Our writing skills are like a sword’s edge; they must be constantly honed and whetted to keep sharp.
The Effective Writer is constantly seeking to improve, constantly learning and constantly finding new and better means of applying what they know. Nothing is beneath them, not the least helpful tip or the most general of suggestions. All is grist for their mill and they mine everything for their own improvement.
If we’re not actively improving our writing from article to article, blog post to blog post, our talent begins to atrophy. The Effective Writer sees the choice before them: grow for success or stagnate to failure. If we’re not actively moving forward, we’re passively slipping backwards.
This is different from improving a piece of writing. That falls under the category of simple editing. What I mean here is the broad, underpinning skill set hidden beneath the simple act of editing. Editing will improve your story, learning how to edit will improve your talent.
Here’s five strategic ways to move your writing forward.
1. Practice – Writing is a hands-on experience. Few come into this world armed with a fully formed understanding of how to communicate. At best we have hunches, gut instincts, and a vague feeling this is the right way to proceed. Practice is what hones, defines, polishes, and shines your gut instinct to a high pitch. Mozart practiced piano for countless hours; Tiger Woods hit hundreds of thousands of golf balls; Stephan King wrote two thousand words a day.
If you do nothing else, practice alone will take you to a higher plane. Sheer quantity of words will take it’s toll on your talent and force it to stretch and grow. But be warned, you’ll never out-practice your own talent. Working only within your own limits, without outside help to pull you up, sharply defines your growth.
Write every day for an hour. Write every day for two hours, or for twenty minutes. Your skills are like a muscle: they must be used regularly if they’re to grow stronger. Find time to write. Make time to write. Don’t watch TV. Don’t go to the bar tonight. Invest in your talent instead.
2. Edit – Cultivate the habit of self-consciousness. Force yourself to ruthlessness. Become willing to rewrite entire scenes, cut multiple paragraphs, and start from scratch again. Pay attention to the flow of words and the sense it creates in your mind.
Abandon your ego for the moment: can the movement you’ve created be improved on? Can you lead your readers into that emotion more effectively? How does the structure of your piece lend itself to the overall effect you’re attempting to create?
Learn to care about grammar! Grammar’s the only thing standing between us the writers and our propensity to language-chaos. It’s a tool that lets us efficiently deliver our stories, and message, to an impatient audience with little sympathy for confounding writing. Acquire a dependable grammar dictionary and crack it open any time you have a question. Lay vs. Lie, Who vs. Whom, and what in the world is a Split Participle? Find out for effective writing’s sake!
3. Cross Write – Learn to write outside your chosen genre. If you write news articles, branch out into metrical poetry. If you’re a science fiction author, try your hand at drama. If you’re a poet who writes only Shakespearean sonnets, learn to relax with an informal blog post.
If your bread and butter is investigative reporting, most likely you won’t make any money from your side interest in sonnets, but you will see a positive effect on your reporting as you grow more and more adroit and dexterous with words and rhythms.
The point to branch out, learn new methods, and develop the sense that you can literally write anything. Think of it as stretching your writing muscles; not brute strength but subtle limberness is your goal.
4. Create a Constant Reader – Find a reader who pays attention to what they’re feeling, instead of watching your grammar/spelling/word choice. They can be anyone you know, but they have to be willing to help you in a very distinctive way.
You’re trying to create a miniature test case of what the majority of your readers will feel as they read, and to that end your Constant Reader needs to pay attention to the experience you’re giving them and be willing to tell you if they feel bored, or betrayed, happy, or satisfied. This will hopefully give you a sense of effect and a feeling for the scope of your work on the small scale.
Take the information the Constant Reader gives you and use it to evaluate the difference between your intended effect and what your writing is actually doing to your reader. Unless your Constant Reader happens to be a professional editor, they most likely won’t have any constructive comments on how to adjust your writing structure. That’s okay. It’s your writing and you’re the one who needs to be constantly improving.
5. Read Out Loud – It’s a sad fact that much writing done on a laptop screen is flat and dead. Something about the screen coupled with bright lights over long periods of time messes with your brain and causes even seasoned writers to spit out indigestible phrases.
If you take a moment to speak the lines you’ve just written the rhythms, cadences, and guts of your writing are revealed. After all, words on a page are meant to represent the spoken word, and every reader hears your words in their mind as if they were spoken. Put yourself in their shoes and read out loud.
I’ve found many a stunted phrase hidden away in the middle of a paragraph this way. When I’ve been writing for several hours at a time, my mind begins to power down and allows almost anything to make it’s way into my writing. Reading out loud circumvents this unfortunate effect and ensures that your writing remains top-notch.
Have your own training methods? A continuation to one of the points above, or a suggestion in anther direction? I’m all ears. Let me know what you think and we’ll become more effective together!