How to, In General, Become a Better Writer
This Hub was inspired by a question one of my students asked me recently. As I teach freshman composition classes for an online university, it is common to have students confused and bewildered by the process of writing something—anything—regardless of length or subject matter. It takes an especially patient instructor to help students overcome these self-imposed blocks to creativity and success. Thus, for my own benefit and future reference, and the benefit of the universe at large, here are some tips to becoming a better writer in general.
Read, Read, Read
Great writers read constantly. The biggest paradox I hear among my students is a supposed love for writing combined a hatred for reading. What is the purpose of writing without being able to appreciate written word itself? Authors learn how to write by following the examples provided by other writers. Writing is, thus, a strangely collaborative act. The patterns and turns of phrase devised by other writers influence our own work. For example, when I write fiction, I often inadvertently mimic the style of the great 19th century short story writer and novelist Kate Chopin because I admire her work and have learned many things from it. It is also a great reminder that our own works should provide meaning on multiple levels. Good writing conveys its message well, but great writing leaves an imprint.
Eliminate the Fear
The admirably prolific writer Isaac Asimov, according to science fiction author and colleague Harlan Ellison, “had writer’s block once. It was the worst 10 minutes of his life” (Wikiquote). While it is likely that Asimov spent longer periods than that not writing, what is clear is that Asimov had no fear of putting his thoughts down on paper. As the author or co-author of 506 book titles and numerous other short essays and fiction works (Seiler, “A Catalogue of Isaac Asimov’s Books”), we should all hope to produce as much as Asimov did in one lifetime. Working through the fear of writing is easier said than done. Discounting our own thoughts, feelings, and ideas as being valid and worthy subjects leads to writer’s block, a phenomenon ultimately rooted in fear. Knowing how and when to take a different approach to writing is just as important as writing itself. Free writing, using an outline, and writing about things you enjoy are just a few of the methods described at Ivy Sea Online’s Tips for Working Through Writer’s Block, one of the most helpful pages I have found on the subject.
Learn the Rules
That ever-annoying statement, “You have to know the rules before you can break them,” remains as true for writing as it does for any other creative endeavor: learning the rules of good style, form, and grammar are essential to becoming a better writer. Although many modern instructors view grammar as a secondary aspect to learning how to churn out meaningful content, I still believe it is important to develop one’s writing skills from a solid grammatical foundation. Understanding the “correct” way to write provides a springboard from which more interesting and creative styles can flourish. I know that my students must feel aggravated when I assign them writing assignments using specific modes. However, these modes of writing (the narrative, the comparison or contrast paper, the argumentative paper, the descriptive essay) provide the student with an opportunity to strengthen their writing skills within set parameters and specific organizational methods—a skill that is just as valuable, if not more practical, than free writing.
Practice Makes Perfect
Writing is a craft that must be honed daily. Like a muscle, writing skills build and develop the more we use them. Neglecting these skills ultimately leads to atrophy. While many of us have goals to write at great length on a daily basis (à la Asimov), the simplest of goals to achieve is to write in a journal on a daily basis. Journaling is an easy way of working through creative blocks, as well as a way of chronicling private thoughts for later reflection. Work from here to develop the confidence and desire to use your writing skills in other projects. If the desire to become a better writer is genuine, the time will be made each day to work towards it!
In the case of my students, I advise them to work on their paper assignments each day—45 minutes to an hour per session—in order to improve their quality. As the university I teach at limits composition classes to five week terms, this schedule is almost enforced to produce the quality needed for a successful grade. When I was a teaching assistant at a traditional, semester-based university, I encouraged my students to make a similar commitment. Those that truly follow this advice experience the most growth over the term.
Join a Team
Joining a community that is dedicated to the craft of successful writing can boost morale and provide the extra bit of encouragement necessary to undertake a project. Taking a writing class at your local community college, participating in an online writing project like NaNoWriMo, or joining a website for writers within your specific niche can help improve writing skills through a positive implementation of “group mentality” syndrome. It is also a wonderful way of meeting new friends online.
The concepts presented above are just a few ways to start the process of becoming a better writer. While this list is nowhere near comprehensive, it is important to remember that each writer has their own path to follow towards success. Some of us benefit from producing work in great quantities, while others benefit more from writing on a selective basis. Taking the time to play around with various different methods to strengthen writing skills will ultimately result in success!