How To Be A Better Writer
Updated: Jan 9, 2020
[Listen to an audio version of this blog HERE.]
I just finished re-reading The War of Arty by Steven Pressfield. I recommend this book to most people, but to writers and creators especially. Pressfield writes extensively about the idea of resistance, how creative individuals get sidelined by both internal and external resistance, how to overcome this, and how to be creatively productive. I consider myself an expert in few disciplines, but I write every day, and have been for a very, very long time so I feel justified dispensing the following advice. Take it or leave it.
How To Be A Better Writer
1.) Practice: This is the least sexy but most important tip. Nobody wants to hear that writing something good takes a lot of time and practice. You'll probably write a ton of bad stuff before you write anything passably good, and that's okay. Be okay with writing dumb, unimportant, terrible things. Write every. single. day. I promise, you'll get better. Like most things, progress won't happen overnight. Acclaimed writer David Sedaris said he wrote consistently for 15 years before his first book was published. If that doesn't sound like something you're willing to do, you might not have the chops to be a writer.
2.) Write Shit Down: This is as obvious as it is easy to neglect. Maybe you overhear an interesting conversation, or have an interesting thought as you're going to sleep, or see something odd and worth revisiting. Write it all down, every bit of it. I recently wrote a poem called, "It's Chess, Darling" and another called "I like it cuz it's pink," after hearing both of those phrases, writing them down, and revisiting them later. You can write in a pocket-sized leather notebook like a true, red-blooded hipster, OR you can take notes in your phone like those of us who are too busy to carry around inkwells. However you choose to do it, make sure you write things down.
3.) Write When It Works For You: There is a lot of focus surrounding when we are most productive/creative. Some people are creative first thing in the morning. Maya Angelou purportedly woke up at 5:30 every day to have coffee with her husband before sitting down to write by 7, in a drab hotel room where she wouldn't be distracted. Some people are night owls and get creative later, and some of us write whenever we can, whether that's after work, in between meetings, or during lunch breaks. When you write is far less important than you actually writing. Make time when it makes sense for you to make time, but just be sure to consistently make the time.
4.) Read: Read lots of different things, as much as you can. Read novels, non-fiction, poetry, screenplays, magazines, user manuals, textbooks, newspapers, whatever. The most important thing you'll gain from reading prolifically is an innate understanding of language. Rhythm and nuance are important to writers, and are best learned by reading good writing. Aspiring writers are often caught in an in-between space of knowing what great writing looks like, but not being able to quite produce that level of greatness. That's what we all aspire to, and learning the difference between good and great writing can only be learned through practice and by reading.
5.) Don't Self Edit: This can be difficult, but self-editing is a fast track to writer's block. I like to dump a bunch of text, then edit because it's eons easier to cut and edit a large block of text than it is to worry about each word or phrase as you write. I usually edit my blogs and poems 5-10 times before I publish them or consider them "done." Some of my poems get 15+ edits, the final few with a fine-toothed comb. As you come back to a word dump, consider which words/phrases/sentences are necessary, which brings me to point #6.
6.) Get To The Point: Be clear, and be concise. Some prose allows space for long, gratuitous descriptions and flowery language, but most readers can only tolerate so much of that. Ernest Hemingway was a master of clear, concise language and he's arguably one of America's greatest (though troubled) authors. Honest writing is great writing, and honest writing doesn't need to beat around the bush or consume excessive space.
7.) Read It Aloud: Reading your work out loud aids clarity and applies across all writing disciplines. I read work documents out loud (grants, cover letters, resumes, emails, RFP's, etc), blogs, essays, poems, and even social media captions. Reading your work out loud doesn't mean that your writing should sound like speech (although maybe that is the style you're aiming for). It simply helps you weed out unnecessary language, clarify murky sentences or phrases, and attune to the inherent rhythm of the written and spoken word.
8.) Wait A Day To Edit: This is by far the best writing tip I've ever received. If you're in the middle of something, leave your last sentence unfinished so you have an easy launching pad the next day. When you think you're done with something, let it rest and revisit it with fresh eyes the next day. This will help you catch grammatical errors, edit the piece more quickly and efficiently, and allow you to improve your work with minimal effort.