Sometimes the children approach me and ask how they should go about becoming better writers. I respond to this question by stumbling over my words, high-fiving the kid for effort, and explaining that I think highly of the work that he or she has already produced. That’s a nice answer, but it’s also a bad one, because it offers no constructive help to the aspiring artist. The problem is that it takes me awhile to process the answer to any question. I’m terrible with forming an immediate opinion about anything. And so, for the sake of the children, I’ve put together a short list of things I’ve done that have helped me sharpen my writing skills, rules I follow that go beyond the basic “Use good grammar” and “Rewrite until you’re done, then rewrite again.” I will be directing the children to this page henceforth. In the meantime, enjoy.
1. Understand that not all of your work should be shared. I would venture that about 80% of what I write is never seen by anyone else. This isn’t because it contains ghastly secrets (although a tiny part of me wishes that were true), but rather because most of it is pretty boring. I do a lot of writing exercise with blog and article drafts, but I also spend time making lists of words and phrases I like and messing around with rhetoric. This isn’t as fancy as it sounds; it’s as simple as taking note of words that I think have a particularly precise meaning or trying to rephrase or paraphrase common expressions. These kinds of exercises make my sense of language more flexible, which is infinitely helpful when trying to draft.
2. Read good writing. By good, I don’t just mean classic or well-known, although those authors certainly deserve a place on your reading list. But in addition to famous titles, you should also choose writers you like, because you will probably imitate the style of the authors you’ve spent the most time reading. If you’re having trouble sounding contemporary, put Shakespeare down and pick up something modern. If you sound too simplistic, find a highbrow author who does good work with complex ideas. Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future; show me your current reading stack and I’ll show you your current writing style.
3. Write habitually. Let me break your heart a little: The Muses aren’t real. There isn’t a Writing Fairy. Inspiration doesn’t strike like lightning. You have to make it happen. Integrate time to write into your daily routine. There will be days when it feels like flying, and other days (most days) when it feels like you’re dragging a dead weight through the mud. Accept both realities as part of the life of a writer. You will hit blocks, but make yourself work through them. It’ll come back to you if you wait for it.
4. Keep one hand on the thesaurus. More realistically, open a tab in your browser and dedicate it just to synonyms. I probably reference a thesaurus at least five times a day. I’m sure there are days I look up twenty entries. You can’t overestimate the power of a precisely chosen word. Be tenacious enough to get out there and find the right one.
5. Keep a commonplace book. I said earlier that inspiration doesn’t strike like lightning. That’s not entirely true. Sometimes an idea will hit you in the most inconvenient places. Sometimes you’ll find a perfect quote and try to memorize it before you have to concentrate on whatever you’re supposed to be doing. Take it from someone who has been there: YOU NEED TO WRITE THESE DOWN. Get a book, get an app on your phone, get a paper napkin, and record these ideas. I also said earlier that there isn’t a writing fairy, and that’s true. But there is an Thief of Ideas, and he is out to snatch away all of your creative impulses. Don’t let him get you.
Bonus: Write as craft, not as catharsis. All good writers have good editors. I am immensely fortunate to have professional editors and excellent friends who proofread. All of them are fantastic, and they all strike through lines that I love. If you always emotionally invest in your writing, you will go through this life with hurt feelings. Be passionate about and proud of your work, but realize that a good editors work through writing like they’re fumbling with people’s souls. That’s their job. Don’t get mad, get better.