How to Become a Better Writer
Great writing is magic, but there is no magic to being a better writer. It is an exercise in time and suffering. The more time you spend writing, the more your writing skills will improve. No writing tips can eliminate the pain.
To begin, begin. “I don’t think you have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won’t be good at it,” writes novelist, activist and teacher Anne Lamott in her excellent guide “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.” The book is named after the writing advice Lamott’s novelist father gave to her brother when he waited until the last minute to complete a big school report on birds: “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
Showing up is the hard part. Even great writers have to push themselves to grapple with the blank screen every day. But once you sit down and start, progress can be made. It gets easier every time you write; you just have to write frequently to make progress.
Believe me, I understand this is easier said than done. I sometimes will organize my office and do less pressing administrative tasks to avoid an urgent deadline assignment. I’m not alone in this. Most people struggle with finding the time to write, or worse, underestimate how much time it will take to complete an assignment well.
That said, I do get it done. I’ve been writing professionally for more than two decades. I can say from experience that writing and communication skills are learned best by doing. I can also say there are ways to make starting simpler: For instance, breaking a project into digestible chunks is an excellent way to approach any writing assignment, whether it’s a blog post, a white paper or a bestseller.
Timebox Your Writing Assignments
I like to write first thing in the morning after a run. Many writers I know work best late at night. It doesn’t matter if you are an early bird or night owl as long as you set aside distraction-free writing time, ideally during your personal golden hours.
How long you can timebox writing tasks in one go depends on the writer. Remember that it takes some time to warm up. Setting aside 90 minutes on your calendar doesn’t mean you’ll be cranking the entire time.
You should, however, be able to make progress. Seek to set aside enough time to allow for this progress, while also recognizing the realities of your schedule. (Say, if it’s a day when you have multiple meetings and you’re taking your child to the doctor, an eight-hour writing block may be unrealistic.)
If you’re on deadline, that’s another story that we will address shortly. But blocking out time consistently to write will enhance your writing ability. You don’t have to write every day, but it sure helps.
Finding enough time to write is the biggest excuse writers give editors when they miss deadlines. And sure, content marketing workloads can be challenging. Most of us are using our limited resources to the max.
However, I argue that the difficulty in writing is more of a time management problem than one with words. Writer’s block is a myth. This next tactic will help you overcome this imagined self-harm.
6 Tips for Becoming a Better Writer
1. Learn the Difference Between “Better Writer” and “Great Writer”
I hear this all the time from my coaching clients, who range from first time authors to old hands who have written millions of words. “Tim, I don’t want to become a better writer. I want to become a great writer!”
When I ask what that means exactly, they usually drop a few names off the top of their heads to give me a point of reference. “You know, like Hemingway, Capote, King, Vidal, Chandler, Christie, Grisham, Patterson, Dr. Seuss (seriously, it’s been dropped).”
Come on folks, who among you under the age of say 40 has ever read a word Hemingway wrote that wasn’t mandatory reading? Or Capote? Or Vidal? Then stop namedropping them, even though they are among the greatest writers of all time.
Probably not. I can offer tips and advice that might make you a better writer in the future than you are right now. Someone else may help you become a more successful writer, or a more notable writer. But becoming a great writer is up to you, and depends more on your God given talent and abilities than anything you can learn in a video or blog post from me or anyone else.
We writers wear our hearts on our sleeves and our egos around our necks like heavy gold chains. We would all like to be considered great writers by our audience and peers, but what matters is your opinion of yourself and how you define great.
Greatness in our industry is typically based on sales volume and dollar signs, not true talent. I’ve seen terrible books sell millions of copies, and great books languish in the Amazon basement.
2. Write Every Day
This should go without saying, but here goes. To become a better writer, you must write every day. Writing is like every other skill that can be improved through repetition and practice. Or a muscle that must be exercised to grow big and strong.
Or the “10,000-hour rule”, which states that to master any skill, you must practice for 10,000 hours or more. If you want to become a better writer, write more words more often. End of story.
3. Don’t Follow the Herd
The herd mentality is alive and well in the writing business. You look at what’s selling on Amazon and decide that you should follow that herd because if other writers are making a killing in sci-fi, why shouldn’t you?
Or you hear of someone in a Facebook group who is making a bundle writing romance, so you figure, why shouldn’t you, even though you’ve never even read a romance, much less written one.
4. Write What You Love
Again, this should go without saying, but many authors forget this simple rule because what they love to write isn’t selling, so they try to write in other genres they think will offer faster, easier paydays. That’s when writing becomes a chore, and quite often, the joy of writing dies along with your desire to become a better writer.
When you write what you love, you bring passion to the work. You focus on the writing, not the sales numbers. You put your heart and soul into it, not to mention a fair amount of blood, sweat, and tears. And you do it because you love it, not because it pays the bills. You’re proud of what you do, because doing it makes you happy.
When you write what you love, you also tend to write more words, more often (see tip #2). You will become a better writer in that genre. And maybe someday your dedication to writing what you love will pay off. Even if it doesn’t, you would have followed your heart and not the herd (see tip #3).
5. Read as Much as You Write
Stephen King said it best, “If you want to be a writer you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” I believe if you want to become a great writer you have to read a great deal of books in your genre. For example, if you want to become a great sci-fi writer, read the current bestsellers and classic sci-fi books (bestsellers to determine what’s selling in the market today and classics to see what has stood the test of time). Listen to King. He knows his stuff. Read as much as you write.
6. Write with the Reader in Mind
Have you ever read a book that left you scratching your head, wondering what point the author was trying to convey to you, the reader? I see this quite a bit with coaching clients who are new to the craft of writing. They write their masterpiece without ever giving a single thought to the reader, the person they expect to buy, enjoy, review, rate, and recommend their work.
As an old entrepreneur, I believe you should consider the reader to be your customer, and everything you do in creating your book, i.e. your product, must be done with the reader in mind.