Are you there? Can you hear me? I’m the writer inside you. Please help me… I’m trapped in here!
Most people know how to write. On a daily basis, millions of people compose emails, letters to friends, journals, blogs, and/or Facebook statuses. But let’s face it, not everyone is a good writer. So what’s the difference between a good writer and a, well, not-so-good one?
For most of us, the difference comes down to one thing: accessing the true writers inside of us.
Humans are built for language. We not only communicate in it, we think in it. We label our world in names and categories, and we connect with one another in conversation. Even our innermost feelings cry out to be put into words. We are a people of language.
So why should written language be so difficult? While some people definitely have more talent for writing than others, and not everyone is destined to be a great writer, I think that most people have the potential to be good writers, if only they equip themselves with the proper tools and techniques.
Somewhere within you, there is a writer waiting to get out, waiting for you to make the leap from just “someone who can write” to a full-fledged “writer.” Even if you have no desire to be a novelist, wouldn’t you love to be one of those for whom words flow naturally? Wouldn’t you love to be one who can easily translate thoughts into words and can put them skillfully on the page? The ability to write fluidly is a valuable skill to have, whether you apply it in the form of an academic essay, a best-selling novel, or a letter to your mom. Finding the writer inside you will help you to feel more at ease with writing, more capable, and more confident. You may never be the next J.K. Rowling, but you can learn to write well, and to communicate your thoughts on the page intelligently and even eloquently. When you finally release your inner writer, you may find that it was a caged stallion, eager and ready to run.
The good news is that finding this writer within you is actually very achievable. For most writers, it just requires dedication, practice, and a willingness to work outside your comfort zone.
Do you want to become a better writer? Take a deep breath, and make the commitment to do what it takes to make it happen.
Let’s get started. Here’s what you’ll need:
As with most things in life, you can’t succeed at writing unless you are motivated to succeed. In other words, unless you really want to improve, you will never reach the level of commitment necessary to take your writing to the next level. When your motivation is only so-so, even easy things can become hard, and you will find yourself caught in a loop of procrastination, distractions, and excuses. Also, planning only goes so far; you won’t reach your goal unless you are dedicated enough to actually do something rather than just planning for it.
If you really want to improve your writing, you have to commit to the process. Growing as a writer isn’t always fun. It’s a simple process, but it can be hard work. You will need commitment to push you through it. Envision yourself sitting down at the computer and writing fluently, the words flying onto the page, and being satisfied with your result. Envision reading back over your writing and thinking, “Wow! I can’t believe I wrote this. It’s really good!” Let your visualization sink in, and then commit to doing what is necessary to make it a reality.
And this brings us to #2…
My kids are huge fans of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. If you haven’t seen it, it’s basically a remake of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, but with cute cartoon characters instead of the somewhat-creepy puppets. One of our favorite things about this show is that they have a song for pretty much every situation, and one of those songs has to do with practice. After trying and failing to do something, Daniel is sung to: “Keep trying, you’ll get better!”
This is true in pretty much every area of life, and writing is no exception. If you want to be a good writer, if you want writing to be easier than it has been, and if you want to feel less stressed about writing, the answer is simple: write more. Does it seem strange that doing more of the thing that stresses you will actually make it less stressful? Oddly enough, it’s true. This is why “facing your fears” works… because sitting in dread of something is usually way scarier than actually doing it, and once you have done it and survived, your brain knows it’s not a major threat and your fear goes down a notch or two. I don’t know anyone who has ever died from writing, so I think you’re safe to practice away. Write often enough, and not only will your dread subside, but the actual process will become easier because your body and brain are creating new pathways that will make some of the more mundane aspects of the task become second nature. Once you hit that point, you’re on the fast track to improvement, because you can focus on the higher-level facets of the skill and let the rest happen automatically.
If you’re at the beginning of this process, practicing writing might seem difficult. Try easing yourself into the process by breaking it down into small steps. First, brainstorm your ideas and make some notes about what you want to write. Second, organize it into an outline or map. These pre-writing steps can relieve a ton of blank-page anxiety and will help you to stay focused – and free of panic – as you progress through the actual writing.
3. Working Outside Your Comfort Zone
Improving as a writer doesn’t only come from dedication and practice, it comes from a willingness to stretch your own limitations, gently pushing yourself outside what is easy and comfortable. Just as there is “no pain, no gain” in fitness, improving a skill that is mostly mental means that you might have to be okay with your brain hurting a little. The pain is only temporary, as eventually you will hit a place of competency… and then you can catch your breath a bit and enjoy your new proficiency until you’re ready to stretch some more. Trust me, it’s worth it!
When you hit a place where simply practicing the skill of writing no longer feels challenging, here are some ideas for pushing yourself to the next level:
- Invite criticism.
I can almost hear you thinking, “Why would anyone want to do that?!?” The answer is simple: because it helps. Yes, opening yourself up to critique and criticism from others can be painful, but it can provide enormously beneficial information. When you give others the freedom and safety to give you honest feedback on your writing (without anger or resentment from you), then you give yourself the gift of seeing your writing as others’ see it, and learning from their perspectives. One of the ways I do this is by enlisting a group of “Beta Readers.” These are volunteer readers made up of family, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances, who have agreed to read early drafts of my work and provide their honest feedback. Sometimes I provide them with a list of questions on specific aspects of my writing I’m particularly eager to obtain feedback about, and other times I just send them my writing and let them write back whatever comes to mind. But the important thing is that I have given them permission to be completely honest with me, and have asked them specifically not to hold back anything in fear of hurting my feelings. The feedback I have received from these readers has been enormously helpful.
