Writers Talk About Writing
Five Stupidly Simple Ways to Improve Your Writing
When I was a senior editor at a daily newspaper, I occasionally used to edit a journalist who had terrific story ideas. Much of his work ended up on the front page of the newspaper. He won awards, too. Lots of them. But he was a terrible writer.
He expressed his ideas in the most boring, repetitive ways. He didn't understand how to manage his own voice and, as a result, he often sounded clunky and inept. Worse, he was so defensive that he would never listen to any editor. He clung to his own notions as if he were a two-year-old protecting a cherished toy. Even the most diligent editors will eventually give up, as we did with him.
He thought he won. If only he understood how much he'd lost.
I always found it was sad because he had the potential to be a first-rate writer, rather than just a mediocre one.
Don't let the same thing happen to you! Here are five stupidly simple ways you can improve your own writing.
Spend more time on it. Writing doesn't happen by accident. It's like running. Or playing piano. Or cooking. You have to do a lot of it — mindfully — to get really good at it. That said, you also have to ensure you don't fear the time commitment itself. Know that it's possible to start with five minutes a day. I'm a big believer in the Kaizen technique. When you become serious, you'll need at least 30 minutes a day. But start with five.
Read more good writing. Writers I coach are often surprised when I ask them what they're reading. This isn't just friendly chitchat. I want to ensure that they're reading excellent writing — the type they'd be proud to produce themselves. This is important because we all unconsciously emulate the style of the writers we read. Read dreck and you will write dreck. Read top-notch work and your own writing will improve.
Spend more time thinking before you write. It's idiotic for us to sit in front of our screens and stare at them until beads of blood form on our foreheads. This is no way to write! Go for a walk. Step away from the desk. Willpower alone is not enough to make words appear on the page. We first need to figure out what we want to say.
Schedule "incubation" time. Before you can fulfill the important job of being your own best editor, you need some protected time away from your work. Have you scheduled this? Think about the way a typical student approaches writing (procrastinating, dilly-dallying and writing the whole damn thing the night before it's due) and you'll understand how difficult it is to guarantee incubation — time when your writing sits quietly, undisturbed, in your desk or on your hard drive.
- Read your writing aloud. Reading your own writing — aloud — is an essential part of the writing process. Back when I worked in newspapers, I was the crazy woman sitting at her desk talking to herself. (Well, whispering. There were about 100 of us in one gigantic open-area office and everyone else could see and hear what I was doing.) Reading aloud is so important because it allows you to hear and improve the rhythm of your writing. More than that, it's the only way to ensure that you're reading slowly enough to perform a meaningful edit. When we've written something, we know what we intended to say. It takes a slow, careful reading to ensure our execution matches our intent.
Writing can be hard work. But we make it harder on ourselves by not addressing the small, stupidly simple things that can turn it into something much easier.