How to be a Better Writer

A notebook in a bookstore coffeehouse, with coffe.

About four years ago, one of my colleagues at work found out I was a writer and asked, “So, tell me Anthony, how can I be a better writer?”

I don’t claim any special wisdom in this department, but I do claim two things: first, that I have opinions about the matter, and second, that I wrote a long email to my friend about it, an email which I thought I’d posted on my blog. Unfortunately, after an extensive search, I wasn’t able to find the post.

Now, I could attempt to clean this email up prior to posting it here, but I’m afraid that if I do that, I’ll just end up going several years without posting it.

SO! Here’s that email, largely unedited, on “How to be a better writer!”

Sorry it took so long to respond to your question about how to be a better writer – I thought I wrote an article on this on my blog, or perhaps in an email to a friend, but if so, I couldn’t find it. Then I tried to write a long response, but that turned into something book length. So let me give you the short version.

  • First, just write! That’s the best thing anyone can do to become a better writer. Ten thousand hours of practice can build mastery in almost any skill, so the first thing you can do to help yourself is to write regularly – preferably, about whatever comes to mind, so you’re not trying to practice when you’re on the spot.
  • Try morning pages. The best tool I know to help people get into the habit of writing is to write morning pages – writing, each day, ideally when you get up, three pages in a notebook. Write bla bla bla if you have to – you’ll get bored of it quickly, and will write what comes to mind.
  • Take a creativity course. The book The Artist’s Way is one of the most famous of these, and it’s what inspires me to suggest morning pages. Actually, I’ve never finished this course – I always get so energized just trying it that I get sucked off into my own projects. Try one that works for you.
  • Read more than you write. You can’t consciously choose the words that come out as you write them; they come from your subconscious. So it’s important to feed your subconscious with a lot of interesting material to help you generate a lot of interesting material of your own.
  • Read great writing of the type you want to create. What you enjoy reading most might not be the writing you want to emulate most, so hunt down the great writers of the type of writing you’re aiming for, read them, and try to figure out what you like about them – and what makes them tick.
  • Read great books on writing. The first two I always recommend to people are Ayn Rand’s (yes, that Ayn Rand) The Art of Fiction and The Art of Nonfiction. More than any book I’ve ever read, the Art of Fiction boils down what makes good fiction writing. John Gardner’s On Being a Novelist is another great, but there are so many of these it’s hard to pick one.
  • Read great books on style. The two I recommend to people the most are The Elements of Style by Strunk and White and Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon. Strunk and White is the classic, and Building Great Sentences is its antidote. If you have to pick one, pick Building Great Sentences – hands down.
  • Do writing exercises. There are many, many of these – The Artist’s Way has some, at Barnes and Noble you can find dozens of books like 500 Writing Prompts or Creativity Bootcamp that have others; the important thing is to try different writing styles on.
  • Try timed challenges. Write to the End (writetotheend.com) tries 20 minute writing challenges; Shut Up and Write ( meetup.com/shutupandwritesfo ) tries (I think) an hour; National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo.org) tries 50,000 words in a month. These cure you of the notion you need to wait for your muse.
  • Join a writing group. Not a critique group – those are dangerous until you get more confidence in and acceptance of your own writing (and a thicker skin). I already mentioned Write to the End and Shut Up and Write, but there are many more (even some at Google, such as the Creative Writing Lunch).
  • Take on writing projects. Write novels, write stories, write essays, write memoirs, write documentation, write songs, write plays, write poetry, write haiku, write impenetrable postmodern explorations of what it means for something to be writing – but take on a writing project that has a beginning, middle, and end …
  • Finish what you write! This is so important I wanted to write this earlier, but the problem is, it depends on what you’re writing for. If you just want to improve your skill, reading Strunk and White might do it – but if you want your writing to go further, you need to finish what you write.
  • Don’t edit while you write! Some people do this very well, but most people have two modes: producing text, and refining text. Unless you’re very confident in your ability to not rework the first paragraph of something forever, make sure you first finish, then edit. But before you do that …
  • Let your manuscripts cool off. It’s hard to have perspective right after you’ve finished something. At least sleep on it, if you have time; ideally, come back to a story after a week or two and see if what you wrote before still makes sense to you and does what you wanted it to. In the meantime …
  • Work on something else. Start something new. Creating a new work has an almost magical way of solving problems you have in the work you have cooling on the back burner. Your skills improve, you’re not invested in your old ideas, and you come back with a fresh start.
  • Revise your work! Give your manuscript at least a once over. I guarantee, it’s not perfect. The books Self Editing for Fiction Writers or The Elements of Editing can help you with this task. It’s worth working on something a bit until you can’t see anything obviously wrong to it.
  • Share your work with a friendly audience. You’re not ready for a critique group yet; they’re often way too harsh. What you want are three friendly reviewers: a coach to help with your skills, a critic to help find flaws, and a cheerleader to praise goodness – and if the cheerleader complains, listen very closely to them.
  • Revise your work again before sending it out. Listen to your friendly critics. Revise your work. Make it the best it can be. Then you’re ready to send it out – to a critique group if you have to and if you have one, but ideally, to where you want the work received or published.
  • Keep your work circulating until sold. This may not apply to bloggers, writers of memoirs, and internal communications, but if you’ve got something you want to send to an external audience, send it to as many places as you can. Some great books went to dozens of publishers before getting accepted.
  • Don’t argue with your critics. Whether it’s a friend, a critique group, or an editor, they’re not critiquing you to hurt your feelings. Listen carefully, and perhaps if there’s some small misconception, feel free to clear it up, but ask yourself – why wasn’t your story so clear that they got it the first time?
  • Solve the problems your critics raise, but don’t feel compelled to use their solutions. Humans are great at confabulating fake reasons for the feelings they have. Don’t feel the need to use every suggestion your critics raise – but if two or more have problems at the same spot, listen closely.
  • Learn from your genre. Whether it’s writing a thesis, writing documentation, or writing science fiction stories, there are documents out there on the pitfalls of the genre and the techniques from success, from How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation to the Evil Overlord List.
  • Learn from the style guide. If you’re aimed at a particular market, whether it’s a science fiction magazine accepting William Shunn’s document format, or a book publisher who wants the Chicago Manual of Style, or it’s the American Psychological Association, read the style book. With a grain of salt, of course.
  • Learn from publication. Once something is published, take a look at the published work. I can guarantee you, you’ll find something about it you’d do differently now, whether it’s a typo or a new way to phrase things. Think carefully about this difference and what it can teach you.
  • Find a great critique group. By this point, you’ve been exposed to enough information to have your own opinions and to make up your own mind – and that’s the right time to engage a whole bunch of other opinionated, thoughtful people to get their ideas of how to improve your work.
  • Find a great workshop. These are harder to get into, but put you in touch with great writers of your particular genre or style and can really take you to the next level, if that’s what you want.
  • Find a great program – or embark on a great project. If you really want to be a writer, some people suggest a MFA program or other longer-term, intensive course. I simply prefer to take on little projects like 21 book urban fantasy series; these force you to learn some of the same things. 😀
Well, that’s about it for the short version. As I said … the long version’s probably a book. 🙂 I hope this helps! Please feel free to ask me more questions!
And there you have it. I hope that’s not a repeat!
-the Centaur

