I’m a firm believer of “no-pain-no-gain”.
If there’s a skill that comes naturally without having to put any real effort, then well, it gets boring soon enough. And nothing kills creativity faster than boredom.
Writing, for me at least, is something that routinely makes me want to pull my hair out. I had an easier time figuring out differential equations back in college, and trust me, it wasn’t painless.
Maybe I’m just a masochist, but hey, it makes living that much more interesting!
So, while you enjoy the holidays with loved ones, allow me to instead write something for you on writing as I listen to Wild Hearts by “Bleachers” on Pandora. (My Holiday playlist is basically the Love, Simon soundtrack.)
Let’s play pretend.
One of the best yet most painstaking undertaking of How-to-Write-Better challenge is the act of playing pretends. It’s a simple enough idea, but mighty difficult to accomplish with any semblance of success.
Here’s what you need to do:
Pick a writer you like. Read one of your favorite pieces authored by them to prep yourself. After you’ve finished reading, sit back and think what the writer must have been thinking when writing. What was important to them? What were the things they included, and what did they leave out? Basically, dissect the piece as thoroughly as possible.
Now it’s time to get to work.
Pretend you’re them [the writer].
Get in character [of the writer].
Pick a subject matter close to what you’ve just read.
And, start writing.
Remember, you’re not you. You’re your favorite writer. You’re not expressing yourself. You’re not trying to be original. You’re someone else. You’re creating what they’ve created. Or rather, what you think they would create given the topic of choice.
Pay close attention to the style, word choices, and overall vibe that this writer would’ve conveyed had they been the one writing.
Once you’re done writing, read through several times, making changes as necessary, to get it as close as possible to the original style of the writer you’re pretending to be.
The goal is to know how these writers think and work as intimately as possible. Practice until you’ve stolen all that’s up for grabs while you’re inside their heads.
The goal is to steal from as many writes as possible. Steal their ideas, their techniques, their unique point of view, their way of constructing a universe that only they know how (until of course, you’ve known it just as well). Repeat until you know them like you do the back of your hands.
And then, when you’re writing your own pieces, bring out everything you’ve stolen from different writers, and pour all that onto paper.
Or your computer.
After all, what are we if not a mashup of our heroes? Like Pablo Picasso said,
Good artists copy, great artists steal.
And here’s another quote by Zadie Smith:
The choices a writer makes within a tradition — preferring Milton to Moliere, caring for Barth over Barthelme — constitute some of the most personal information we can have about him.
Be a copycat.
This one is even simpler than the previous one.
There’s absolutely no need to get inside anyone’s head. At least not actively.
Here’s what you must do.
Pick up a book or find an article/blog post/essay you like. Also, keep a notebook and a pen close by. Now, read it. When you come across a particularly interesting passage, start copying it into your notebook. Yes, with a pen. On paper.
I suppose you could type as well. Personally, I’ve found that writing with my hands helps me internalize something better than typing it up. But hey, if you’re the type that hates analog, digital is just as well. At least it’s better than nothing.
When I was young, my mother used to tell me that writing something once is like reading it 10 times. I’m not certain who came up with the analogy originally, but hey, it works!
Maybe it’s an interesting sentence or a word used in a way that’s unique; you want to remember that! You can read as much as you like, but you have a better chance at recalling it when you actually write it down.
That GRE wordlist is pretty useful!
I remember going through a list of a few hundred words, painstakingly, as part of my GRE prep work.
I also remember wondering why an engineer would ever need these fancy words you’ll likely never come across in an engineering book, nor have any use of while writing an engineering report.
I was right, of course.
I never needed these words as an engineer.
But they do come in handy sometimes when I want to sound smart in a blog post that has nothing to do with engineering. Words like “abdicate” or “innocuous” can sometimes make all the difference!
Here’s the exercise. Pick up a GRE book or find a list of GRE words online. Pick 10 words, and then write 10 sentences per word where you try to use the word in the most creative ways possible. Even better, try to write a paragraph and use the word in a way where it’s the most important word. If it’s too much to do this exercise using 10 words, then pick 5. Or even just one word. But do construct 10 unique sentences/paragraphs for that word.
The more practice you have, the better.
The idea is to learn to use a word within a context. The more practice you have the easier it will be to recall when the opportunity arises.
You can, of course, do this with a dictionary instead of just the GRE wordlist. Personally, I like to start small so as not to feel too overwhelmed.
And well, I also find dictionaries rather frightening. Someday, when I’ve gone through the entire GRE list, I’ll consider picking up the dictionary. But until then, I’ve got my work cut out for me.
Why not look up synonyms and antonyms?
This one is best used with your GRE list. When you’re learning to use a word, try looking up the synonyms and antonyms of that word. Write them down in an index card if you will.
Finally, just write!
Way to be Ms. Obvious, I know! But I wanted to wrap up this list with something fun.
If you’ve read this far, you probably at least enjoy writing, even if you don’t like the exercises I’ve written up so far.
Well, I’ve got good news! The best (and obvious) tip to getting better at writing is to write.
Write as much as possible.
But here’s the catch.
Don’t just write for the sake of writing. Write with intention. Try to make your sentences better. Edit what you write.
TRY TO BE BETTER ALL THE TIME.
You don’t have to create masterpieces every time you write. In fact, if your goal is to create masterpieces all the time, you’ll find that you’re never able to finish anything.
Learn to spot when you’ve created something that’s “good enough”. And when it is, you can hit the “publish” button. But until then, refine, cut, edit, and rewrite.