The Screwtape Letters were an eye-opening take on religion for me, while Howard’s End started slow, but turned into one of the most beautiful works of pastoral English fiction I’ve ever read.
Yes, it’s important just to read for pleasure. But sometimes you should read intentionally. That means noticing what you love, words you’d like to use and moments that truly make you feel something.
This is a perfect exercise for books you’re re-reading, because you already love them and know them. You don’t have to read line-by-line to get the feel for the work, and can instead hunt for your most beloved moments.
Now write them down. In a notebook. A document on your computer. In the shower steam on the bathroom mirror.
Actually no, that probably won’t work so well.
Just … write it down, okay? That way you can reference them later when you’re feeling low on awesome juice.
As long as you’ve got them there anyway, why not try rewriting them? You can never publish them, of course … that’s called plagiarism and it’s not cool. Also illegal.
But there’s nothing saying you can’t use them to your own ends. Take the work, read it through a few times, then set it aside. Now try writing it your own way, maybe with your own dialogue or your own more modern settings or adjectives.
If it’s nonfiction, consider how the point might have been conveyed today. This exercise is well worth it, I assure you.
Even when you aren’t actively reading or looking at great work, try to keep it in your head. How would Omar Khayyam have put this? Would Sophocles make this better, and how?
It might sound hard, but you can do it.
The greats aren’t a thing of the past. Modern writers can be great too.
Luckily, if you keep working hard enough and long enough, your writing can become pretty damn great too.
As great? No, probably not, but that’s okay. We’re not all cut out for Total Amazingness. Most of us just show up and do our jobs every day.
But pretty great? Hell yeah, buddy!
From time to time, you’ll probably hit on a turn of phrase, a paragraph or an entire piece that you just think is awesome. When that happens, keep it around! Study it! Why do you like it? What ingredients did you use that contributed to the awesomeness, and how can you replicate that somewhere else?
Personally, I keep an article I wrote in J-School on my computer’s hard drive so I can reference it when I feel low. The professor told the class it was the best review he’d ever seen of Moneyball, and as a Sports in Society professor, he’d seen a lot. Needless to say, it’s a little slip of nothing in the grand scheme, but it makes me feel good, and I’ve referenced it many times when I need a boost.
Seriously, try it.
And if you need other tools for greatness, we invite you to check out the Free Resource Library. In it, you’ll get everything you need to refine your voice, outline like a badass, write amazing emails and more.
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