Writing is an act of faith.
It’s a blind belief that you can transform a blank piece of nothing into something worth reading. To write is to have an unwavering assumption that you can manifest coherent prose out of vague ideas.
Every time you write is a venture into the unknown. You know where you’re going, but you’re not sure how you’ll get there. The only guide you have is a will to keep on writing.
This act of faith, though, doesn’t come without trepidation. To feel nervous at times isn’t unusual. In fact, it’s normal for all writers. You’ll often wonder if you can finish the job you set forth to do. Writing is a practice of capturing concepts out of thin air, after all. Who wouldn’t feel a little intimidated by that?
But by staying the course, you can reap the rewards. Stick with it, and soon enough, you’ll reach your destination.
Writing calls you to embrace the uncertainty that comes with the how of each new project. This is never easy. But if you can do it, you’re on your way to becoming a better writer.
Why You Should Write
Writing can change your life. It’s a big statement to make, I know. But it’s one that I’m willing to stand behind. Dedication to the craft can yield benefits that translate to other elements of your life. Among them are the following:
You Clarify Your Thinking
Writing is an act of concentration. Sitting down to compose anything (blog posts, essays, etc.) is an act of organizing and making sense of your thoughts. Writing teaches you how to be more analytical and critical of what runs through your mind.
You Learn Self-Discipline
To become a better writer, you must be consistent. Writing offers a way to cultivate a sense of mental order within yourself. By practicing it on a regular basis, you can achieve writing competence.
You Teach Yourself How to Be Accountable
We all have our own soapbox to speak from these days. As a result, we carry a certain responsibility when broadcasting our ideas. Writing can teach you how to be accountable for what you say and how it influences those who read you.
You Become More Articulate
Since writing clarifies your thinking, it’s natural that your speech improves, too. As non-fiction writer John McPhee once said, “Writing is selection.” Writing teaches you how to contribute only consequential ideas to a conversation.
You Improve Your Creativity
Writing is an act that exercises your ability to think outside the box. No other species on this planet has the ability to turn imagination into reality. It’s a shame if you let that gift go to waste.
You Give Yourself an Outlet for Relief
Writing can be therapeutic. When exercised in a thoughtful manner, it can help you cope with life’s stresses. There’s plenty of research that suggests writing can improve your well-being.
You Sharpen Your Curiosity
As we get older, most of us lose a sense of seeing the world with wonder. But you can keep that awe active and intact when you write. Many of the articles I write on this site are topics I’m curious about. I use this blog as a way to learn.
So, How Can You Become a Better Writer?
First and foremost, focus on one thing and one thing only.
You don’t become a better writer by talking about it. You become a better writer by doing it.
So, buy a notebook and begin journaling. Or, fire up the word processor on your computer and start typing. Action is better than inaction.
Once you’ve done that, then you can get into the nuances of becoming a better writer. Below are some specific tips you can follow to fine-tune your craft.
Set aside time to read the work of other writers. When you do, you’ll find role models to follow on your path to improving your writing. Copy their styles with zero shame. Through imitation, you’ll later find your own voice.
“The developing writer reacts to excellence as it is discovered – wherever and whenever – and of course does some imitating (unavoidably) in the process of drawing from the admired fabric things to make one’s own. Rapidly, the components of imitation fade. What remains is a new element in your own voice, which is not in any way an imitation. Your manner as a writer takes form in this way, a fragment at a time.”
- In Draft No. 4, McPhee talks about imitation in a letter to his daughter Jenny.
I love to read now, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, it wasn’t until two years ago that I began spending more time buried headfirst into books. But I’m glad I turned reading into a habit, because it’s one of the best investments I’ve made as a writer. Each new book is a chance to expose myself to different styles of storytelling. Exposure to other writers shapes my writing through subconscious influence.
Take Notes, Then Organize Them
Before writing anything, it helps to have a rough sketch of what you plan to cover. You can do this by collecting notes on the topic you want to discuss. Use notebooks, index cards, or your cell phone to save critical ideas. Having good notes is a foundation you can build your work upon.
“There is no way to start a writing project, let me tell you,” McPhee wrote in Draft No. 4. “You begin with a subject, gather material, and work your way to structure from there. You pile up volumes of notes and then figure out what you are going to do with them, not the other way around.”
You’ll likely take more notes than you need, so it’s important to organize them. I like to create an outline before beginning any first draft. This helps me to see the structure of my work in its entirety. With an outline, I can tackle each section of a piece, one step at a time.
Create a Ritual
It may seem counter-intuitive, but creativity thrives with rigidity. Having structure in place actually helps you capture inspiration when it strikes. To do this, turn writing into a habit by building a ritual around it.
