Sunday, October 28, 2012


“What does it take to be good at something in which failure is so easy, so effortless?” writes Atul Gawande in the introduction to his book, Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance. “When I was a student and then a resident, my deepest concern was to become competent.”

It’s a concern for most writers, as well, this idea of becoming competent, which is why this book may prove to be a welcome guide, not just for its outstanding prose (Gawande is a writer for The New Yorker, after all), but for the insights that Gawande offers in terms of how we might improve our skills, our expertise, our competence.

Of course, writing, unlike medicine, isn’t a life or death struggle (for most of us, anyway). If you misplace a comma, or describe a character differently in two different scenes, no one is physically hurt or injured. No one loses any blood. No one breaks any bones. 

Yet I think something is broken, even if it’s simply the reader’s trust in the writer to get things right.

Although this book is about how a doctor might improve his performance, it’s about much more, and in it Gawande outlines what he calls “three core requirements for success in medicine—or in any endeavor that involves risk and responsibility.”

He writes: 
The first is diligence, the necessity of giving sufficient attention to detail to avoid error and prevail against obstacles. Diligence seems an easy and minor virtue. (You just pay attention, right?) But it is neither. Diligence is both central to performance and fiendishly hard…
The second challenge is to do right. Medicine is a fundamentally human profession. It is therefore forever troubled by human failings, failings like avarice, arrogance, insecurity, misunderstanding.
The third requirement for success is ingenuity—thinking anew. Ingenuity is often misunderstood. It is not a matter of superior intelligence but of character. It demands more than anything a willingness to recognize failure, to not paper over the cracks, and to change. It arises from deliberate, even obsessive, reflection on failure and a constant searching for new solutions. These are difficult traits to foster—but they are far from impossible ones. 
How can we do better as writers? What might make a difference in how we put words on paper? Is there anything that can help us see our imperfections—our own as writers, as well as those that may appear in our manuscripts—more clearly so that we might begin the process of revision?

In the end, Gawande suggests "... find something new to try, something to change. Count how often you succeed and how often you fail. Write about it. Ask people what they think. See if you can keep the conversation going.”

For more information on Atul Gawande’s work, visit:

And for more about his book, Better, visit:

If you’d like to read more about how to become a better writer, visit:

1 comment:

Sharron said...

In my mind's eye, this is an incredibly insightful post. I would never have thought to read a medical book to learn more about writing.

'... simply the reader’s trust in the writer to get things right.'

I have striven towards this end since the very first time I picked up a pen with the idea that I might write something. But I was never able to put that need of mine into words. This sentence says it all.

Thank you for sharing. I'm posting a link at my blog.