- Make yourself vulnerable to rejection
This means putting your writing out there others to read. Are you afraid to turn in your essay because it might not get a good grade? Turn it in anyway. Any grade is better than a zero, and you might also learn how to improve based on your teacher’s feedback.
Are you worried that others will make fun of your story or poem? Well, unless you’re planning to bury them all in your desk drawers or computer files for the rest of your life, at some point somebody is going to read them. Why not now, while you have the chance to get feedback and possibly make your story even better?
Do you have a story that’s made it through the beta readers, but you’re still afraid of sending it out because you might be met with rejection? Take time to make sure it’s the best it can be, then send it out… you won’t ever get published by hiding your work in your computer files. Planning to self-publish instead? Don’t let your idea or book sit forever in a corner while you wait for the perfect time to launch it. Do some research about how to self-publish successfully, equip yourself and make the book the best it can be, and then follow through. Sure, it might fail. But not putting it out there at all guarantees it will never succeed. Take the risk!
But note that I said to make sure it’s the best it can be, first, which brings me to the next point…
- Be honest with yourself
As a writing instructor, one of the most common problems I see in students’ writing is that they simply submitted it too soon. I don’t mean before the deadline – most of them struggle to turn the assignment in before the last possible moment – I mean that they didn’t put enough time, work, and energy into it before giving it to me. Most of the time, this happens because students think it takes far less time to write an essay than it actually takes, and they procrastinate until they are in a frenzied panic to finish even the most rudimentary first draft before the deadline. If you are one of these writers, be honest with yourself about how long writing might take you. Estimate on the high side, just to be sure. And then get real with yourself about excuses you might be using to put off writing, and actually get started.
It is also important to be honest about your level of experience. If you really aren’t a proficient writer, it’s okay; you are in the process of improving your writing, and not everyone starts that process at the same place or takes the same amount of time to make the journey. But if you’re struggling to keep up with an assignment, don’t make excuses. Ask for help. Talk to your teacher. Invite classmates to do a peer review for you. Have a talented writer-friend read over it and give you feedback. There is absolutely no shame in asking for help; in fact, it shows you are intelligent, dedicated, and willing to approach your writing in a professional way.
When it comes to writing fiction, poetry, or other creative formats that are intended for eventual publication, being honest with yourself means admitting that you have room for improvement. If you have tried submitting for publication and received rejections, take a small step back. Rather than writing a draft and immediately sending it off to an agent, and then stewing about how your genius is underappreciated, reach out to fellow writers, beta readers, and any published authors, agents, or publishers who are willing to speak with you and ask them for tips and advice. Make use of the wealth of writing tips on the internet – many by successful writers or people who edit professionally – and see if you can learn some ways to make your writing even better. And most importantly, don’t give up on a draft simply because you’re frustrated or because it’s “good enough.” Be willing to read your writing with a critical eye, cut out things that don’t work – even if that means cutting entire chapters – and rewrite until it’s the best it can be. Not only will the practice benefit you, you will also learn more about yourself as a writer and gain valuable insight for your next project.
- Learn from other writers
One of the scariest yet most beneficial experiences in my college career was my Fiction 2 workshop, where each week two writers each submitted a story for the other 20 students in the class to read, and then we spent the entire class period discussing and critiquing the two stories, one at a time, in detail. The writers were required to sit quietly and listen, and other than a brief period at the end where they could ask questions for clarification, they were not permitted to speak up or defend their story in any way. Then at the end of the session, the professor added his feedback to the mix – out loud… in front of everyone. Does that sound terrifying? It was. But it was also the semester I grew the most as a writer. I learned to face my fear of what people would think of my writing, and in fact hear 20 of them say exactly what they thought. These were fellow writers, so they were not always easy on each other. But I learned so much about how to improve my writing in these workshops, and watched others grow as well.
If you aren’t ready for a workshop, try sending your writing to a friend who also writes. As a fellow writer, they are likely to see things in your story (or essay, etc.) that someone looking at it only as a reader might not see.
Also, read as much as you can. Learn from what other writers have written. Read classics, popular fiction, quality writing in your genre, or if you’re trying to improve your academic writing, then ask for a copy of a classmate’s essay that received a high grade. Read over them and compare them to your own writing. What might the other writer be doing that you aren’t? What techniques can you borrow from them? And most importantly – how can you make these techniques your own? The goal isn’t to conform your writing to be exactly like someone else’s; the goal is to decipher the techniques that make their writing work, and then figure out how to use them in your own unique way.
While there are many other tips I could give, these 3 – dedication, practice, and working outside your comfort zone – are a solid foundation for any writer hoping to improve, whether you’re a fiction writer, nonfiction writer, blogger, or a student trying to improve your essay grades.
Are you ready to be a better writer? Dig down deep, and set that stallion free.