“It’s the act of showing up each day,” author Steven Pressfield said to filmmaker Brian Koppelman on an episode of The Moment. “It’s like having a practice.
“When you have a yoga practice or a martial arts practice, you do it every day,” he added. “You enter the dojo, you take your shoes off, you bow to the sacred space, and you just do the best that you can that day. And there’s magic in that. There’s real magic in that.”
Mastery is often achieved by repeating the mundane, over and over again. A consistent routine creates the conditions for inspiration to take place.
“By doing the work, suddenly the thing inside you can crack open just a little bit and come out onto the page,” Koppelman said to Pressfield.
I write in the morning. To do so requires that I sleep and wake up early, meditate for an hour, then journal every day before I begin. That’s my routine, but it doesn’t have to be yours.
Whether I write a masterpiece or not (the latter is usually what happens) isn’t the point. All that matters is that I put in my time and give my best effort.
Embrace Your Shitty Starts
I’m sure there are some writers who are capable of writing perfect prose with very little labor. But those kinds of writers are few and far between. For the rest of us mere mortals, writing is always a slog.
With that in mind, don’t aim for perfection when beginning a new piece. Focus more on translating your ideas into words. Break every so-called rule there is about writing. Embrace and write, as Anne Lamott described in Bird by Bird, shitty first drafts.
“We all often feel like we are pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid,” Lamott wrote. “The right words and sentences just do not come pouring out like ticker tape most of the time.”
At the very least, you’ll have the essence of your idea onto a page. You first draft won’t be refined, but you can work with this. Once you’ve written an SFD, getting to a second or third draft isn’t as hard. Your SFD is like a springboard into the later drafts of your work.
Embracing your SFDs is also a lesson in self-compassion. Writing is hard and the road to a final draft is often filled with self-loathing and frustration. By accepting your SFDs, you’ll appreciate the challenge that comes with the craft.
Revise, Revise, Revise!
Remember this: rewriting is writing. This is why can you write shitty first drafts – you can always fix them later. Revision is the point in the writing process when your work starts to take form.
Edit with the goal of trimming your piece to its most essential elements. Simplicity is the secret to good writing, according to the late William Zinsser. Here a few recommendations for simplifying your work from his book On Writing Well:
- Get rid of words that serve no function.
- Use shorter versions of words instead of long ones.
- Get rid of adverbs that have the same meaning as the verbs you use.
- Delete passive constructions that leave readers unsure of who’s doing the action.
It’s natural to be protective of your work. After all, writing is an expression of you and your personality. By sharing what you write, you leave yourself vulnerable to criticism. Even worse, you might face rejection.
Feedback isn’t always easy to handle, but a fresh set of eyes on work you’ve labored hours over can be useful. Start by sending your writing to people you trust. Even better, if you can, send it to those who have an eye for making quality edits.
These people know that their role isn’t to make drastic alterations to your writing. Instead, they work to enhance, but preserve your voice. These people are also critical while equally understanding. They’ll identify your blindspots and make you aware of them.
I’m lucky to have my friend Aaron Fischman look at much of the work I publish here. He’s a terrific writer and editor in his own right, and much stronger than I am when it comes to conventions of form. He complements my weaknesses while also keeping me encouraged, which is all a writer can ask for.
Is it a trite suggestion? Sure. But it’s one of the simplest ways to become a better writer.
Doing all these things will help you build the credibility you need to write with confidence. Until you do, you won’t have much to say. But after you’ve spent a little time living, experience will add a rich sense of reality to your work.
It may take a few years of gathering enough experience before you finally have something to say. But, you’ll get there. It’s only a matter of time before the floodgates open and you’re ready to share all that you’ve learned.
“Always the seer is a sayer,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once said. “Somehow his dream is told; somehow he publishes it with solemn joy.”
Write With No Expectations
You can’t deny that writing is also an exercise driven by ego. All writers are audacious to believe that someone, somewhere, will find their work worth reading. It’s useful motivation for getting started. But taken too far, your ego could drive you to seek validation in all the wrong places.
I don’t worry about becoming a bestselling author. I don’t lie sleepless at night, hoping for this site to reach a million visitors. If those things happen, great. But I know that the feelings that go with these accomplishments are fleeting. These outcomes are by-products of what’s an endless pursuit at the end of the day.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t set goals altogether. There’s nothing wrong with having targets to aim for. But once you figure out what those objectives are, set them aside and focus on the work. Don’t obsess and attach your well-being to the outcome.
Instead, fall in love with the process. Fall in love with the daily ritual, routine, and ceremony around filling up every blank page. It’s not easy, but like a good workout, you stand to gain so much from the challenge.
To become a better writer, keep this last piece of advice in mind: write for the sake of the writing. When you do, the rest will take care of itself.