Emrick — I couldn’t agree with you more. Just as being able to write excellent copy comes with practice, so does writing copy that is (successfully) conversational and witty. Sometimes I go back and re-read posts where I attempted to be funny or snarky, and it just feels flat. Other times, it reads just as I intended. I’m still figuring out my witty and conversational voice. But I’m glad you left this comment…thanks for validating me. 🙂
Write primarily for yourself.
Writer Kurt Vonnegut provides a similar insight: “Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about,” he says. “It is this genuine caring, not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.”
“The most important things are the hardest things to say,” writes King. “They are the things you get ashamed of because words diminish your feelings.” Most great pieces of writing are preceded with hours of thought. In King’s mind, “Writing is refined thinking.”
When tackling difficult issues, make sure you dig deeply. King says, “Stories are found things, like fossils in the ground . Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world.” Writers should be like archaeologists, excavating for as much of the story as they can find.
A Guide to Becoming a Better Writer: 15 Practical Tips
If you’ve always dreamed of being the next Hemingway or Vonnegut (or even Grisham), or perhaps if you just want to write better essays for school or posts for your blog … you need to sharpen those writing skills.
Personally, I’ve been a fiction, newspaper, magazine and blog writer for 17 years now, writing for a variety of publications … and I’m still trying to improve. Every writer can get better, and no writer is perfect. I think I’ve grown tremendously as a writer over the last couple of decades, but it has been a painful journey. Let me share some of what I’ve learned.
No matter what level of writer you are, there should be a suggestion or twelve here that will help.
1. Read great writers. This may sound obvious, but it has to be said. This is the place to start. If you don’t read great writing, you won’t know how to do it. Everyone starts by learning from the masters, by emulating them, and then through them, you find your own voice. Read a lot. As much as possible. Pay close attention to style and mechanics in addition to content.
2. Write a lot. Try to write every day, or multiple times a day if possible. The more you write, the better you’ll get. Writing is a skill, and like any other skill, you have to practice it to get better. Write stuff for yourself, write for a blog, write for other publications. Write just to write, and have a blast doing it. It gets easier after awhile if you practice a lot.
3. Write down ideas, all the time. Keep a little notebook handy (Nabokov carried around index cards) and write down ideas for stories or articles or novels or characters. Write down snippets of conversation that you hear. Write down plot twists and visual details and fragments of song lyrics or poems that move you. Having these ideas written down helps, because they can inspire you or actually go directly into your writing. I like to keep a list of post ideas for my blog, and I continually add to it.
4. Create a writing ritual. Find a certain time of day when you can write without interruptions, and make it a routine. For me, mornings work best, but others might find lunch or evenings or midnight hours the best. Whatever works for you, make it a must-do thing every single day. Write for at least 30 minutes, but an hour is even better. If you’re a full-time writer, you’ll need to write for several hours a day, as I do. But don’t worry! It helps you get better.
5. Just write. If you’ve got blank paper or a blank screen staring at you, it can be intimidating. You might be tempted to go check your email or get a snack. Well, don’t even think about it, mister. Just start writing. Start typing away — it doesn’t matter what you write — and get the fingers moving. Once you get going, you get in the flow of things, and it gets easier. I like to start out by typing things like my name or a headline or something easy like that, and then the juices start flowing and stuff just pours out of me. But the key is to just get going.
6. Eliminate distractions. Writing does not work well with multi-tasking or background noise. It’s best done in quiet, or with some mellow music playing. Do your writing with a minimal writer like WriteRoom or DarkRoom or Writer, and do it in full-screen. Turn off email or IM notifications, turn off the phone and your cell phone, turn off the TV, and clear off your desk … you can stuff everything in a drawer for now until you have time to sort everything out later … but don’t get into sorting mode now, because it’s writing time! Clear away distractions so you can work without interruption.
7. Plan, then write. This may sound contradictory to the above “just write” tip, but it’s not really. I find it useful to do my planning or pre-writing thinking before I sit down to write. I’ll think about it during my daily run, or walk around for a bit to brainstorm, then write things down and do an outline if necessary. Then, when I’m ready, I can sit down and just crank out the text. The thinking’s already been done. For a great method for planning out a novel, see the Snowflake Method.
8. Experiment. Just because you want to emulate the great writers doesn’t mean you have to be exactly like them. Try out new things. Steal bits from other people. Experiment with your style, your voice, your mechanics, your themes. Try out new words. Invent new words. Experimentalize everything. And see what works, and toss out what doesn’t.
9. Revise. If you really crank out the text, and experiment, and just let things flow, you’ll need to go back over it. Yes, that means you. Many writers hate revising, because it seems like so much work when they’ve already done the writing. But if you want to be a good writer, you need to learn to revise. Because revision is where good writing really is. It separates the mediocre from the great. Go back over everything, looking not only for grammar and spelling mistakes, but for unnecessary words and awkward structures and confusing sentences. Aim for clarity, for strength, for freshness.
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1. Remarkable writers have the ability to size up content
Other professions do the same thing in their fields — programmers with software code or military strategists with an enemy’s battle plan. What makes this unique to writers is that it lies in the mechanics of the language.
2. Remarkable writers are able to connect the dots
Although you might find her with her nose in the spine of a book (in a room strewn with scattered volumes), she’s actually 30,000 feet above, scanning her mental landscape, spotting potential material and logging these ideas away.
3. Remarkable writers can express ideas clearly
During a conversation I can have several responses to one question — but those responses are muddied with emotions and half-baked positions. What I long to do is sit down and sift through those thoughts on paper — after the conversation.
“Writing is in some way being able to sit down the next day and go through everything you wanted to say, finding the right words, giving shape to the images, and linking them to feelings and thoughts. It isn’t exactly like a social conversation because you aren’t giving information in the usual sense of the word or flirting or persuading anyone of anything or proving a point; it’s more that you are revealing something whole in the form of a character, a city, a moment, an image seen in a flash out of a character’s eyes.”
4. Remarkable writers can write in their heads
5. Remarkable writers read with a deep purpose
- Libertarian — He is free to read whatever he wants. Whenever he wants. However he wants. Scan his reading history and you’ll see Mashable blog posts, Stieg Larsson novels, National Geographic magazines and bottles of shampoo. Think promiscuity.
- Social conservatives — He is a little more purposeful in what he reads. He might grab The Hustle or be a member of Oprah’s reading club. Either way, he narrows his reading scope by taking cues from social authorities.
- Extremists — This is the PhD preparing for her doctorate in medieval chemistry. The defense attorney hunkered in the library to bone up on local moonshine statutes. The writer working on a memoir of Hungarian-Jewish physician Joseph Goldberger. The writer is absorbed (and obsessed) with one topic — and one topic alone.
Remarkable writers absorb their books. For long stretches of time. Clueless to the rest of the world. Of course, writers can’t exactly claim a monopoly on this trait. The next trait, however, they most definitely can.
6. Remarkable writers swing the snow shovel
It begins with a foot of snow (you dump a rough draft on to the blank page). You start to shovel (edit) down the sidewalk (page). You reach the end of the sidewalk (page), wipe your brow with your cap and look behind you.
“At the beginning of a novel, a writer needs confidence, but after that what’s required is persistence. These traits sound similar. They aren’t. Confidence is what politicians, seducers, and currency speculators have, but persistence is a quality found in termites. It’s the blind drive to keep on working that persists after confidence breaks down.”
That ability to re-work a piece of copy ad nauseam is utterly unique to a writer. No other profession can claim that ability. And that, my friend, is both how to be a good writer and what separates a remarkable writer from everyone else.