Two Tricks To Becoming A Better Writer

Posted on
Feb 6, 2018

Last weekend, I briefly opened up my Twitter DMs and told people to message me their questions about travel or blogging, or, failing that, implored them to simply send me cat gifs. I was amazed by the response – dozens of people replied, absolutely no one took the opportunity to tell me I was a raging asshole, and the gifs were wonderful.

One question kept coming up again and again, and because it’s one I get often, I wanted to share the answer here on the blog. The thing I am always asked, especially now that I’ve published a book, is this: How do I get better at writing?

Now, when I first started getting this question, it struck me as the literary equivalent of asking Cousin Eddie from Christmas Vacation for fashion tips. Like … perhaps you should look elsewhere? Maybe?

Although to be fair, Randy Quaid is ROCKING this look.

But I realized people weren’t asking me how to become a great writer, or even a good writer (WHICH IS GOOD, BECAUSE I DO NOT KNOW). They were simply asking how to become better. And I realized I can answer this question! Because I am not great, but I am way better than I was.

I started this blog nearly nine years ago. And if you go back and read some of my early posts, well … they’re bad. I’m not being falsely modest here. The writing is awkward and stilted and it doesn’t even sound like me. I hadn’t found my voice, or figured out what the goal of this site was. I didn’t even really know what a good blog post entailed. Slowly, with time, those things sorted themselves out. I got better. I figured out how to write a blog post. I still keep those early posts up, because I think it’s important that people see the progression of this site and know that things don’t improve overnight.

There are two things that I did that contributed to me become a better writer. Neither is terribly interesting or innovative or sexy. Neither is a quick fix. You’ve probably heard both of these pieces of advice before, but that’s because they work.

  1. Just Keep Writing. I suspect everyone hates this answer, because it’s just so damn frustrating. Like, I just have to keep doing it? That’s it? But believe me – it works. The way that we get better at anything is to do it over and over again. Have you ever watched a baby do something? Babies suck at pretty much everything. There are so many things we do on a daily basis that are now second nature to us, but there was a point in time that we had to figure out how to do those things. So why do we think writing is different?

    I suspect it has to do with the mechanics of writing itself. A poorly constructed sentence and a great sentence are essentially the same. They’re both made of words and punctuation. But imagine a wonderfully constructed house and a terribly constructed one. You can often tell just by looking that one is better than the other. You can tell that more work and energy and time has gone into one versus the other. But with writing, that’s not as evident. When we see a beautifully written paragraph, we just assume that the writer is talented. We often don’t see the time or work that went into it. We don’t think about the hours spent revising and rearranging and reworking sentences. It’s hard to see that in the finished product, especially because sometimes we’re able to write something brilliant right off the bat. That makes us think that all writing, if we were truly good at it, would be effortless.

    Writing is easy. Good writing is not. The path between mediocre writing and good writing is not a linear one. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat at my computer and beat my head against my keyboard, and wrote garbage for days, which I kept deleting. And then, finally, I wrote something that was worth keeping. At first glance, it seemed to be totally unrelated to all the other stuff I’d written. But it’s not. See, I had to wade through all that worthless stuff to get to that good sentence. That journey isn’t often evident in the final product but it’s still critical.If you want to get better at writing, keep at it. Know that you will write things that you hate. Know that for every one fantastic sentence you keep, you might write twenty that you delete.
  2. Read the Stuff You Wish You’d Written. Admittedly, I am not the world’s most confident person, so this is difficult for me. Sometimes, when everyone is raving about a piece of work, I’m inclined to run from it. But I should be doing the opposite. If something is wonderful, if something makes you burn with envy because it’s so good and you really wish you’d written it yourself, then that is absolutely the sort of thing you should be reading. Great artists became great by studying other artists. It’s no different with writing. If something is being hailed as a work of genius, you need to study it. Take it apart, look at all the pieces, and try putting it back together again. Pay attention to sentence structure and word choice. If a paragraph resonates with you, ask yourself why. (This is also a great tactic to do with a piece of work that you hate.) This isn’t about copying or plagiarism – it’s about understanding the mechanics of writing.

    Some will argue that such an analytical look at a piece of art is antithetical to its existence, but I’m inclined to disagree. Entire fields of study have been built around analyzing literature. And while poring over Dorothy Parker isn’t going to necessarily give you a blueprint of how to be brilliant, it might make you more mindful as you write, and force you to pay attention to stuff that you wouldn’t normally – and all of that will make you a better writer.

    Besides just that, I’ve found that reading wonderful stuff, especially in the genres in which we’d like to write, can be incredibly inspirational. Just think of how many times you’ve read something, or listened to a song, or watched a movie, and afterwards your brain just goes into overdrive? It’s called filling your creative gas tank – and it’s something that a lot of us forget to do. Plus, it’s a great way to combat writer’s block. Whenever I’m having trouble getting words down, I try to consume something wonderful – in hopes that I might regurgitate something not terrible.

Honestly, that’s it. It’s the same advice I give again and again. If you want to get better at writing, keep at it. And if you want to write well, then you need to read well.

Leave a Comment

  • Thunderbuck

    Thanks for this. I’m on my own journey and advice like this is helpful.

    I know that I’m reasonably good at arranging words on a page, and if I have sufficient reason I’m not bad at going back and editing, but I’ve had terminal writer’s block FOREVER. A few weeks ago (no, not as a New Year’s resolution), I just decided to start writing 500 words a day, just to get used to writing on a daily basis.

    It’s not meant to be anything but sheer bulk verbiage, but I’ve only missed two days in the last five weeks, and for me that’s a staggering triumph.

  • S.M C

    This might seem trite, but my inspiration for great writing is this blog! Thank you for sharing your amazing gift!

