Steal Your Way to Better Writing

The Novelist by L.L. Barkat

Today’s guest post is by poet and editor L.L. Barkat. You may remember her from an earlier guest post, You Don’t Need a Degree to Find Your Voice.

“I can’t write poetry,” she said. And it was true.

This girl—who read Macbeth at age twelve and argued with the commentaries, who in the same season read all of Tolkien in less than a week and memorized a good deal of the embedded poems—could not write poetry. Everything she tried seemed shapeless and wan. This defied logic. At least mine.

I’d been an English teacher and a writer myself, and the formula I knew was fairly simple: excellent readers are usually excellent writers. This is why every editor will tell you that you must be a reader if you hope to become a better writer. No question. There’s a strong connection.

So I was puzzled, to say the least, when my own daughter could not pen a poem with any life in it. Not that anyone would care, since few people recognize that poetry is important and formative for other kinds of writing (including business writing). But I cared. And my daughter, watching her talented younger sister, cared.

Maybe this is one reason she stole my Norton Anthology of Poetry when it arrived in that trim Amazon box. Maybe that’s why she attempted what I’d never seen another pre-teen attempt with such vigor (or at all): sonnets, sestinas, pantoums, villanelles. And she was shockingly good for her age, sometimes writing a sonnet in ten minutes flat (and that with her mother bothering her to please take a phone call from Grandma).

Here’s the point I want you to take away: writers are opened by different approaches, sometimes radically different. To this day, my daughter pleads with me to read the how-to writing books. She challenges me to write poetry in form. I humor her a bit, but the truth is that these approaches do not help my writing the way they’ve helped hers. I need approaches that feel altogether more organic—Annie Dillard over On Writing Well.

And that is why I had to write The Novelist. As a writer with four books already to my name, I had no organic approach to my new genre of choice: fiction. The how-to books only paralyzed me; I’d been stalling on fiction for just about forever, with no hope in sight.

Where was the book I needed to teach me, and others like me, the secrets of this tantalizing genre? Where was the equivalent of my daughter’s Norton Anthology? As it turns out, it was inside me. I just needed to steal a series of 4 a.m. writing slots, to find that I could learn to write fiction from story itself. Never mind that I would have to be the one to actually write the story.

What kind of writer are you? Maybe you’ve been waiting to find the approach that will open you. Maybe if the how-to books have not taken you where you want to go, it’s time you learned to write through story itself.

Sure, I can recommend The Novelist. And remind you that anything that opens your inner writer is a real steal.

Additional suggested reading

Or, read a chapter of The Novelist


Posted in Creativity + Inspiration and tagged , .

L.L. Barkat has served as a books, parenting, and education contributor at The Huffington Post blog; is a freelance writer for Edutopia; and is the author of six books for grown-ups. She’s also the author of a magical fairy tale, The Golden Dress, and the beautiful A Is for Azure: The Alphabet in Colors. Her poetry has appeared at VQR, The Best American Poetry, and on NPR.

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Jodi Lobozzo Aman

I love “The Things They Carried.” and wonder where the connection is? Why is it on the suggested reading in this post?

Ginger Moran

Such a great question–and good answers! As a writer and a fiction coach, I have experienced or witnessed just about every approach there is. For my book, The Algebra of Snow, I wanted to write a novel but was scared, so started spelunking in a short story I’d written and liked to see if there was any material under the surface. Turned out there was. I love the idea of stealing–we all do it all the time, so might as well own up and enjoy!


[…] L. Barkat (@llbarkat) guest posts on Jane Friedman’s blog with a not-really-so-unusual technique: Steal Your Way to Better Writing. Of course, she’s not referring to plagiarism, but learning via close reading of something that […]


Boy do I relate. I get frustrated reading the how-to books and sometimes find conflicting information.


Thank you for this post. I crossed over into fiction during a writing sabbatical and am now full into birthing a YA novel, thinking “how the hell do I do this?” I do it by doing it. A few how-to books have helped, particularly “Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us” by Jessica Morrell. Otherwise, I just trust the reader/writer in me.

Alli Polin

I appreciate your emphasis on the fact that to be a better writer, you have to be a reader. My daughter loves writing yet her spelling is a mess and she clearly has no idea about any of the rules of grammar. Reading doesn’t come easily to her but she loves stories and her writing flows. On the flip side, her brother watches me write sometimes and I often suggest that he go “read a book”. My son then yells that I never read and he doesn’t want to read either. He’s wrong – I savor my books like candy… Read more »


[…] learn more about The Novelist, read L.L. Barkat’s new feature article Steal Your Way to Better Writing at Jane Friedman’s […]

Claire Burge
Claire Burge

I am a bit of a textbook girl, a bit of a life girl. I think age plays a role… the older I become the less meaning textbooks have and the more I trust the life I have been gifted to tell its own story.

Sara Sherrell
Sara Sherrell

I agree that being open to different methods of learning is important. A writer tends to be her own worst critic and continually looks for ways to improve.


[…] up and read that article at 99u and add some obstacles into your visualization. And then, read this guest post by L.L. Barkat at Jane Friedman’s blog. She’ll tell you that what works for one writer may not work for another. You might need to […]

Julie Romero
Julie Romero

I would say I’m a researcher. My first published novel was a romance, which I don’t read. The how to’s on writing romance and reading as many as I could get my hands on really did the trick. Now I wish there was a ‘how to finish a sequel in less than it’s taking you now’ book. I’d start reading it now!

Megan Willome
Megan Willome

This is so helpful!

And after I read “The Novelist,” I read “The Things They Carried!” Amazing! Kind of hearkened to the story of the water in L.L.’s “Rumors of Water.”