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?
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.
- 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.
- 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.