“How do I get better at writing?”
Two people close to me have asked me this question recently.
They have followed it with one or two (or likely more) fears, anxieties, or giant big problem-reasons why they can’t seem to get over whatever THING is getting in the way of them putting words down.
Neither of these two people are fiction writers. Both of them are smart, competent, successful adults. They want to be able to write something, anything, without feeling so dumb about it. One of them told me he doesn’t even want to write his resume; he’s thinking of hiring someone to do it for him.
(Wait, are resumes supposed to be easy to write? Is there anybody out there who likes writing his resume? I’m a professional writer and editor, and I don’t want to write my resume. Seeing as how I’m also poor and can’t afford to hire someone else to do it, I force myself. But if you can afford to hire someone, I say count your blessings and move on. And now that I think about it, since I’m a poor writer, maybe you should hire me to write your resume. Email me.)
(I’m kidding. I don’t want to write your resume, either. Even for money. Unless it’s a lot of money. Then maybe. Then email me.)
If writing intimidates you, you’re not alone. If you struggle with putting any words down on the page at all, whether it’s for a school paper or a poem for your girlfriend or your resume, don’t feel dumb. Lots and lots of people struggle with writing. Even people who do it for a living. Even people with a fierce passion for it.
So breathe, boss. You got this, I promise. Even though you don’t know you do, you do. It will take a little time. If you put in some work (probably less than you think, and a different kind of work than you think), you will get better.
Unfortunately, you will probably always feel, on some level, dumb about writing. Because everybody does.
Here’s the thing: You’re already on the right road. You’re asking for help. You’re looking to improve. You’re thinking about how to do it. You want to learn.
Do you know how many people do not have that attitude? This attitude will SAVE you. It is the thing that will make your whole life better, because you’re working on your happiness.
OK, enough soapbox.
This is a big topic. In fact, it’s so big that there’s no way I can fit it all in one post. So instead of trying, I am making you a series on how to become a better writer.
This is the first part, and it is a doozy.
Seriously, I want you to pay attention, because this is the most important part. The stuff I’m going to tell you later, the other steps? None of it will matter if you don’t learn this one step. The other steps will help you to learn this step, but this one right here in this post is THE KEY.
So listen up, okay?
The first thing you have to do to become a better writer is this, and I am not kidding so take me seriously:
Cultivate the right mindset.
Sounds like fluff. I know. But let me explain what it means.
First, lighten up on yourself. You’re not dumb. There’s no shame in not being good at writing.
Writing is one of those things, like romantic relationships, that everybody thinks they’re supposed to automatically be good at. You fall in love, you move in, you get married, you live happily ever after … and nobody talks about how fucking hard it is.
Nobody gives classes on how to fall in love and have a relationship. Nobody teaches you, when you’re young, how the opposite gender thinks and how to talk to them. You’re just supposed to know.
There is a similar mystique around writing that makes it a big ugly for a lot of people. It’s like you have to climb over a stone wall before you can even get a look at what you’re dealing with.
Writing, like relationships, does not come automatically. Fortunately, there’s plenty of help out there. And fortunately, you can do something about it, and you’re already on that road.
So lighten up on yourself already!
Don’t be a perfectionist.
Do you know that I saw a wildly successful blogger and e-mail marketer use the word “right” when he meant “write” in an e-mail to his e-mail list recently? Wow, that’s embarrassing, right? You don’t wanna be that guy.
Except … you do. Being successful at writing does not mesh well with being a perfectionist. It’s not about getting every word right. It’s about communicating with people. It’s about connecting with them. It’s about making your ideas clear.
Via writer Jeff Goins, who helps people learn to write gooder, says of his post 6 Ways for Writers to Overcome Perfectionist Tendencies:
There’s probably a typo in this post. An I’m okay with that.
So stop stressing about the little stuff. Focus on mastering the big stuff.
The big thing I want you do right now is:
Change your process.
How do you write? What do you do when you need to get something written? I’m figuring it’s some version of this: Sit down in front of a page, whether it’s digital or paper, and stare, and command yourself to WRITE.
I used to do that. I’m sorry; I know how much it hurts.
Don’t do that. Please, please don’t do that.
Here’s what to do instead: Add a new stage to your writing process.
Call it play.
In the Play Stage, you’re not going to write.
Here’s what you need to make your brain understand:
The first time at the page is not for writing.
“Writing” means too much. It’s too big of a deal. It’s what you see when you look at someone else’s finished work. It’s what you read, by other people.
But the problem with that is that no one starts with that. No one writes a first draft that looks like their finished draft. No one’s outline is the same as their finished draft.