Overcoming Writer’s Block in Two Pages

SO! I’ve written about overcoming writer’s block before, though that draft post never seems to have been finished, and, regardless, I couldn’t find it when I was generating handouts for my latest writer’s block class at Clockwork Alchemy. So I generated some ENTIRELY NEW HANDOUTS on Overcoming Writer’s Block, which I want to share with you today! The first advice, is, of course, just write!

Write! The first, best and last advice: Write. Just write! Write anything at all. Don’t wait for inspiration or the muse—just write! Don’t stop. Don’t think. Force yourself to write something. Put words on the page even if they are not the words you want. The cognitive skill of writing is so complicated that you need to get good enough at it that the act of writing doesn’t get in the way of the act of creating. Write “bla bla bla” if you have to. Trust me, you’ll get bored with that soon. Because the physical act of writing itself is has an almost magical effect of inspiring a new stream of words that you can put on the page. If you can’t think of anything, just write “I am blocked” and describe your feelings about it. That’s worth something. If you don’t know the answers, write the questions. Regardless of what you write, the answer to feeling blocked is to write. Just write!

Beyond the pep talk, I added some references to books on writer’s block – but also extracted some of the findings into a new acronym representing the way that writers who are blocked consciously can torpedo themselves: ERASED, because that’s what it feels like writer’s block is doing to your words!

  • Early Editing: Editing while writing can paralyze you.
    Write your draft first, edit it later!
  • Rigid Rules: “Rules” about composition are guidelines.
    Break the rules in your draft!
  • Awful Assumptions: We often assume writing must be perfect.
    Feel free to write your way!
  • Strategic Shortcomings: Complex projects can overwhelm us.
    Stretch your planning muscles!
  • Excessive Evaluation: Don’t grade our own writing too harshly.
    Finish your draft, then improve it!
  • Discordant Directives: Rules sometimes contradict each other.
    Be willing to make tradeoffs!

There are four interventions recommended for dealing with this kind of block; don’t try just one, try them all together:

  • Start Free Writing: Take on free writing like morning pages.
  • Develop a Writing Habit: Pick a regular day and time to write.
  • Stop Beating Yourself Up! Stop negative self-talk about writing!
  • Get Social Support: Find a writing group or writing buddy.

But all of those are symptoms of what’s essentially a block to the cognitive skill of writing. Sometimes writers face emotional trauma, and that’s OK: take the time you need to deal with your issues. And sometimes, actual chemical and neurological things interfere, so if you suspect deeper issues, please, feel free to recruit help to deal with whatever’s  the problem.

All of this and more are in the HANDOUTS on Overcoming Writer’s Block. Enjoy!

-the Centaur