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  • two by tour

    The greatest writers often have the greatest patience (with themselves). This is long and hard work! Lovely post!

    • Morgan

      Amen. Patience with ourselves goes a long ways!

  • Well said.

    And how about we completely do away with the whole concept of “talent”? Because it makes so many new writers miserable and filled with insecurity and self-loathing. This idea that you’re either born with it and automatically blessed with a glittering career, or not born with it and damned to the lowest circles of $5 keyword articles until your dying day, is…such bollocks. Yes, there are Mozarts in this world – but they’re vastly, stonkingly outweighed by OK writers who became incredible writers because they refused to stop writing.

    Talent is almost always a word meaning “I didn’t realise you get up at 4am to do this”.

    • Love that last sentence, Mike!

      • Thanks, Brendan. 🙂

        Also, thank you yet again, as I just signed up to your newsletter and I’m checking out your productivity course.

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  • sdso234

    I love this post. I am curious – you seem to put a lot of yourself on the page. Is writing ever emotionally painful for you, to the point where you don’t want to write? or is it always part of how you deal with things? is sharing always part of your writing practice, or do you ever write purely for yourself (journal)?

  • Very nice and very reasonable. This can be applied to anything! Thank you!

  • Aaron

    Thanks for writing this, Geraldine. I share your feelings about leaving up the early blog posts; I’ve gone back and read some of mine and their flaws are so clear to me now (five years later). It’s nice to be able to look back at where we came from, though.

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  • From Neil Gaiman’s blog:

    Chuck Jones told would be artists to draw, explaining that “you’ve got a million bad drawings inside you and the sooner you get them out, the better”. Raymond Chandler is reputed to have told would be authors that they have a million words of crap to get out of their system. And in both cases there’s a lot of truth there — if only because it allows you to keep going despite your technical limitations and inability to get the words or the pen to do what you want, and eventually find yourself, well, competent. And some of the words and pictures you turn out on the way can be pretty good too.

    • Debbie Graham

      My fear is they won’t get out and maybe I have a lot more than a million or two. I have a lot of work to do, so I am heading back to the kitchen and eating again. Thanks for the encouragement Geraldine!

      • Jonny Mehoff

        Considering most articles these days are 500-1000 words, it would be impressive, after writing 1,333 articles (averaging 750 words), and still not get good at it. In fact, I would want to shake your hand at that point!

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  • Morgan

    Copying great writing has been helping me. Seems to get my brain used to writing good stuff. Just get some paper and start copying passages you like!

  • I’m not an aspiring writer (just a lapsed blogger) but the writing on my blog is ALWAYS better, funnier, smoother, and you know.. just plain ol’ better.. when I’m reading consistently. It’s like even just *exposure* to wonderful/interesting writing helps bleed over into what comes out of your own head. (Which: isn’t that SO COOL? It’s basically the ability to *absorb* other peoples’ talent!)

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  • Joe_Buddha

    Computer programmer here. Back in the day, when I was the only programmer in the company (and had little idea what I was doing, as opposed to now when I still have little idea what I’m doing but with more people), I would write an entire app and then throw it away and write the final version. Because I’d already made the mistakes and gotten them out of my system, and figured out the approach to take. I can’t help but think that writing prose can take a similar tack.

  • Stiliyana Stamenova

    So I’ve got a somewhat unrelated comment – though maybe related since it’s about your book?

    I finally got around to reading it and I’m enjoying it a lot except there’s one thing that’s been bugging me for a few days. Why pick on Bulgaria? In the chapter where you give examples of travel questions people ask you (such as which hotel to book in Bulgaria), you say: just don’t go. It’s a pickle – Bulgaria is a very pretty and (mostly) very friendly place to visit and affordable too! Case in point:

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  • JulieKen

    I just finished your book and have to say, you are a fantastic writer!!! On a side note, everyone in the waiting room, including the staff, of my son’s orthodontist’s office bought your book while I was there….I couldn’t stop laughing (you know, that REALLY uncontrollable-going-to-pee-your-pants kind). Best book I’ve read in a long time, I hope you’re working on a second one!

  • jay

    I just discovered you through your essay about your bully. So the next obvious thing for me to do was to visit your website. “Two tricks” was the first post I read. You are an excellent writer. You are right that we can always improve, and in that spirit, may I offer this tweak to the only sentence in your post that didn’t sing, or at least hum. It stood out to me because you had crafted every other sentence so well: “There are two things that I did that contributed to me become a better writer.” How about “Two things contributed to my improvement as a writer.” But if you prefer the original sentence, you still could replace “to me” with “my improvement” and you will have improved the sentence. Thanks for sharing. Your essay in the Washington Post was first rate.

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  • Umair Mansha

    totally agreed, here is the difference between amateurs and professionals, amateurs do stuff based on their emotions and pro do stuff because they need to do that, so they show up to work daily no matter how bad they don’t wanna do it, they practice their craft daily, they put in the work, they don’t look for inspiration/motivation or stars to align or to find moments of epiphany, they just work on their craft, putting thousands of hours to get better each and everyday.

  • It is very helpful article for everyone.Thank you so much for sharing a great one!

  • Beauty and health

    Writing is a skill that you must develop day in and day out if you wanna be a successful writer. You don’t just win the Nobel prize by your first attempt you have to work and work, you don’t have to be inspiring all the time if you don’t feel like it and you don’t have motivation just document your life. The mistake that everyone does is that they try to be perfect don’t try to do that just start. for anyone who’s trying to be an excellent writer I highly suggest this book it’s a really good one Thanks for the post…

  • JacyOnTheFly

    “Read the Stuff You Wish You’d Written” That’s me right now, reading your blog. I hate you. And I love you. I’m so glad I found your blog and looking forward to reading it regularly. Thinking about starting my own. Maybe. Possibly. Hopefully.

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