2 Tricks to Become a Better Writer
Writing is hard
I doubt this comes as much of a surprise. Although we may feel compelled to write, may be determined to be better writers, perhaps even feel a calling to be writers, it is still surprisingly difficult to see the blank page through to the final draft. It takes diligence and discipline to constantly return to that blank page and regularly produce work.
As writers, we rarely have regular hours, constant managerial supervision, or any of the other standard motivators that "normal" jobs benefit from. So how do we maintain consistent productivity? And how do we measure progress in this endlessly subjective craft?
Over the past few months, I have managed to train myself to write every day, and I have noticed a clear improvement in the quality of my work. I've been writing for several years, and I received excellent training in school, but I didn't establish such regular work habits until I implemented these two simple tricks:
1. Keep a Reading Journal
Like any other craft, writing takes practice. Nobody ever became a better musician without spending hours with their instrument. No athlete perfected his or her backhand without hours on the court. But any good craftsman will tell you the value of practice is measured not by quantity but by quality.
Don't simply play that song a hundred times. Don't simply hit balls against a wall until your arm is a useless rag. Focus on the phrase of the song that doesn't quite speak the way you would like it to, or on the angle the ball leaves your hand or racket. Make a note of the areas you need to improve, work to strengthen them, and the rest will follow.
During my years at art school, I heard this advice all the time. It works great for dancers, musicians, and actors. But as a writer, I had no idea how to implement it.
I think I found the solution a few months ago. I started keeping a reading journal.
Writers should be readers. Broadening your horizons and noting successful techniques employed by other writers is an excellent way to hone your craft. This is why I think the reading journal works as "quality practice".
Whenever I read novels, comics, articles, etc. or even when watching movies and TV, I keep my reading journal handy. Any time a piece of dialog excites me, a plot twist surprises me, or a clever turn of phrase intrigues me, I transcribe it into my notebook. I try to restrict myself to language techniques and plot structure notes that I was not explicitly taught in school or have not experimented with myself. I use the journal to broaden my skills as a writer, not simply reinforce the things I'm already good at. Remember, focus on the areas giving you trouble, and the rest will follow.
Every week or so I review the notes I have made in my journal, attempting to recognize patterns in the things I respond to in other's work and compare it to my own abilities as a writer. Recently, whenever I finish a piece of writing, I have started making a note of it in my journal. This way, I can better corroborate how these discoveries are affecting my style and skills as a writer. If I feel a particular piece of mine could benefit from an observation in my journal, I revise that piece, and attempt to incorporate what I have learned.
The journal gives me a point by point track of my improvements as a writer. It helps me practice more deliberately, and narrows my focus to those areas I with which I have trouble.
Again, work on your weaknesses. The rest will follow.
2. Your Productive Times
I once had a writing teacher who got up at 4 am every day to write. She woke up before the rest of the world so she could hit her word count before her everyday responsibilities got in the way of her writing.
Every writer is different. Some need to focus on their writing before attending to real-life responsibilities. Others need to have all other distractions taken care of before focusing on their words. In fact, I knew one woman who needed to clean her work space every day before writing. She needed to now that her household chores would not be a distraction.
I am most productive in the hours right after I get up and right before I go to bed. Usually, this coincides to my roommates being asleep, and myself being alone with my thoughts.
Unfortunately, these times constantly shift for me. In addition to my freelance writing work, I often take on freelance film and video work with local production companies. So, some days I wake up at 5 am, and others I sleep until noon after a particularly late night.
It played havoc with my search for productive hours. I thought I was a nocturnal writer. Then I thought I was an early bird. It took much experimentation to figure out my optimum conditions.
If I had to start over figuring out my productive hours, here is what I would do:
Pick a topic you're familiar with and can easily write about. This could be your grandmother's Christmas decorations or your first car. Choose something that will not require any research and minimum effort. Set a goal of about 200 words. Write the topic down on a piece of paper and set it aside.
Now, leave it alone. You're done with it for today. Carry out your regular routine as usual, and go to bed without touching that sheet of paper.
When you wake up the next day, return to that sheet of paper. Do you feel like writing the rest of it? If so, go for it. If not, don't pressure yourself. Fold up the paper, put it in your pocket, and move on with your day as usual, keeping your chosen topic in mind.
At some point during the day, you will suddenly begin to think more and more about how you will write this piece. Maybe the opening line will come to you out of the blue, or a new angle to write from will present itself.
Drop everything and write. It's only 200 words; it shouldn't take too long.
When you are done, make a note of the time, where you were, and any other conditions you were under that seem relevant to your ability to write.
Repeat this process. Gather more data. After a few days, you should notice a pattern emerging, and you should begin to learn the best times and conditions for you to write under.
Good Luck, Happy Writing
I have always been a prolific writer, but I have never been a consistent one. Often I would let several weeks slide by at a time without so much as lifting a pencil. It took a little discipline and will power, but these two tricks are what turned me around.
I do not read without my journal any more. I do not miss my key writing times throughout the day. Having these tools has kept in in my home office every day, consistently producing work, for several months now.
Try them for yourself. If it worked for me, it can work for you too. The path to professional writing is a long one and a tough one, but if writing is the thing that keeps your heart beating, there is nothing more satisfying than traveling that road.
Good luck, and happy writing.