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A Guide to Becoming a Better Writer: 15 Practical Tips

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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.

Becoming the best writer you can be isn’t easy, I won’t lie to you.

It takes hard work. But it’s worth the effort. And if it seems like an insurmountable task, there are some concrete things you can do today that will get you on the road to improvement.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

10. Be concise. This is best done during the revision process, but you need to edit every sentence and paragraph and remove everything but the essential. A short sentence is preferred over a longer one, and a clear word is preferred over two in jargonese. Compact is powerful.

11. Use powerful sentences. Aim for shorter sentences with strong verbs. Of course, not every sentence should be the same — you need variation — but try to create sentences with oomph. You might find this easier to do in the revision stage, as it might not be something you’re thinking about when you’re pumping out that first draft.

12. Get feedback. You can’t get better in a vacuum. Get someone to read over your stuff — preferably a good writer or editor. Someone who reads a lot, and can give you honest and intelligent feedback. And then listen. Really try to understand the criticism and accept it and use it to improve. Instead of being hurt, thank your editor for helping you get better.

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13. Put yourself out there. At some point, you’ll need to let others read your writing. Not just the person who you’re allowing to read it, but the general public. You’ll need to publish your book or short story or poem, or write for a publication. If you’re already doing a blog, that’s good, but if no one reads it, then you need to find a bigger blog and try to submit a guest post. Putting your writing out in the public can be nerve-wracking, but it is a crucial (if painful) part of every writer’s growth. Just do it.

14. Learn to be conversational. Many people write too stiffly. I find that it’s so much better to write like you talk (without all the umms and uhhs). People relate to it better. It’s not an easy task at first, but it’s something to strive for. And that brings up another point — it’s better to break the rules of grammar in order to sound conversational (as I did in the last sentence) than to sound stilted just so you can follow the proper rules. But don’t break the rules of grammar without good reason — know that you’re doing it, and why.

15. Start and end strong. The most important parts of your writing are the beginning and end. Especially the beginning. If you don’t hook your reader in the beginning, they won’t read the rest of your writing. So when you’ve written your first draft, spend some extra time crafting a good beginning. Get them interested and wanting to know more. And when you’re done with that, write a good ending … that will leave them wanting more of your writing.

Got some tips of your own? Let us know in the comments.

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More by this author

Leo Babauta

Founder of Zen Habits and expert in habits building and goals achieving.

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Last Updated on July 20, 2021

How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)

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How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)

You’re standing behind the curtain, just about to make your way on stage to face the many faces half-shrouded in darkness in front of you. As you move towards the spotlight, your body starts to feel heavier with each step. A familiar thump echoes throughout your body – your heartbeat has gone off the charts.

Don’t worry, you’re not the only one with glossophobia(also known as speech anxiety or the fear of speaking to large crowds). Sometimes, the anxiety happens long before you even stand on stage.

Your body’s defence mechanism responds by causing a part of your brain to release adrenaline into your blood – the same chemical that gets released as if you were being chased by a lion.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you overcome your fear of public speaking:

1. Prepare yourself mentally and physically

According to experts, we’re built to display anxiety and to recognize it in others. If your body and mind are anxious, your audience will notice. Hence, it’s important to prepare yourself before the big show so that you arrive on stage confident, collected and ready.

“Your outside world is a reflection of your inside world. What goes on in the inside, shows on the outside.” – Bob Proctor

Exercising lightly before a presentation helps get your blood circulating and sends oxygen to the brain. Mental exercises, on the other hand, can help calm the mind and nerves. Here are some useful ways to calm your racing heart when you start to feel the butterflies in your stomach:

Warming up

If you’re nervous, chances are your body will feel the same way. Your body gets tense, your muscles feel tight or you’re breaking in cold sweat. The audience will notice you are nervous.

If you observe that this is exactly what is happening to you minutes before a speech, do a couple of stretches to loosen and relax your body. It’s better to warm up before every speech as it helps to increase the functional potential of the body as a whole. Not only that, it increases muscle efficiency, improves reaction time and your movements.

Here are some exercises to loosen up your body before show time:

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  1. Neck and shoulder rolls – This helps relieve upper body muscle tension and pressure as the rolls focus on rotating the head and shoulders, loosening the muscle. Stress and anxiety can make us rigid within this area which can make you feel agitated, especially when standing.
  2. Arm stretches – We often use this part of our muscles during a speech or presentation through our hand gestures and movements. Stretching these muscles can reduce arm fatigue, loosen you up and improve your body language range.
  3. Waist twists – Place your hands on your hips and rotate your waist in a circular motion. This exercise focuses on loosening the abdominal and lower back regions which is essential as it can cause discomfort and pain, further amplifying any anxieties you may experience.

Stay hydrated

Ever felt parched seconds before speaking? And then coming up on stage sounding raspy and scratchy in front of the audience? This happens because the adrenaline from stage fright causes your mouth to feel dried out.

To prevent all that, it’s essential we stay adequately hydrated before a speech. A sip of water will do the trick. However, do drink in moderation so that you won’t need to go to the bathroom constantly.

Try to avoid sugary beverages and caffeine, since it’s a diuretic – meaning you’ll feel thirstier. It will also amplify your anxiety which prevents you from speaking smoothly.

Meditate

Meditation is well-known as a powerful tool to calm the mind. ABC’s Dan Harris, co-anchor of Nightline and Good Morning America weekend and author of the book titled10% Happier , recommends that meditation can help individuals to feel significantly calmer, faster.

Meditation is like a workout for your mind. It gives you the strength and focus to filter out the negativity and distractions with words of encouragement, confidence and strength.

