I often think about Dorothy Parker’s quote, “I hate writing, I love having written.” To me, this epitomizes the writing process, which is, quite honestly, neither fun nor easy most of the time. To write well, I think, we have to struggle, and then take pride in the outcome of such painstaking work. Great writers don’t write because they want to; they write because they feel they must. It’s only through this action that we can make sense of our world and those who inhabit it.
I’m certainly not impervious to feeling frustrated, uninspired, or downright sick of writing. (In fact, I closed out of this draft two times today because I was dissatisfied with my introduction.) It’s quite easy to feel like a mediocre writer when everything seems to be pushing up against you, but my own experiences have taught me some valuable lessons that have helped me rebound and improve my writing.
1. Read. A lot.
In my mind, this is the single most important habit for aspiring writers. Admittedly, I don’t have much of an innate desire to immerse myself in the literary world; it’s something I have to actively seek out again and again. If you consider yourself a natural bibliophile, all the better!
Reading a variety of literature–from autobiographies to mysteries to classics–will help you explore the written word in many genres and writing styles. Over time, you’ll build up stores of knowledge from the books you read, and this, in turn, will inform your own writing.
2. Practice morning pages.
I learned about Julia Cameron’s “morning pages” a few years ago. Morning pages works as a stream of consciousness exercise, in which one simply writes a few pages of longhand each morning upon waking. The key is to simply write, without any preparation or filtering, utilizing a state of mind that is often available to us first thing in the morning. This exercise is a great way to explore a wide range of thoughts and ideas that might otherwise be overlooked, and they may in fact inspire you in new ways.
3. Be inspired rather than discouraged by others’ writing.
I’m certain I’m not the only one who compares my writing to that of others (even PD writers…eep!). This, combined with my perfectionist tendencies, is a recipe for feeling inadequate. While comparisons are normal, it’s never good to dwell for too long on your perceived limitations.
Whenever I feel particularly down after reading someone else’s work, I look for a few techniques or style choices the author uses that I can use in my own writing. Does the author have a way with metaphors? How does the author’s syntax improve upon the article’s fluidity? Making such observations will provide you with an opportunity to incorporate new ideas into your own writing.
The effects of journaling are unparalleled–not only to improve one’s writing abilities, but also as a kind of catharsis for those whose thoughts can live and fester in their minds. Try journaling once a day for a month and see whether your writing improves, whether your words move about more freely or you become more in touch with emotion.
5. Favor evocative prose over impressive words.
Sometimes simple is best. A good rule of thumb with so-called “vocabulary” words is to use them only when they come to mind naturally while writing. In other words, don’t use a thesaurus to find a synonym that may or may not make sense in a given context. There’s nothing worse than using an obscure word that then renders a sentence incoherent. Over time, you’ll learn new words by reading books and articles, or through everyday conversation.
6. Take a break (but not for too long).
It’s important to take regular breaks when writing, not only to maintain creativity, but also to reexamine your work upon returning with fresh eyes. One of my favorite ways to take a break from writing is to take a long, hot shower. There’s something about the solitude and renewal of bathing that really aids in the writing process. Some other ways to take a break are cooking, taking a walk, playing with a companion animal, taking a nap, or meditating.
Whatever you do, make sure your break isn’t so long that it keeps you from returning to your work. Writing isn’t like riding a bike (learn it once, and for life): to become a better writer, we must remain consistent and dedicated to the process.
7. Try out different writing formats and environments.
Not all spaces or methods are created equal. You might find that your writing turns stale when you’re at your desk; try going outside and sit in a nearby park to see if the words flow more naturally. Conversely, you might like writing indoors, but don’t necessarily like the quiet. Try sitting at a neighborhood café for a change, and you might find that the indiscernible chatter is helpful (it is for me!).
Moreover, you might also try different writing formats if you find yourself struggling. If you always type on a computer, why not try writing in a notebook for a day? You’d be surprised how much a change in environment or method can improve your work.
What has helped you become a better writer? Share!
Also by Molly: Are You Apologizing Too Much? A challenge
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Photo: Chiara Baldassarri via Flickr