3 ways to become a better writer
On the last morning of a silent meditation retreat, my teacher announced that he would tell us the three most important things about continuing a meditation practice at home. For a week, we had had a respite from daily life: no talking, no internet, no personal sagas, no decisions about what to do next. The normal distractions and habits were simply not there, providing an environment to deeply settle into the present moment.
In these last hours before I physically left to go home, my mind was leaping ahead to travel, and to catching up, and to this, and to that, and, and, and …
Having a three-step plan to preserve and develop my fragile, quiet peace sounded just right. Three steps sounded totally manageable. Whatever they were, I would do them. I waited with full attention.
His three recommendations were to:
1. Practice every day.
2. Practice every day.
3. Practice every day.
Having a daily writing routine is just as simple and basic. That’s right, the best way to improve your writing is to practice regularly.
This plain truth, that a writer writes, is strangely at odds with our culture’s notion of who a writer is or what a writer does. The archetypes of the blocked writer, and of the modern poseur-writer sitting with a laptop and a gigante coffee with sprinkly syrup, and of regular, passionate visits from the muse, are well known.
The reality for writers and other creatives is that no matter how much natural talent you have, regular practice makes you better.
For those who have long had a fascination with the written word, it’s not always readily apparent that an absolute essential to improving your craft is to practice. The discipline of writing every day makes it easier to write when you don’t want to, or to keep going when an internal editor is harping about every word.
The daily free write
Over the years, my students have found this free write exercise to be the single most effective technique in their quests to become more fluid and confident.
As you already know, there will be plenty of times when you have to find le mot juste, figure out how to build a solid structure, or rewrite draft after draft to get a final, polished product ready for publication. This is not one of those times. Think of this as a private cross-training exercise that will give you the conditioning and strength to bring out your best performance.
This is all about process, rather than product. Your only task is to keep your hand moving. If you don’t know what to write, you can literally write, “I don’t know what to write.”
Don’t stop to cross out words, or to search for the best phrase. Trust in your ability to put one word on the page after another. If you really feel stumped, try reading Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, which has a number of writing prompts to get you going with the first line. For example: Start with “I remember …”.
Choose a notebook, such as the inexpensive ones you find in the school supplies section. Decide if you’d like to measure by the page or the minute. For the first week, write for one page or ten minutes. The second week, move up to two pages or twenty minutes; the third week, three pages or thirty minutes. That’s as long as you’ll ever need.
You can write longer on any given day if you feel like it, but it’s by far more important to write every day for ten minutes than to write two hours one day, and none the next. You’re building stamina and discipline.
Do this longhand, with a pen or pencil, rather than on your computer. Research shows that different parts of your brain activate when writing by hand compared to a keyboard—and we do want to establish connections with that primal part of the brain.
The where and when are not crucial, though most people find that setting a time early in the day—first thing, even, in bed, before you mentally start downloading today’s to-do list—works well.
Pay attention to how you feel, both emotionally and physically, while you do your free write. Over time, notice how and when it impacts your other writing.