How To Improve Your Writing: 5 Secrets From Hollywood



Thanks to the internet, people are reading and writing more than ever. But is it me, or does it seem like the quality of that writing has gotten worse?

However, this can be a good thing. These days, solid writing really stands out. It can be a competitive advantage in anything you do.

Want to know how to improve your writing? Or have you ever thought about crafting the next great novel or screenplay? Want to know how to write like a pro?

Me, too. So I called my buddy Andy.

Andrew Kevin Walker wrote the blockbuster Seven, starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman. Here’s the trailer:

Andy was also a writer on many other big projects including Sleepy Hollow, The Hire, and Fight Club (you might notice in the credits that the three cops who attack Edward Norton are named “Andrew”, “Kevin” and “Walker.”)

His new book is Old Man Johnson.

Below you’ll learn:

  1. The thing that immediately tells readers you’re a good writer.
  2. How to surprise your audience.
  3. The mindset you need to write like a pro.
  4. The secret to effective collaboration.
  5. How to make readers feel something when they read your work.

And much, much more. Alright, ramblers, let’s get ramblin’…


1) How To Improve Your Writing

Andy recommends two things you can do to vastly improve your writing — whether you’re writing an email, a presentation for work or a screenplay for Hollywood. What’s the first one? Here’s Andy:

When I’m reading something, what lets me know if I’m in good hands or not is whether there’s a sense of structure to it.

Do you have a beginning, a middle and an ending? Does one build on the other? Is there a sense this is going somewhere? Does it seem like you have really thought this through? Here’s Andy:

Knowing where you’re going is key. If you don’t, how can you know what your theme is? How can you foreshadow anything? When you know what your ending is, then you know what you’re writing. It may change as you’re writing but I really feel like you have to have a “true north” that you’re heading toward — and that “true north” is your ending. You don’t have to know every detail of it. With Seven I always knew that there were going to be seven deadly sin murders. Therein lay the structure of it. Good cop was gonna become “wrath” in the end. With that I had a skeleton on which to build the spine of the story.

And other experts agree. When I interviewed UCLA Film School professor Howard Suber, he said structure was vital.

Good stories are built on the word “but”, not the word “and.” This insures that there are twists and turns, and a relationship between what came before and what will come after.

What’s the second thing you need to do? Revise. First drafts are never final drafts. Here’s Andy:

That golden rule that “writing is rewriting” gets ignored a lot. Completing it is one thing, but then going back to the beginning and completing it again is the most important part of the process. In fact, I would say “completing it again and again.” You should rewrite your rewriting too.

When I spoke with Harvard professor Steven Pinker, he said the same thing. Here’s Steven:

Much advice on good writing is really advice on revising. Because very few people are smart enough to be able to lay down some semblance of an argument and to express it in clear prose at the same time. Most writers require two passes to accomplish that. And after they’ve got the ideas down, now it’s time to refine and polish. Because the order in which ideas occur to a writer is seldom the same as the order that are best digested by a reader. And often, good writing requires a revising and rearranging the order of what you introduce so that the reader can easily follow it.

(To learn the good work habits that all geniuses have in common click here.)

Structure and revising will definitely improve your writing. But what gets the attention of an audience, especially in this age of zero attention span? You gotta surprise ’em. Here’s how…


2) How To Surprise The Reader

Surprise is about defying expectations. So to do it you must first know what your audience expects from the type of writing you’re doing. This is true for everything from PowerPoint presentations to creative essays.

Know your “genre” and what your audience expects and you’ll know what you need to do to surprise them. Here’s Andy:

It’s only by being aware of genre and audience expectations that you can really surprise people… Best example for Seven was taking a movie that’s about characters who desperately want to catch a murderer and an audience that’s awaiting the cathartic moment of capture — and then having the killer turn himself in. Stealing that catharsis from the audience and sucking all the air out of the room so that the characters — and now the audience — are off-balance. And then everyone is going, “I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

That shocking moment (NSFW) is here:

And UCLA Film School professor Howard Suber says this sort of surprise is essential to creating engaging writing. Here’s Howard:

Without the surprise, without the twist, if you don’t pull the wool over the audience’s eyes, then it’s unlikely you’re going to be memorable. It’s precisely the fact that things are not what they seem that makes a story interesting.

