Two years ago, if you were to tell me I’d one day be writing for my favorite magazines and finishing my first screenplay… well, I wouldn’t believe you. That’s because even though I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was six, you couldn’t tell by looking at my former lifestyle.
At the time, it was filled with so many things not related to writing I barely had the focus to write a shopping list. A shopping list. I still don’t understand how it happened, or why the most important thing to me was always shuffled to the bottom of my priority list.
All I know is this: if you want to become a better writer, the longer it takes you to get started, the stronger your resistance will be to get started at all. You’re the only one who can shuffle your writing goals to the top of the pile where they belong. It won’t happen overnight – for me, it was a gradual progression, shifting from my old lifestyle to my new one – but it will happen.
Below are 20 lessons I’ve learned along the way that will help you become a better writer. All it takes is five minutes to get started. Soon, finding time to write will become an automatic way of thinking, and you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about.
1. Streamline Your Focus
The good news is, there’s never been a better time to be a writer. The bad news is, it can be hard to decide what your niche is going to be. If you find yourself working on blog posts and articles and novels and poetry and eBooks, your head’s going to spin and your words aren’t. You have to decide what area of the writing industry you’re going to start out in, build a solid foundation, and establish yourself.
When you spread yourself over several areas, you’re not going to be able to offer enough creative energy to make an impact in any of them. Step away from the flurry you’re creating and ask yourself: as a writer, what is your ultimate goal? Once I stepped back and asked myself this question, the answer was too clear to ignore. I literally dropped everything that didn’t relate to my ultimate goals, and haven’t looked back. You shouldn’t either.
2. Learn From The Best
The best way to become a better writer is to learn from the best. Once you’ve defined your ultimate goal, find out who the influencers are in your niche. Follow them on social media, study their writing, and get to know the inner workings of what makes them successful. Use this information as an ongoing guide for your own success: learn the ins and outs to craft your own plan.
If you’re a big fan of a particular writer who teaches an online course that will strengthen your skills, sign up! It took me almost a year to save up the money, but I broke into women’s magazines by learning from a writer I’ve admired since high school. My first article sale more than paid for the initial investment, and better prepared me for the business side of building my clips.
3. Create a Space to Write
While mobile technology has made it possible to write anywhere, anytime, it’s important to have a primary location to write from. Creativity is spontaneous, but fleeting. You want to make sure you have a small slice of consistency in place to capture it for future use.
Fill the space with everything you can think of that inspires and motivates you to become a better writer.
4. Define Clear Writing Goals
Be as specific as possible about your writing goals and break them down into tiny, actionable steps. The smaller your steps, the less overwhelming your overall goals will feel. As you become more comfortable with the process you’ll take bigger strides toward success in your own time, and on your own terms.
5. Never Lose an Idea
One of your first steps to become a better writer should be creating a system to keep track of your ideas. The second an idea comes to you, you want to be able to conveniently write it down. Never assume you’ll remember it later (you rarely will, and you’ll look funny slapping yourself).
This was one of the first items on my agenda. I upgraded my desktop, laptop, and cell phone so I can access my writing files from anywhere. Now, if an idea strikes and I’m standing in line at the grocery store, I can type the idea into my cell and it’s waiting for me in my office when I get home. It’s made all the difference in both my productivity and the number of opportunities I’m able to create for myself.
6. Find Your Voice
How you express yourself on paper (or rather, screen) should be the same as how you express yourself in your everyday life. Unfortunately, when many of us start writing, our words come off sounding stiff and contrived (a.k.a. boooring!).
To break this cycle, write how you naturally speak. The best way to do this? Write your article, blog post, or presentation in an e-mail. When you write e-mails to your family and friends, you’re as “you” as you can get. Your guard is down and you’re not focusing on how you sound – because of that, your words practically leap off the screen. Once you’re consistently writing in this voice, move back over to your word processing program.
7. Call a Truce With Your Inner Critic
If you’re not careful, your inner critic will become the brick wall that stands between you and your writing career. If you find your inner critic’s interrupting too much – perhaps causing your blog post to take as long as a novel – simply say to them, “Once I’m done my first draft, it’s all yours.” Believe it or not, after stating this arrangement, your inner critic will wait patiently for the words to pour out before picking them apart.
8. Define Your Speed
While it’s good to use the cracks and crevices of your day to accomplish as much writing as you can, this strategy becomes counterintuitive when you accomplish only a fraction of what you’d hoped. Emotionally, your automatic assumption is to feel like a failure, when in fact you just need to accurately define your parameters.
When your ambition overpowers your reason, you end up creating a to-do list fit for a robot, not a person. You don’t take into account potential delays, interruptions, or physical exhaustion. You also don’t take into account the speed at which you write. It’s the emotional equivalent of grocery shopping when you’re starved.
It takes practice to create a list of daily goals you can actually finish. Each day, write down what you hope to accomplish. Keep track of how long each task takes and any delays that happen along the way. On subsequent lists, you’ll start taking into account the speed at which you write, potential delays, and will trim it down to a realistic size you’ll feel confident about.