Mindfulness meditation, in particular, is a popular method to calm yourself before going up on the big stage. The practice involves sitting comfortably, focusing on your breathing and then bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future – which likely includes floundering on stage.

Here’s a nice example of guided meditation before public speaking:

2. Focus on your goal

One thing people with a fear of public speaking have in common is focusing too much on themselves and the possibility of failure.

Do I look funny? What if I can’t remember what to say? Do I look stupid? Will people listen to me? Does anyone care about what I’m talking about?’

Instead of thinking this way, shift your attention to your one true purpose – contributing something of value to your audience.

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Decide on the progress you’d like your audience to make after your presentation. Notice their movements and expressions to adapt your speech to ensure that they are having a good time to leave the room as better people.

If your own focus isn’t beneficial and what it should be when you’re speaking, then shift it to what does. This is also key to establishing trust during your presentation as the audience can clearly see that you have their interests at heart.[1]

3. Convert negativity to positivity

There are two sides constantly battling inside of us – one is filled with strength and courage while the other is doubt and insecurities. Which one will you feed?

‘What if I mess up this speech? What if I’m not funny enough? What if I forget what to say?’

It’s no wonder why many of us are uncomfortable giving a presentation. All we do is bring ourselves down before we got a chance to prove ourselves. This is also known as a self-fulfilling prophecy – a belief that comes true because we are acting as if it already is. If you think you’re incompetent, then it will eventually become true.

Motivational coaches tout that positive mantras and affirmations tend to boost your confidents for the moments that matter most. Say to yourself: “I’ll ace this speech and I can do it!”

Take advantage of your adrenaline rush to encourage positive outcome rather than thinking of the negative ‘what ifs’.

Here’s a video of Psychologist Kelly McGonigal who encourages her audience to turn stress into something positive as well as provide methods on how to cope with it:

4. Understand your content

Knowing your content at your fingertips helps reduce your anxiety because there is one less thing to worry about. One way to get there is to practice numerous times before your actual speech.

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However, memorizing your script word-for-word is not encouraged. You can end up freezing should you forget something. You’ll also risk sounding unnatural and less approachable.

“No amount of reading or memorizing will make you successful in life. It is the understanding and the application of wise thought that counts.” – Bob Proctor

Many people unconsciously make the mistake of reading from their slides or memorizing their script word-for-word without understanding their content – a definite way to stress themselves out.

Understanding your speech flow and content makes it easier for you to convert ideas and concepts into your own words which you can then clearly explain to others in a conversational manner. Designing your slides to include text prompts is also an easy hack to ensure you get to quickly recall your flow when your mind goes blank.[2]

One way to understand is to memorize the over-arching concepts or ideas in your pitch. It helps you speak more naturally and let your personality shine through. It’s almost like taking your audience on a journey with a few key milestones.

5. Practice makes perfect

Like most people, many of us are not naturally attuned to public speaking. Rarely do individuals walk up to a large audience and present flawlessly without any research and preparation.

In fact, some of the top presenters make it look easy during showtime because they have spent countless hours behind-the-scenes in deep practice. Even great speakers like the late John F. Kennedy would spend months preparing his speech beforehand.

Public speaking, like any other skill, requires practice – whether it be practicing your speech countless of times in front of a mirror or making notes. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect!

6. Be authentic

There’s nothing wrong with feeling stressed before going up to speak in front of an audience.

Many people fear public speaking because they fear others will judge them for showing their true, vulnerable self. However, vulnerability can sometimes help you come across as more authentic and relatable as a speaker.

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Drop the pretence of trying to act or speak like someone else and you’ll find that it’s worth the risk. You become more genuine, flexible and spontaneous, which makes it easier to handle unpredictable situations – whether it’s getting tough questions from the crowd or experiencing an unexpected technical difficulty.

To find out your authentic style of speaking is easy. Just pick a topic or issue you are passionate about and discuss this like you normally would with a close family or friend. It is like having a conversation with someone in a personal one-to-one setting. A great way to do this on stage is to select a random audience member(with a hopefully calming face) and speak to a single person at a time during your speech. You’ll find that it’s easier trying to connect to one person at a time than a whole room.

With that said, being comfortable enough to be yourself in front of others may take a little time and some experience, depending how comfortable you are with being yourself in front of others. But once you embrace it, stage fright will not be as intimidating as you initially thought.

Presenters like Barack Obama are a prime example of a genuine and passionate speaker:

7. Post speech evaluation

Last but not the least, if you’ve done public speaking and have been scarred from a bad experience, try seeing it as a lesson learned to improve yourself as a speaker.

Don’t beat yourself up after a presentation

We are the hardest on ourselves and it’s good to be. But when you finish delivering your speech or presentation, give yourself some recognition and a pat on the back.

You managed to finish whatever you had to do and did not give up. You did not let your fears and insecurities get to you. Take a little more pride in your work and believe in yourself.

Improve your next speech

As mentioned before, practice does make perfect. If you want to improve your public speaking skills, try asking someone to film you during a speech or presentation. Afterwards, watch and observe what you can do to improve yourself next time.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself after every speech:

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  • How did I do?
  • Are there any areas for improvement?
  • Did I sound or look stressed?
  • Did I stumble on my words? Why?
  • Was I saying “um” too often?
  • How was the flow of the speech?

Write everything you observed down and keep practicing and improving. In time, you’ll be able to better manage your fears of public speaking and appear more confident when it counts.

If you want even more tips about public speaking or delivering a great presentation, check out these articles too:

Reference

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