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9 Expert Tips For Better Writing

9 Expert Tips For Better Writing

    One of the things I like best about social media is the way it helps me discover talented writers. They remind me a lot of distance athletes with their deep conversations about seemingly minor details and long periods of time spent practicing alone.

    The web also has a downside. There seems to be a growing belief that having mobile access to information negates any need to regularly consume quality writing.

    Some writers point to the popularity of the Twilight series and say it’s a sign the general population no longer cares about quality. In my reply I always point to the wise commentary of Juan Williams:

    Pandering to base interests is very different from catering to real needs. (Paraphrased from his commentary on the notion that people of color only want to watch MTV.)

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    It’s possible that you’ll make money by pandering, but there are a lot of people doing the same thing now. Traipse around online for a bit and you’ll find thousands of desperate writers trying to predict the next fetish in hopes of fame and fortune. It’s sad to watch them trying so hard because in the end they’ll have nothing to be truly proud of. I want to write things for which my only explanation for writing is not, “I needed the money.”

    Do you? If so, you may find some portion of the following useful. I’ve gathered some of my favorite quotes from brilliant, prolific, and plain crazy writers and share them here with some tips I’ve found incredibly helpful in my own journey as a yearning writer. I hope you enjoy!

    1. Write to make a point, not a target word count

    Vigorous writing is concise. ~William Strunk Jr.

    Nothing makes me grimace quite like hearing somebody say they’ve reached 50,000 words and so have completed their first novel. Remember dully typing toward a minimum word count for an academic paper you had no interest in writing? If you start to get the feeling about something you’re writing, it’s probably time to stop writing and do some more research (or bribe your editor/professor/mother into accepting the shorter piece of work).

    2. Help another edit their writing

    I try to leave out the parts that people skip. ~Elmore Leonard

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    I have a short, round-bellied friend who turned me on to this quote. That said, I’ve found that helping another writer edit their work often leaves me with more insight into my own writing than I gave to the other writer! If you can find a trusted friend to trade nascent work with, you will have found a wealth of improvement.

    3. Write something every day that you do not intend to share

    Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart. ~William Wordsworth

    I have a private blog I update daily with rants, outlines, fears, and bits of nothing that stream out of me when I’m struggling to find focus for another piece of writing. You’ll never see it. There’s no value in my sharing it because the moment I know others can see it is the moment I no longer write just for me. I suggest you give this method a try. It doesn’t have to be a blog.  A notebook would work just fine.

    4. Outline before drafting & Don’t confuse fiction with dishonest writing

    If any man wish to write in a clear style, let him be first clear in his thoughts; and if any would write in a noble style, let him first possess a noble soul. ~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

    I am still learning to to do the first part. I’ve taken great value from sharing outlines of my intended work with friends who are very logical and excel at criticizing arguments without muddling thoughts. The last part… is something I can only hope for. If I someday hear a reader say, “his writing is imbued with kindness” I think that will do.

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    5. Don’t get caught up in restating the obvious

    The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say. ~Anaïs Nin

    As one who writes a lot for the web, I am continually tempted by the low-hanging fruit of trending topics and morning news drivel. Restating the obvious is easy, fun, and very retweetable. But the obvious rarely seems to translate into any sort of real legacy. If I only had a list of all the things my readers already know collectively, it would be so simple to stay fresh!

    6. Befriend a dictionary

    The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. ~Mark Twain

    Imbue, conjure, nefarious… are just a few of the words I have as friends to help me clearly make a point, share an idea, or call something into question. There’s a joy in having the perfect words at one’s disposal that only a dedicated writer can appreciate. A thesaurus can be useful if you’re bored, lazy, or drunk. Nothing trumps having a word come to mind just as you need its help.

    7. Keep a little notebook for moments of inspiration

    Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable. ~Francis Bacon

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    I use a moleskine to store my thoughts for later. Having thoughts and personal commentary all in one place has the added benefit of serving as a source of inspiration for later times of drought. Think of it as you would catching raindrops in a canteen. You’ll be glad for the moisture some day.

    8. Not having a pen in your hand doesn’t mean you’re not writing

    The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes. ~Agatha Christie

    If you walked into my office at random, there’s a very good chance you’d find me sipping a glass of tea while staring off into space. Am I doing nothing? Not in the least. Contrary to my mother’s early suspicions, I’m not addled. I just like to silently try phrases out in my mind before writing them down. Agatha had a point about dishes, too. There’s no such thing as writer’s block. But there are times when washing dishes is a better use of time than staring at an empty screen!

    9. Be kind to yourself

    Every writer I know has trouble writing. ~Joseph Heller

    I hope you are kind to yourself and forgiving when you cannot find the perfect phrase or paint a story just so! Writing, for me, seems a monumental task at times and I am always delighted to find others who understand my situation and reach out to help. There’s a joy in knowing that no matter how lonely a stretch of path may seem we are never entirely alone, no? We always have our writing and with it an entire community of people who care.

    If you’re a writer, and you are one even if you simply compose witty text messages, I hope you’ll say hello.

    Image: mezone

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    Seth Simonds

    Seth writes about lifestyle tips on Lifehack.

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    Last Updated on August 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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