(For more on how to be a great writer from Harvard’s Steven Pinker click here.)

Okay, so you’ve got structure, you’re revising your work and incorporating surprise. That can definitely improve your writing. But what does it take to write like a pro?


3) How To Write Like A Professional

Are you enjoying putting those words on the page? Is it making you smile? Congrats, you’re screwing up. Here’s Andy:

When you’re writing, if you’re super happy and having a fun time — you’re probably doing something wrong. Good writing means being a perfectionist. And that means being at least semi-miserable. But that’s a good thing. Perfectionism leads to rewriting. Now you can get so depressed over writing that you get in your own way, but a happy writer probably isn’t pushing themselves hard enough.

Sound crazy? Research shows that experts emphasize the negative. They have to. If you aren’t continually identifying what isn’t working you can’t make it better. Here’s Andy:

Before you show it to anyone else, are you really asking yourself,  “Is this the absolute best it can be?” Are you being as hard on yourself as you can possibly be? Because those important reads that may get it seen by an agent or a publisher, those reads are really rare and you won’t get two of them out of the same person.

We’ve heard a lot about “flow.” Flow is pleasurable — but it doesn’t make you better. As Georgetown professor Cal Newport explains, it’s “deliberate practice” that improves skills. And that means you’re always working at the edge of your comfort zone, not in a blissful state of flow.

Okay, so you’re focusing on the negative…

But you also need to stay optimistic.

I know what you’re thinking: Huh? How the heck do you embrace negativity and also be optimistic?

If you keep emphasizing the negative, you get depressed and you quit. Research shows pessimism kills grit.

And with all the rejection and criticism in Hollywood, it’s too easy to give up. So while you have to focus on the negative while you’re writing, you need to keep some optimism cooking when you look at the big picture. Here’s Andy:

One of the most important things for any writer is to be constantly refilling their reserve of naiveté. If I weren’t as wholeheartedly naive now as I was on my first day leaving film school that I was going to achieve something in the world of screenwriting, then I wouldn’t still be doing it. It’s like selective memory. If you can’t tamp down the bad experiences you’ve had writing — and they’re numerous — almost actively forget them and refueling your optimism each time, then you’ll just stop… I’m as optimistic about writing now as I was at the beginning — which is completely delusional. Embracing delusion is really important. They say the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” But if you’re not doing that in Hollywood, you’ll never survive. It’s only the person who has the determination to keep saying “yes” in the face of all those “no’s” that will make it.

Does this sound crazy? Here’s what’s interesting: the schizophrenic mindset Andy’s describing is the same one seen in elite athletes.

Via Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success:

Doublethink is essential to the success of leading athletes and other top performers… Take top golfers…they have to make scrupulously rational choices about shot selection (laying up, for example, rather than going for the green), but once they have committed to any given shot, they have to be—indeed, they train themselves to be—irrationally optimistic about execution. Nick Faldo, the six-time major winner, made precisely this point when I interviewed him at the Open Championship in 2008. “You have to be very calculating in selecting the right shot,” he said. “You have to make a decision based upon a realistic assessment of your own weaknesses and the scope for failure. But once you have committed to your decision, you have to flick the mental switch and execute the shot as if there was never any doubt that you would nail it.”

It’s what Andy calls “the manic-depressive requirements of writing.”

So how does he do it? How do you hold matter and antimatter in your head at the same time?

Andy keeps that ruthless perfectionism brewing… but he makes sure he feels he’s making progress on a regular basis. Here’s Andy:

One of the things that’s important is to create a daily or weekly sense of completing something. I’m not going to be done with this script for months or years. It may not get made into a movie. If it does it’ll be years from now. I can’t finish this script today but I can finish sweeping the floor. I can’t finish this novel today but I can finish this submarine sandwich. I can finish this nap. Every little bit of distraction or procrastination that has closure to it is a small reward for the person whose main journey of writing has its reward so far away and on such uncertain terms.

Bestselling author Dan Pink has written about the power of these “small wins” to keep us going. Teresa Amabile’s research at Harvard shows nothing is more motivating that the feeling of progress. By building this into his schedule, Andy is able to keep going even with a mindset that is deliberately focused on the perfectionistic negative.

