Sorry. There’s no wand for word-wizardry
The valid but perennial question: “How do I improve my writing?”
Twenty-three years of my life were spent teaching writing to college-aged students, a profession I loved. I admit it. I get a charge out of seeing fluency increase. I get an even bigger charge at seeing the joy that comes when writing becomes an outlet for thought and emotion, an essential act of daily life.
So when people ask me, “How do I improve my writing?” I come to life, jabbering like a parrot on peyote about dozens of strategies to improve what we create.
No matter how many millions of articles are generated on the topic of how to improve writing, we need more. Beginners beg for advice. Converts to the craft are curious. Fledgling authors fantasize about fame. Neophytes need to know.
After a lifetime of writing I hold these truths to be self-evident:
Good writing is NOT magic
No magic wand exists that waves words and dazzles your day with ideas. Fiction fairies don’t flutter around your head weaving fantastic plots for you. Pitches and paragraphs. Sentences and structure. Headlines and hard facts don’t mystically appear.
No great author has been born writing great books from birth. Instead, they learn from life. They train by reading and writing DAILY until something inside grows so big it has to come out. Years of accumulated knowledge and skill produce masterpieces. No magic involved.
Good writing results from training
Contrary to theories claiming that some people are born with word-wizardry in their veins, writing doesn’t come from innate ability as much as it does from training. Constant, continual, daily training for thousands of days on end.
No athlete gets to the top of their field just by good physical attributes. The result of dominance in a field is how long they’ve trained, how dedicated they are to their sport, and how much mental stamina they have.
The same is true for writers. Award-winning, note-worthy writers train daily, love language, and have the persistence to keep going even in the face of rejection.
The Ultimate 9-Step Training Regiment for Writers
1) Read. Read. Read More.
Read in the bathroom, the bedroom. On a plane, on a train. In a car. At the bar. While at home. When in Rome. On a lark. In the park.
You get it.
It’s not new advice, but it’s the best advice EVER for writers. Read EVERYTHING possible, not just in your industry, but in various arenas. Consume great journalism like you would a gourmet meal. Savor it. Smell it. Digest it. (I’m a loyal New York Times Reader, as well as The New Yorker, National Geographic, Smithsonian, and as many fiction and non-fiction books as I can gorge myself on.)
Remember those old science lessons in school about osmosis? Good writing seeps into your being if you surround yourself with it.
Prose permeates. Poetry penetrates.
(Happily, reading doesn’t add pounds like eating does!)
2) Get a writing partner
Do you have a colleague, friend, or acquaintance who is also interested in writing?
My writing partner is a woman working on Young Adult fiction books that involve magic, kid protagonists, and jokes about farting — fields I have absolutely NO expertise in, (The Young Adult novels, I mean. Sadly, while I won’t claim to be an expert, I’ve done my share of farting…) She is a dear friend and an essential part of my writing life. We read and edit each other’s work, offer suggestions, and provide necessary but sometimes painful motivation. She calls it, “the mental kick in the butt.”
At an American Writers and Artists Bootcamp, (AWAI) I met other people interested in earning a living with words. Our common goal and shared camaraderie encouraged us to form accountability groups that talk every other week. We review and comment on each other’s work when asked, share ideas, and ask questions. Mostly, we get updates from each other on our progress and cheer each other on. Knowing you have to tell someone what concrete steps you’re taking to further your career motivates you.
3) Subscribe to industry trade journals.
Poets and Writers, Writers Digest, and The Writer are prominent ones. Online publications — like Medium — offer plenty of advice on how to improve writing.
4) Utilize audiobooks
Since there’s never enough time to read as much as any writer needs, listen to books. Books on copywriting, fiction, and non-fiction writing exist by the hundreds, so you can listen to them as you drive, wait in lines, cook, or clean the house.
Did you know that you might be able to get more than 2 hours a day “extra” reading time by utilizing audiobooks?
5) Investigate podcasts
I’m not a big podcast listener because I tend to choose audiobooks instead, but a vast number of podcasts can help, ranging from how to be a better copywriter to how to write novels. Whether you’ll learn from interviews with authors or from discussions on creativity, a podcast exists that will help you to hone your skills.
6) Nothing takes the place of practice
Write. Practice. Do it daily. Pick a random topic you see in the news and write about it. Choose a dictionary word and see what kind of writing comes out when you let go. Find an author you love and try to replicate the tone of a passage. See how many sentences you can write starting with the word “Red.”
Millions of writing prompts are out there. You just have to pluck one and put your pen to paper or your fingers on the keyboard.
Remember that you don’t have to worry about creating a masterpiece. That comes later. MUCH LATER.
7) Keep notebooks on everything
A writer can NEVER have too many words or too many ideas.
I have book journals where I record plots and responses to everything I read. I have a notebook filled with poems that I think are remarkable and a notebook of ongoing ideas for articles. Another journal has a running list of books I want to read. A series of writing notebooks created over the last three decades hold quotes from authors, fabulous sentences I’ve enjoyed, and notes on techniques I admire. The physical act of writing — blue gel ink on a white page — gives me pleasure and gets my brain going. (Weird, huh?)
When I die, the notebook industry will take a hit!
If you don’t know the app EVERNOTE, get acquainted. It’s like having a giant file cabinet of clippings at your fingertips. An infinite amount of research and a multitude of ideas are organized, accessed, and stored virtually in — of course — NOTEBOOKS.
8) Join online forums and feedback groups
Some people join and engage in online forums and feedback groups. Because I’m from a generation where such public exchanges seem unnatural to me, I tend to veer away from these. (You can call me “Dino,” if you’d like.) Great groups are out there. Find one where people are genuinely interested in spending as much time on your work as you are on theirs. Search for a group whose tone, genre, and overall goals are compatible with yours. Online forums work for thousands of writers, and they may offer a perfect fit for you and your schedule.
9. Have fun
Writing is not a chore. It’s a privilege and a passion. Too often we get overwhelmed with the quest for perfection, the search for an audience, an agent, or an income.
But don’t forget to have fun with your words. (I laughed out loud as I played with this piece. My husband smiled as the sound emanated from my office, strolling in to tell me — with love — “you’re weird!”)
Life is short and laughter is cheap.
Enjoying your work is the best way to improve your writing.
Learn more about writing in "A Writer's Life"