There are some fabulous articles here on Lifehack that can help you improve as a writer, with tips and tricks ranging from ensuring that you write something every single day, to keeping a notebook handy for random inspirational thoughts. These are great suggestions and will undoubtedly assist you in building confidence with regard to your writing, but they won’t be of significant help if you haven’t mastered the essentials.
Basically, you can decorate a house as prettily as you like, but if the foundation is weak and the walls have been made of pool noodles and saltines, you’re in trouble.
1. Read Great Writers
This was the #1 tip in Leo B.’s article, and I’m going to reiterate it most heartily.
I grant that there are some fabulous pieces floating about on the web that you can read, but anyone with access to a keyboard can post an article; whether they can differentiate between homonyms is a different story entirely.
Published books tend to go through a rather vigorous proofreading/editing process, which generally ensures that the work is quite polished by the time it’s sucked into your retinas. Writers and their editors work together to create cohesive works of often staggering genius, and the more you immerse yourself in good writing, the more your own work will end up improving as a result. We often emulate that which we admire (even subconsciously), and it’s not unusual to see parallels between one author’s work and another’s.
Kurt Vonnegut took cues from Mark Twain, Amy Tan has admitted that she’s been influenced by Isabel Allende, and J.K. Rowling’s work has echoes of Jane Austen. My own influences are drawn from Bill Bryson, Anais Nin, A.S. Byatt, and Terry Pratchett, but I’m a bit deranged like that.
2. Be Sure to Revisit the Basics
Most of us haven’t delved into the basics of writing composition since well before high school, and for some of us, that was a very long time ago.
Education has changed a great deal over the years, and the average person today would just look at you blankly if you asked them to identify a misplaced modifier or define the subject and predicate in a sentence. The use of proper grammar, punctuation, and spelling isn’t as rigidly enforced as it was in the past, and many people manage to reach high levels of education and employment without ever sorting out “your” VS “you’re”. Hell, I’ve seen PhD candidates commit some of the most flagrant acts of apostrophe abuse you can imagine, and these were college professors.
In addition to revisiting these building blocks, it’s also a good idea to touch upon tips on how to structure both full articles, and the paragraphs therein. If you feel the inclination to touch up your skills in this regard, consider checking out some of these books to help you along:
- Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, by Mignon Fogarty
- It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences, by June Casagrande
- Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss
3. Subscribe to Daily Writing Tips
I can honestly say that the daily tips I’ve received from this website have helped my writing and editing work exponentially. With lighthearted examples and fun quizzes, each email prods at your brain-meat to flesh out areas where you might have difficulty, and helps to sharpen your existing skills.
4. Read Your Work Aloud
This is a great way to ensure that your work flows well, and to check for any awkward sentences and spelling errors. By reading a piece aloud, you can see where pauses are needed so you can tuck in some commas, and you’ll notice if your sentences are halting because they’re too short, or if you’re rambling and need to do some restructuring.
Here’s a tip: if you find that there are issues with your writing that keep popping up—whether this is discovered through your own editing or because it’s been pointed out to you by another—write that issue on a large sheet of paper and tack it up above your desk. Since it will be in your line of sight, you’ll be reminded every time you glance upwards so you can to avoid it in future.
5. Keep in Mind That There is Always Room for Improvement
We’re all on a journey as we plod through life, and as we learn various lessons and sharpen our skills, we’ll undoubtedly improve in our chosen fields. It’s important to recognize that by leaving room to make mistakes, we’re also leaving room to grow.
Every single one of us will cock up eventually (often, I would think, especially in my case), but rather than beating ourselves up over errors, we can see these screw-ups as learning opportunities.
As mentioned, there isn’t a single writer out there who couldn’t improve on some level—including me. Muphry’s Law (deliberate misspelling) dictates that I will have inevitably screwed something up in this article, and I certainly have a long way to go before I consider my work to be as flawless as I’d like, but both self-awareness and the ability to analyse one’s own work critically are of vital importance for any writer, every step of the way. Keep in mind that there’s always room for growth, treat that ever-evolving learning process with humour and humility, and keep writing.