Two ‘Secrets’ to Better Writing

“How can we become better writers?”

We ask this all the time. No matter how well we write, we always feel we can do better. What should we do to get there?

The secret to improving writing lies in establishing two simple habits: practice and reading good writing.

“WMountainhat?! I climbed up this stupid mountain to hear that? What a gyp!”

Were you expecting something more complicated? This seems too simple, but it isn’t easy. If it was easy, we’d all be great writers. There are loads of people who won’t do these two things, just as there are tons of people who won’t practice an instrument or do drills for a sport. They want to be great without having to muddle through the boring fundamentals. Good luck with that.

Let’s investigate a little more of what I mean.

Practice

Writers need to write. We feel compelled to do it. We can’t help ourselves. The trick is to make sure we write regularly and with purpose. I make sure I write a minimum of 30 minutes each day – every day. Most of the time, this is no problem for me. The trick is to make sure that I’m writing something constructive. I keep a personal journal, but I don’t usually count that toward my 30-minute minimum. What I write in that journal are emotions, things that have happened to me, dreams I’ve had, or observations about my life. I’m not concentrating on writing.

However, I also keep a writing journal where I write about how certain emotions might manifest in characters I’m developing, what the needs may be for certain audiences and writing products, comments about things I’ve found in other people’s blogs about writing, and tips and techniques I’ve read about that I might want to try.

I also practice writing actual products. For instance, right now I am working on coming up with a media kit for a group that wants to establish a local community center. I have been collaborating with them to describe the scope, vision, and goals of the project as well as to provide background on why the project is necessary. Eventually I hope to write a grant. I’m donating my time and talents, but it is for my benefit as well as the project’s. They get media and communications products, and I get to play in a writing “sandbox.”

By practice, I mean activities specifically geared toward the writing process.

Reading Good Writing

I love to read. I’ll read a cereal box if it is the only thing handy. I recently borrowed my grandson’s Percy Jackson series and read them in about five days. When I read for pleasure, I subconsciously pick up what makes the writing good. However, I’m primarily feeding literary “candy” to my brain.

When I read to make myself a better writer, I take a book, article, blog, or whatever and break it down to see what the author has done to make the writing seem so good. What words has he used? Where has he placed certain events or ideas? How has he built up to them? What is the rhythm in the words? How can I incorporate some of these things in my own writing?

I try to avoid poor writing unless I want to examine examples of what not to do.

Find something that is well written, and read it with a critical eye. Investigate writing you might not normally read to stretch those writing muscles. I can’t write poetry, but I have decided to start reading some to see if I can adapt some techniques to make my own prose writing better.

Sure, I haven’t offered any earth-shattering revelations here; however, it never hurts to be reminded that we need to consistently keep doing the things we already know.

Numbers, My Lifelong Nemeses

slugNumbers and I don’t get along. In fact, I hate math!

Okay, “hate” may be a strong word, but I have the same reaction when presented with a math problem that I would if a slug was plopped before me: “Eew! Yuck! Run away!”

Put words and letters in front of me, and I can play all day. For some reason, numbers just don’t register well in my brain. I’ve had people blame it on the educational system (which is not fair) and tell me I’m numerically dyslexic (is that a real thing?). Whatever it may be, it has meant that numbers have always been an effort for me.

I admire people who do well in math. In high school, I had a friend who did calculus problems for fun! I even read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Didn’t understand much of it, but what I did was intriguing.

I’ve tried Sudoku, the really easy ones, and been stymied. Yet I love doing crossword puzzles, especially the New York Times’s Sunday ones. (Sure, it takes me several days and a dictionary, and I never do it in pen.)

“We get the message,” you’re thinking, “but this is supposed to be a blog about writing.”

Well, it’s also a blog about learning. The point is that, when I hear someone say, “I hate writing,” I can emphasize. But that’s not an excuse to avoid honing writing skills.

I worked hard (really, really hard) to pass algebra, geometry, and (gag) trigonometry in high school. Physics also presented a challenge. I confess that most of that stuff I forgot very quickly, mostly because I don’t use it.

On the other hand, ask me a percentage or how to adjust a recipe, and I can pretty much do that in my head. The mathematical functions that I need have stuck with me.

For instance, if the news reports that my property tax rate has increased five percent per thousand, you bet I can quickly calculate how much more that is going to add to my tax bill. I even calculated (after going through about a ream of paper) how much gravel I would need for a patio I’m planning to put in. When I’m driving long distances, I try to do calculations in my head to keep me awake.

Sure, I can find a calculator online just as people can find paragraphs online they (illegally and unethically) copy and paste. But just like an athlete, my brain needs the exercise. Math helps me with organization and logic, so I force myself to do something that is useful but that I don’t like at all.

Do I get it right all the time? Heck, no! The last time my checkbook was balanced was in college when my accounting major roommate (now my dearest friend) decided to do it. Three hours later, completely mystified by my “system,” she succeeded but vowed never to try it again.

When it needs to be correct, I seek out a professional. I have an accountant do my income tax, but I try to organize my information as best I can before I hand it over.

The moral of this blog post is that, even though we feel frustrated and mystified by something, like writing, it is still valuable to make the effort to practice and improve it.