(To learn how Navy SEALs build grit and learn to never give up click here.)

But in many work environments writing can be a collaborative process. Hollywood is no different. So what if others are doing the writing and you need to give feedback? How do you help them improve — without insulting them?


4) The Right Way To Collaborate

Andy has worked with director David Fincher on a number of memorable films, including Seven and Fight Club. Why have their collaborations been so effective?

Because Fincher is a master at suspending his ego when giving feedback. Here’s Andy:

Fincher does a lot of things that a lot of people don’t do. He listens. He actually collaborates. He’s incredibly specific with his input. But he’s not desperate to put his stamp on something. It’s his lack of ego. Usually when you’re getting notes on a project, the person giving them is clearly motivated by having their voice heard, their ego being stoked.

When I spoke with FBI behavior expert Robin Dreeke he said the exact same thing about effectively dealing with people: Suspend your ego.

And the secret to writing well when you’re part of a team is to give others that chance to contribute in the areas where they know more than you do. Here’s Andy:

Really good actors like Morgan Freeman, and Brad and Kevin, will always take your worst stuff and make it a thousand times better than it was on the page. And so the lesson is, when it goes from the page to fruition, less is better. In the right hands, you’ll be amazed how much better it gets.

It’s only when great writing, great directing, and great acting come together that you get moments (NSFW) like this:

(For more on how to make people like you — from an FBI behavior expert — click here.)

We’ve learned a lot about solid writing. But, in the end, nothing is more powerful than moving people emotionally. How can you do that? Andy has an answer.


5) How To Make Readers Feel Something

It all comes down to one word. Here’s Andy:

Honesty is the most important ingredient.

That’s what made Seven work. Now Andy didn’t literally follow the old advice of “write what you know.” He was never a cop… or a serial killer for that matter.

But the script was honest regarding what he was feeling about New York City while he was writing it. Here’s Andy:

Seven came from a very personal place. The argument that’s taking place both internally and externally for Mills, (Brad Pitt’s character) and for Somerset (Morgan Freeman’s character) is an argument that I was having with myself, living in New York City in the late 80’s. If there’s anything that elevated it above an exploitational film, it was the stuff that came from me personally. The “write what you know” wasn’t experiences I had; I was never a policeman tracking down this terrible, murderous villain, but it was the debate over “look what this city’s become.” I was empathizing with John Doe and having him express frustrations of mine — in the worst way possible. It was an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other — and this is the argument that Mills and Somerset are having, that I was having. Morgan Freeman wants to quit and Brad never will. As a writer, I had to earn that moment where Morgan Freeman, despite his pessimism about the city, decides not to give up. And that’s what drives him to say, “I’ll be around” at the end of the movie.

(For more on how to tell great stories from a UCLA Film School professor click here.)

Okay, Andy’s told us a lot about how to be a better writer. Let’s round it all up — and learn how we can apply it to any career.


Sum Up

Here’s what Andy had to say about how to improve your writing:

  1. Structure lets readers know they’re in good hands. And finishing a draft is just the start. Writing is rewriting.
  2. Surprise comes from knowing the expectations of your audience — and then turning them on their head.
  3. The best writers know how to balance the negativity of perfectionism with the optimism that keeps them going. Making sure you have “small wins” can help.
  4. Collaboration is about suspending your ego. Stop thinking about yourself and focus on what would objectively make the piece better. 
  5. Making a reader feel something is about honesty. You don’t have to come from the future to write science fiction but there does have to be something of yourself in the story for that emotion to show through.

And these ideas don’t just apply to writing. You can be an artist at anything if you take the mindset of an artist and strive to be great at whatever you do. Here’s Andy:

In the same way that there’s an art to crafting surfboards or an art to designing cars, there’s an art to pumping gas or being a garbage man. No matter how much you’re being paid or what you’re doing as a career, you need to embrace the art of it and not be afraid of the artist in you… Find the art in everything you do.

In my next weekly email I’ll have more writing tips from Andy (including the best way to find original ideas and discover your voice as a writer.) To make sure you don’t miss it, join here.

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