9. Know Your Worth
Just because you’re lacking experience doesn’t mean you should accept writing jobs that barely pay for your morning coffee. Content farms play on the rush instant gratification that gives us. After all, who wouldn’t want to become a writer “right now” and make money “instantly”? The only way you’ll become a better writer is by seeking out quality opportunities – otherwise, you’ll not only remain inexperienced, but also the inexperienced writer who works for a content farm. Not exactly a shining addition to your resume.
10. Write For Love
On the other side of the same coin, don’t take a writing job just for the money. Write exactly what you want to write about, become the best at doing so, and the money will follow.
I was once offered a freelance copywriting job that would’ve allowed me to downsize my web design business and focus more on my writing… and I turned it down. While the pay was decent, I didn’t want to be a copywriter. I wanted to write what I love – otherwise, what would be the point of writing at all?
If it’s not a clip you’d be proud to have in your portfolio, don’t write it.
11. Study Your Market
If you want to freelance write for magazines and blogs, learn the entire pitching process from start to finish. If you want to sell eBooks, learn the entire publishing process from the beginning to the end. You don’t want your creativity stifled because you’re learning the business-side of writing as you go along.
On the flip side, you don’t want to spend so much time learning that you become intimidated and procrastinated on execution. Consider your first few ideas of your “testing period.” Learn the first step of the process, then execute it using one of your ideas. Learn the second step, and continue until your first pitch/project is complete. As you practice, you’ll tweak the process and make it your own.
12. Quality Over Quantity
Even though the business side of writing will constantly give you pressure, creativity cannot be rushed. As much as you want to have a new query letter submitted by the end of the week, or your latest eBook done by the end of the month, don’t sacrifice quality for the sake of your deadline. If you need more time, then take it. Never submit mediocrity now when excellence is just around the corner.
13. Have Tricks Up Your Sleeve
There will be days when you won’t feel like getting started, even when you’re working on a writing project you’re madly in love with. Make sure you have a few tricks up your sleeve to help motivate you. Whether it’s a morning routine that triggers you to get started, or bribing yourself with a gift once your goal is reached, do what you have to do to follow through.
14. Go Big
Many people will tell you to start by writing for smaller markets, then work your way up to larger ones. I say, go big or go home. When I broke into the women’s magazine market, I had no clips. Seriously, not one. But I worked really hard on my query letter, researched my article idea thoroughly beforehand, and pitched my first idea like it was my fiftieth. Don’t tell them you deserve a shot, show them you have the chops through your query letter. Even if they don’t accept your initial idea, you’ll end up on their radar, earn their respect, and in time will land an assignment.
15. Know The Rules, But Make Your Own
All writers have their own strategy when it comes to their creativity. They have their own process for planning, outlining, and executing every piece they write. As you’re reading books and articles on how to become a better writer, it’s important not to use the advice literally, but as a starting point to create your personal process. Your creative process will end up being a fusion of the advice you’ve filtered through and tested, keeping what works and discarding what doesn’t.
16. Learn How to Say No
If you spend all your time being everything to everyone except yourself, you’ll never get your writing career off the ground. As you begin spending less time with your friends and more time on your writing, prepare for them to resist the idea. They’re not meaning to discourage you, they’re just fearful of how their dynamic with you is going to change. Once they realize they’re just as important to your life as they were before you became a writer, the resistance will subside. To get to this point, you have to stand your ground and make the word “no” to your new BFF.
17. Let Your Writing Leave The Nest
When you’ve finished your writing project, set it aside for a few days so you can emotionally detach yourself from it. Not only does this give you the opportunity to breathe before the marketing process begins, but also allows you to start looking at your piece as a product to sell. This shift in mind frame will help you take criticism and feedback from industry professionals more as business advice to improve your craft, and less like your soul is being attacked.
18. Write In Bursts
I don’t know about you, but when I’m sitting at the computer for too long, I become restless. I spend more time staring blankly at the screen than I do writing – it’s as if my mind has flatlined. The hardest thing for me to let go of when I moved from working for someone else to working for myself was how my workday was structured. Working for someone else, I would work for four hours, take a 30-minute break for lunch, then work for another four. When you build your writing credentials to the point where you can go off on your own, don’t take this habit with you.
Instead, work in short, concentrated bursts. Some writers write in 15-minute bursts right up to 90-minute bursts. End your bursts whenever you feel yourself getting restless, take a small break, then go back in for another. The increase in productivity thanks to this small change is impressive!
19. Plan WAY Ahead
Many writers plan their editorial calendars up to a year in advance! It might sound nutty, but it’s surprisingly efficient. Plan your word/page count goals as far in advance as you can, blocking off windows of time to write like you would for a meeting or appointment. Your schedule isn’t just a schedule: it becomes written proof that by a certain date you’ll reach your goal, making you more likely to stick to it.
20. Develop a Consistent Routine
Becoming a writer isn’t just a career choice – it’s a lifestyle choice. The best way to become a better writer is to respect your writing like you would respect another person: make time for it, keep your promises, and most importantly, follow through.
The best thing I ever did for my writing career was stop talking about it – instead of going on endlessly to friends and family about what I wanted my writing career to be, I wrote my way there.
Don’t get me wrong: creating a routine is hard and no two are the same. You’ll go through a gigantic testing period until you get it just right, but as long as you persevere you’ll find your groove. You’ll no longer worry about saying “I’m a writer” to prove your identity – you’ll be too busy writing.