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A Guide to Becoming a Better Writer: 15 Practical Tips

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.

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 September 18, 2020

13 Helping Points When Things Don’t Go Your Way

13 Helping Points When Things Don’t Go Your Way

For the original article by Celestine: 13 Helping Points When Things Don’t Go Your Way

“We all have problems. The way we solve them is what makes us different.” ~Unknown

“It’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.” – Hans Selye

Have you ever experienced moments when things just don’t go your way? For example, losing your keys, accidentally spilling your drink, waking up late, missing your buses/trains, forgetting to bring your things, and so on?

You’re not alone. All of us, myself included, experience times when things don’t go as we expect.

Here is my guide on how to deal with daily setbacks.

1. Take a step back and evaluate

When something bad happens, take a step back and evaluate the situation. Some questions to ask yourself:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. Are you the only person facing this problem in the world today?
  3. How does this problem look like at an individual level? A national level? On a global scale?
  4. What’s the worst possible thing that can happen to you as a result of this?
  5. How is it going to impact your life in the next 1 year? 5 years? 10 years?

Doing this exercise is not to undermine the problem or disclaiming responsibility, but to consider different perspectives, so you can adopt the best approach for it. Most problems we encounter daily may seem like huge issues when they crop up, but most, if not all, don’t have much impact in our life beyond that day.

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2. Vent if you have to, but don’t linger on the problem

If you feel very frustrated and need to let off some steam, go ahead and do that. Talk to a friend, complain, crib about it, or scream at the top of your lungs if it makes you happy.

At the same time, don’t get caught up with venting. While venting may temporarily relieve yourself, it’s not going to solve the problem ultimately. You don’t want to be an energy vampire.

Vent if there’s a need to, but do it for 15 to 20 minutes. Then move on.

3. Realize there are others out there facing this too

Even though the situation may be frustrating, you’re not alone. Remember there are almost 7 billion people in the world today, and chances are that other people have faced the same thing before too. Knowing it’s not just you helps you to get out of a self-victimizing mindset.

4. Process your thoughts/emotions

Process your thoughts/emotions with any of the four methods:

  1. Journal. Write your unhappiness in a private diary or in your blog. It doesn’t have to be formal at all – it can be a brain dump on rough paper or new word document. Delete after you are done.
  2. Audio taping. Record yourself as you talk out what’s on your mind. Tools include tape recorder, your PC (Audacity is a freeware for recording/editing audio) and your mobile (most mobiles today have audio recording functions). You can even use your voice mail for this. Just talking helps you to gain awareness of your emotions. After recording, play back and listen to what you said. You might find it quite revealing.
  3. Meditation. At its simplest form, meditation is just sitting/lying still and observing your reality as it is – including your thoughts and emotions. Some think that it involves some complex mambo-jumbo, but it doesn’t.
  4. Talking to someone. Talking about it with someone helps you work through the issue. It also gets you an alternate viewpoint and consider it from a different angle.

5. Acknowledge your thoughts

Don’t resist your thoughts, but acknowledge them. This includes both positive and negative thoughts.

By acknowledging, I mean recognizing these thoughts exist. So if say, you have a thought that says, “Wow, I’m so stupid!”, acknowledge that. If you have a thought that says, “I can’t believe this is happening to me again”, acknowledge that as well.

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Know that acknowledging the thoughts doesn’t mean you agree with them. It’s simply recognizing the existence of said thoughts so that you can stop resisting yourself and focus on the situation on hand.

6. Give yourself a break

If you’re very stressed out by the situation, and the problem is not time sensitive, then give yourself a break. Take a walk, listen to some music, watch a movie, or get some sleep. When you’re done, you should feel a lot more revitalized to deal with the situation.

7. Uncover what you’re really upset about

A lot of times, the anger we feel isn’t about the world. You may start off feeling angry at someone or something, but at the depth of it, it’s anger toward yourself.

Uncover the root of your anger. I have written a five part anger management series on how to permanently overcome anger.

After that, ask yourself: How can you improve the situation? Go to Step #9, where you define your actionable steps. Our anger comes from not having control on the situation. Sitting there and feeling infuriated is not going to change the situation. The more action we take, the more we will regain control over the situation, the better we will feel.

8. See this as an obstacle to be overcome

As Helen Keller once said,

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved.”

Whatever you’re facing right now, see it as an obstacle to be overcome. In every worthy endeavor, there’ll always be countless obstacles that emerge along the way. These obstacles are what separate the people who make it, and those who don’t. If you’re able to push through and overcome them, you’ll emerge a stronger person than before. It’ll be harder for anything to get you down in the future.

9. Analyze the situation – Focus on actionable steps

In every setback, there are going to be things that can’t be reversed since they have already occurred. You want to focus on things that can still be changed (salvageable) vs. things that have already happened and can’t be changed. The only time the situation changes is when you take steps to improve it. Rather than cry over spilt milk, work through your situation:

  1. What’s the situation?
  2. What’s stressing you about this situation?
  3. What are the next steps that’ll help you resolve them?
  4. Take action on your next steps!

After you have identified your next steps, act on them. The key here is to focus on the actionable steps, not the inactionable steps. It’s about regaining control over the situation through direct action.

10. Identify how it occurred (so it won’t occur again next time)

A lot of times we react to our problems. The problem occurs, and we try to make the best out of what has happened within the context. While developing a healthy coping mechanism is important (which is what the other helping points are on), it’s also equally important, if not more, to understand how the problem arose. This way, you can work on preventing it from taking place next time, vs. dealing reactively with it.

Most of us probably think the problem is outside of our control, but reality is most of the times it’s fully preventable. It’s just a matter of how much responsibility you take over the problem.

For example, for someone who can’t get a cab for work in the morning, he/she may see the problem as a lack of cabs in the country, or bad luck. However, if you trace to the root of the problem, it’s probably more to do with (a) Having unrealistic expectations of the length of time to get a cab. He/she should budget more time for waiting for a cab next time. (b) Oversleeping, because he/she was too tired from working late the previous day. He/she should allocate enough time for rest next time. He/she should also pick up better time management skills, so as to finish work in lesser time.

11. Realize the situation can be a lot worse

No matter how bad the situation is, it can always be much worse. A plus point vs. negative point analysis will help you realize that.

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12. Do your best, but don’t kill yourself over it

No matter how bad your situation may seem, do your best, but don’t kill yourself over it. Life is too beautiful to worry so much over daily issues. Take a step back (#1), give yourself a break if you need to (#6), and do what you can within your means (#9). Everything else will unfold accordingly. Worrying too much about the outcome isn’t going to change things or make your life any better.

13. Pick out the learning points from the encounter

There’s something to learn from every encounter. What have you learned from this situation? What lessons have you taken away?

After you identify your learning points, think about how you’re going to apply them moving forward. With this, you’ve clearly gained something from this encounter. You’ve walked away a stronger, wiser, better person, with more life lessons to draw from in the future.

Get the manifesto version of this article: [Manifesto] What To Do When Things Don’t Go Your Way

Featured photo credit: Alice Donovan Rouse via unsplash.com

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