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If you’ve always dreamed of being the next Hemingway or Vonnegut (or even Grisham), or perhaps if you just want to write better essays for school or posts for your blog … you need to sharpen those writing skills.
Becoming the best writer you can be isn’t easy, I won’t lie to you.
It takes hard work. But it’s worth the effort. And if it seems like an insurmountable task, there are some concrete things you can do today that will get you on the road to improvement.
Personally, I’ve been a fiction, newspaper, magazine and blog writer for 17 years now, writing for a variety of publications … and I’m still trying to improve. Every writer can get better, and no writer is perfect. I think I’ve grown tremendously as a writer over the last couple of decades, but it has been a painful journey. Let me share some of what I’ve learned.
No matter what level of writer you are, there should be a suggestion or twelve here that will help.
- Read great writers. This may sound obvious, but it has to be said. This is the place to start. If you don’t read great writing, you won’t know how to do it. Everyone starts by learning from the masters, by emulating them, and then through them, you find your own voice. Read a lot. As much as possible. Pay close attention to style and mechanics in addition to content.
- Write a lot. Try to write every day, or multiple times a day if possible. The more you write, the better you’ll get. Writing is a skill, and like any other skill, you have to practice it to get better. Write stuff for yourself, write for a blog, write for other publications. Write just to write, and have a blast doing it. It gets easier after awhile if you practice a lot.
- Write down ideas, all the time. Keep a little notebook handy (Nabokov carried around index cards) and write down ideas for stories or articles or novels or characters. Write down snippets of conversation that you hear. Write down plot twists and visual details and fragments of song lyrics or poems that move you. Having these ideas written down helps, because they can inspire you or actually go directly into your writing. I like to keep a list of post ideas for my blog, and I continually add to it.
- Create a writing ritual. Find a certain time of day when you can write without interruptions, and make it a routine. For me, mornings work best, but others might find lunch or evenings or midnight hours the best. Whatever works for you, make it a must-do thing every single day. Write for at least 30 minutes, but an hour is even better. If you’re a full-time writer, you’ll need to write for several hours a day, as I do. But don’t worry! It helps you get better.
- Just write. If you’ve got blank paper or a blank screen staring at you, it can be intimidating. You might be tempted to go check your email or get a snack. Well, don’t even think about it, mister. Just start writing. Start typing away — it doesn’t matter what you write — and get the fingers moving. Once you get going, you get in the flow of things, and it gets easier. I like to start out by typing things like my name or a headline or something easy like that, and then the juices start flowing and stuff just pours out of me. But the key is to just get going.
- Eliminate distractions. Writing does not work well with multi-tasking or background noise. It’s best done in quiet, or with some mellow music playing. Turn off email or IM notifications, turn off the phone and your cell phone, turn off the TV, and clear off your desk … you can stuff everything in a drawer for now until you have time to sort everything out later … but don’t get into sorting mode now, because it’s writing time! Clear away distractions so you can work without interruption.
- Plan, then write. This may sound contradictory to the above “just write” tip, but it’s not really. I find it useful to do my planning or pre-writing thinking before I sit down to write. I’ll think about it during my daily run, or walk around for a bit to brainstorm, then write things down and do an outline if necessary. Then, when I’m ready, I can sit down and just crank out the text. The thinking’s already been done.
- Experiment. Just because you want to emulate the great writers doesn’t mean you have to be exactly like them. Try out new things. Steal bits from other people. Experiment with your style, your voice, your mechanics, your themes. Try out new words. Invent new words. Experimentalize everything. And see what works, and toss out what doesn’t.
- Revise. If you really crank out the text, and experiment, and just let things flow, you’ll need to go back over it. Yes, that means you. Many writers hate revising, because it seems like so much work when they’ve already done the writing. But if you want to be a good writer, you need to learn to revise. Because revision is where good writing really is. It separates the mediocre from the great. Go back over everything, looking not only for grammar and spelling mistakes, but for unnecessary words and awkward structures and confusing sentences. Aim for clarity, for strength, for freshness.
- Be concise. This is best done during the revision process, but you need to edit every sentence and paragraph and remove everything but the essential. A short sentence is preferred over a longer one, and a clear word is preferred over two in jargonese. Compact is powerful.
- Use powerful sentences. Aim for shorter sentences with strong verbs. Of course, not every sentence should be the same — you need variation — but try to create sentences with oomph. You might find this easier to do in the revision stage, as it might not be something you’re thinking about when you’re pumping out that first draft.
- Get feedback. You can’t get better in a vacuum. Get someone to read over your stuff — preferably a good writer or editor. Someone who reads a lot, and can give you honest and intelligent feedback. And then listen. Really try to understand the criticism and accept it and use it to improve. Instead of being hurt, thank your editor for helping you get better.
- Put yourself out there. At some point, you’ll need to let others read your writing. Not just the person who you’re allowing to read it, but the general public. You’ll need to publish your book or short story or poem, or write for a publication. If you’re already doing a blog, that’s good, but if no one reads it, then you need to find a bigger blog and try to submit a guest post. Putting your writing out in the public can be nerve-wracking, but it is a crucial (if painful) part of every writer’s growth. Just do it.
- Learn to be conversational. Many people write too stiffly. I find that it’s so much better to write like you talk (without all the umms and uhhs). People relate to it better. It’s not an easy task at first, but it’s something to strive for. And that brings up another point — it’s better to break the rules of grammar in order to sound conversational (as I did in the last sentence) than to sound stilted just so you can follow the proper rules. But don’t break the rules of grammar without good reason — know that you’re doing it, and why.
- Start and end strong. The most important parts of your writing are the beginning and end. Especially the beginning. If you don’t hook your reader in the beginning, they won’t read the rest of your writing. So when you’ve written your first draft, spend some extra time crafting a good beginning. Get them interested and wanting to know more. And when you’re done with that, write a good ending … that will leave them wanting more of your writing.