You’re looking at someone else’s finished writing and thinking, man, I wish I could write like that. But nobody “writes” like that. Not by sitting down and staring at a page and then immediately pouring out beauty. Whatever they’re pouring out might not even be coherent, let alone beautiful.
With a lot of practice, what you pour out might be better than what someone who hasn’t practiced pours out. But nobody just sits down and writes. They play and they plan and they verbal vomit and they spill out terrible words, and then they edit and redo and make weird animal noises and cry and shout. Then they do that some more. They do that for years, and they get better slowly.
Of all things, the first stage of writing doesn’t have to be so painful. The rest of the process is painful enough; don’t make the first part worse than it has to be.
Here’s what the first time at the page is for:
finding out what you think
So, make notes. They don’t have to be complete sentences. They don’t have to mean anything to anyone other than you. Everything that comes into your head when you start thinking about your project goes on that page.
Here’s what you’re going to want to do: Think and judge and stop and rewrite your notes in your head before they even come out on the page.
Don’t do that. Please, don’t do that.
When you realize you’re judging instead of playing, stop it. Write it down. Let your thoughts run. Try to keep them on topic, but let them fly within the bounds of whatever it is you need to write about. Experiment. What about this thing? Would this be cool? Does that other thing seem relevant? Or is it too big for the scope of this thing? I don’t know. Write it down.
Nothing has to be decided in this stage. It’s time to play. It’s time to figure out what you think.
Some people use mind maps for this stage, because it allows them to simply connect ideas freely. I can’t stand them; I’m a ridiculously linear thinker. But if you like a more free-flowing, ideas-all-over-the-page kind of style, they might be worth trying. It might get you out of the box of regimentation, if that’s something you struggle with.
I write down everything I think when I am planning a piece of writing. No judgment allowed. My Inner Critic can stuff it.
I AM GOD, AND I HAVE ALL THE IDEAS.
You are going to forget this. You are going to start feeling, again, like your notebook or your computer are the enemy, the Devil, and you are a lowly idiot who can’t do it. Remind yourself, when that happens, that you are only playing. You are only thinking and making notes.
That is your entire responsibility when you sit down to write.
Forget about all the other stages for now. Forget about everything else.
Take one hour and play. Take one hour and make notes. Take one hour and see what you think.
Focus on whatever it is you need to write, whether it’s your resume or a school paper or what, and put down some words about it.
One of my very favorite writing books can help you keep this mindset at the forefront of your brain as you try to train it to do this:
Bradbury focuses on writing fiction, but there are valuable lessons there for anyone who needs to get some writing done. He was the ultimate at relaxing into his writing — he saw it as a giant playground until the day he died. He knew how to turn off that inner critic and let his brain run wild.
You can do the same. Just trust your inner creator and run with the ideas that occur to you. Don’t judge.
Do it again and again.
This takes practice. You will need to remind yourself to play every time you are about to get to work.
Tiny Buddha has some great tips on responding to your inner critic here, and Carol Tice has a helpful post over at Make a Living Writing about dealing with your own psychodramas. (I found the comments here about depression especially enlightening. Nobody has an easy time with writing, okay?)
If you’re more of a talker than a writer (and I know both of my friends who asked me about this are), consider recording yourself as you talk out loud about whatever you have to write instead of writing it down. Talk to the room or the cat and let the ideas flow. It might be more comfortable than trying to type at a laptop or write in a notebook.
Then transcribe the recording (or have someone else do it), print it out, and repeat the process.
Now that you have some thoughts down, where do you go from here? Which are worth pursuing; which do you need to flesh out more? Ask yourself a lot of questions and start considering the answers. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Don’t get caught in a box you’ve unwittingly made for yourself.
Last, and perhaps most important:
Dig for and tell the truth.
Often when we’re scared of something, we lose ourselves in the fear without even noticing. We let the fear run how we do that thing. But a big part of being a successful writer is digging. It’s fighting that fear and getting at what’s underneath it. It’s being honest about that.
And that is what makes writing amazing. It’s what makes creating anything amazing — because this is the time to break down the walls and figure out what’s behind them. To stop any and all pretending and notice what’s hard. What other excuse do you have to stop and play and experiment and see what you really think?
P.S. In upcoming posts in this series, I’ll talk more about practical ways you can learn to be a better writer and what to do about the nitty-gritty details. Can you guys help me address the most important stuff? What do you find the most challenging about learning to be a better writer? Do you stress about nit-picky typos? Do you wish you had a bigger vocabulary? Share in the comments and I’ll try to address your concerns in future posts. As always, thanks for reading! <3