So, you want to get your message out into the world, but when you begin tap-tap-tapping away at the keyboard, you discover you won’t be winning a Pulitzer anytime soon. How can you be a better writer? Don’t despair; wordsmiths everywhere can relate to this sense of crushing inadequacy — or, the feeling that what you’ve written will never be good enough for print. Here are 5 simple habits you can adopt to improve your writing and find the confidence to dive head-first into the world of words, even if you feel like you haven’t yet learned to swim.
1. Write every day. No matter what.
And when we say write, we mean put words on page, think about words on page, research words on page, edit words on page, or outline words on page. Writing is more than just pressing lettered buttons on a plastic keyboard. Writing includes thinking about writing or your story. It includes doing research and solving timeline or factual issues. It includes reviewing what you’ve previously written to make it better. And of course, it means tapping away at that keyboard — even if you only get down 150 words in a day. Set a goal. Every day. The harsh truth is, if you don’t use your writing muscles, you lose them. But if you use them every day in some way, it’s easier to slip back into that precious rhythm and your narrative and words will come easier.
2. Edit mercilessly.
Every now and then, you’ll come up with a wonderful turn-of-phrase or show-stopping metaphor…that really serves no purpose to move your narrative forward. So cut it. Editing is a key skill you must employ to convey thoughts in the most concise and efficient way possible. And strong editing makes you a better writer. If a sentence or word doesn’t need to be there, delete without regret. Most writers find editing their own work easier after it’s had a few days to rest. You might consider setting a rhythm where you’ll write one day and edit that work the following day. Other writers like to throw down an entire first draft, let it sit for a few weeks, and then edit. Your self-editing schedule needs to work for you. Try different approaches to see what works, and then stick with the one that does. You’ll find editing is easier and less painful once you’ve had some distance from the work. (Then, once you’ve mercilessly edited your own work, hire an editor to do it for real.)
3. Understand that first drafts are ugly.
First chapters are common off-ramps for would-be writers. Why? Because they hope and expect that they’ll be able to write amazing prose and clearly convey thoughts on the first page. That’s just not how it works. For a first draft, imagine yourself working with a lump of clay like a potter at the wheel. Your focus is to get the words and thoughts down in their raw form. When you rewrite and edit, you begin the process of forming the clay. It’s all too easy to harshly critique your first, raw efforts…and give up. Don’t. Give yourself permission to write ugly on that first draft. (Pro tip: Don’t show first drafts to critics or beta readers. For real.)
4. Read. A lot.
Reading is key to improving your writing. It’s true that if you aren’t reading what’s out there and what’s being published today, you’ll limit your own abilities as a writer. Professional writers spend almost as much time reading as they do writing. And, if you’re concerned others’ ideas and thoughts my leak into your own writing, choose reading that’s in a different genre or subject. Peruse the news. Read for fun. Read your lawnmower manual. Just read.
5. Read your work in different formats.
Reviewing your work in different locations and formats lets your brain absorb the material in a new way. You’ll find things you didn’t before. Reading the text onscreen is a different experience than reading it in the printed version. And once you feel like your manuscript is almost finished, find a quiet place and read the entire thing aloud, making note wherever you stumble or pause over words or phrasing. This is a key step for many authors because it reveals so much — awkward phrasing, ill-fitting words, repetition, and other flaws. In the end, you’ll want to have reviewed your manuscript multiple times.
Work on developing these 5 simple habits, and you’ll see your writing improve in no time.