Becoming a great writer takes incredible time and effort. For most people, the initial rush accompanying their first foray into writing often subsides into fear and depression at the prospect of the enormous mountain of work ahead.
But learning how to be a better writer isn’t about slaying dragons and saving planets; it’s about clocking in every day. It’s about sitting down in front of a blank page and putting down one word after the other until you’ve got a first draft, then a second, then a third, until, finally, a published text.
Writers have good days and bad days. Sometimes your writing is your best friend; sometimes, it’s your worst enemy. While it’s never easy, there are some steps you can take to make it less of a fight-to-the-death every time you sit down to write.
From playing a long game to throwing your phone out of the window, respecting your audience to singing at the top of your voice, here are the top ten steps you can take to become a better writer.
1. Play the long game
In 2020, we’re used to things being instant. From next-day delivery to software updates, everything is ready within minutes. If you’re trying to become a better writer, try to lengthen your timeline. Becoming a great writer doesn’t happen overnight. Be prepared to work at it for decades.
One way to get used to this unusually long timescale is to figure out what you’re writing for. If you want overnight success, sports, pop music, and vlogging might be better choices than writing blogs, novels, or poetry.
If, on the other hand, writing is the goal, then you’ll never be disappointed. If you revel in wordplay, crafting sentences, and pushing squiggly lines around on a page, then with time, you’re inevitably going to become a better writer. All it takes is practice.
2. Three Notebooks and One Good Pen
Becoming a better writer means finding the right tools. The best way to find the right tools for you is through trial and error. Try writing on a laptop or typewriter; write with a fountain pen or a 99-cent Biro; a feather quill or a Sharpie, whatever you need to get the creativity flowing.
Switch up your notebooks and paper. Try a yellow legal pad like John Grisham, a fancy Moleskin like Samuel Beckett, or scraps of paper like J.K. Rowling. Mix it up and try to notice what you like and dislike. Discard what doesn’t work and keep only what works. Over time, you’ll build your custom writer’s toolkit.
3. Rites, Rituals, and Retreats
Our bodies crave routine, so try to find a writing schedule that works for you. Ceremonies are also great ways to let your body know that you’re going to be writing soon. A quick walk around the park is a good way to focus your mind, lighting candles or incense can help, or try reciting an encouraging mantra. Again, find what works for you.
Intersperse retreats, workshops, and creative excursions into your regular writing routine to help push your creative comfort zone. Becoming a better writer has a lot to do with experimentation and innovation. New surroundings, settings, and stimuli help us generate new ideas.
4. Throw Away Your Phone (or at least put it on silent)
When it comes time to write, you want to give yourself the best chance of success by minimizing distractions. This means putting your phone on silent, closing the door, turning off Netflix, resisting the desire to clean your fridge, ignoring your rumbling tummy, and writing. It’s as simple as that.
5. Write Today, Edit Tomorrow
Being a writer means wearing numerous different hats. You’re simultaneously storyteller, writer, reader, editor, critic, and audience member. All of these conflicting voices need to be heard but don’t try to listen to them all at once.
Instead, try to identify which one you need to be right now. Are you writing? Then turn off the editor. Are you rereading your third draft? Then put on your audience member hat and try to see your work with a fresh pair of eyes.
6. Do Push-Ups
Any form of exercise can help stimulate those little grey cells. We know that getting the circulation going is one of the best ways to provoke new ideas. It’s also one of the few factors we know to help prolong cognitive function, so if you’re in it for the long run, go for a walk every day. There’s a good chance of becoming a half-decent writer if you live to 100!
7. Do Shadow Work
Most forms of writing require you to build characters or adopt different voices. One of the best ways to get to know different perspectives is by getting to know your own characteristics. Understanding your personality, as well as more about the science and psychology of how your mind works, can be a great way to understand your job as a writer.
Shadow work can be tricky and difficult, but it’s worth it. Try meditating; read some Jung; do an online course; talk to a shrink; consider what it means to be human; ask the big questions and then channel what you learn into your writing.
8. Respect Your Audience
Writers play essential roles in the community. It’s our job to disseminate information, provide entertainment, reveal great truths, and deliver catharsis to our readers, and that’s just the beginning. In return, the audience pays our bills. They justify our existence and provide us with acclaim, fame, and everlasting glory.
To become a better writer, it helps to think carefully about your relationship with your audience. Writing is a form of communication, and it serves every writer to remember that it’s not a one-way street.
9. ‘Let Nature Be Thy Teacher’
When it comes to creativity, we should all take William Wordsworth’s advice and let ourselves be guided by nature. Mother Nature is the best creator out there as well as the best destroyer we’ve got.
If you’re ever stuck for inspiration, you don’t have to look far into nature before seeing a whole stack of crazy stories, harsh realities, hilarious comedies, and brutal tragedies playing out every day all over the world. As an artist of any kind trying to improve, you should learn some lessons from nature.
10. Worship the Imagination
Writing involves tapping into your imagination. Try to think of your imagination as a natural resource that needs to be exploited. But, like any resource, try to do it sustainably. To improve, you need to stop occasionally and renew the reserves.
Try exploring other forms of imagination. Listen to music, sing, dance, watch tons of movies, look at art, read comic books, try a pottery class. There’s no limit when it comes to expressing ourselves and our imaginations, so try something new.
Read every kind of book you can get your hands on. Read fiction, non-fiction, books on writing – you should have multiple lists of books to read at all times.
Intentionally break all the rules you can find. Strengthening your imagination often comes down to bending rules until they break, smashing things to figure out how they work before putting them back together, and throwing everything out and starting again. If you want to get better, try to befriend failure.
Lastly, put time into the basics. To break the rules, you need to know what they actually are. Familiarize yourself with the basics of writing. Learn how to use semicolons. Understand the meaning of catharsis. Know how to identify and employ an inciting incident. Once you learn a rule, it’s up to you to take it or leave it.
Be a Great Writer
There’s never been a better time to be a writer. More people can read than ever before, and billions of people have access to the Internet on phones they keep on themselves every hour of the day. Reaching your audience has, seemingly, never been easier.
That doesn’t mean becoming a great writer is easy. The competition is stiffer than ever, and it can be demotivating to dwell on your chances of becoming rich and famous. If you’re willing to put in the hours and dedicate yourself to the noble pursuit of being a great writer, then the journey itself is all the reward that you need.
Rachael Cooper is the SEO & Publishing Manager for Jericho Writers, a writers services company based in the UK and US. Rachael has a Masters in eighteenth-century literature, and specialises in female sociability. In her free time, she writes articles on her favourite eighteenth-century authors and, if all else fails, you can generally find her reading and drinking tea!