I was chatting with a potential client recently, and he flat out told me, “I suck at writing.”
Now, I’m betting that’s not objectively true. He has a lot of formal education under his belt — and I’m guessing that he couldn’t possibly have gotten those upper level degrees without SOME writing skills.
But what he’s probably saying is that he feels like he “sucks” at the kind of less formal, more conversational tone that most content marketing is written in. (Like this blog! Hello!)
I also had a couple of clients ask me over the past month if I had any resources on becoming a better writer. And the question kind of stumped me!
If they’d asked for a tutorial on how to structure a blog post, or how to write a sales page, or how to write an about page, I would have had places to send them readily. Just just becoming a better writer…? Hmmm…
First, let’s address the question of whether someone can learn to be a good writer. I absolutely believe that anyone can learn to be a better writer. You may not ever become <insert famous writer name here> but you can certainly improve your skills.
But how you actually do that…? It made me start to consider. So I made a list.
1. Write more
My daughter is six, and she’s often amazed at how easily I can do things that she struggles with — spelling words, writing quickly, and chopping vegetables come to mind. Every time she comments on how “well” I do something like that, I try to remind her that I’ve got 30 years of practice on her!
I think we often forget that writing is a practice. It’s a skill. You wouldn’t sit down at a piano and expect to be able to play Chopin right off the bat, and you wouldn’t expect to join a pickup basketball game and be able to dunk the ball on your first try. Culturally, we understand that music and sports require practice.
Yet we don’t seem to attribute that same quality to writing. Writing is a skill and an art form, and to be good at it, requires practice.
Now, I understand intimately the disappointment that can sometime result from sitting down to do something… And feeling like you suck at it. Let’s talk about the novel that it has taken me 10 years to write the first draft, and how now, I am STUCK on the second draft. I get it.
But let me told you what 10 years of sucking at a novel taught me: When I read those early pages it is (painfully) clear that I am a better writer now than I was 10 years ago. (Hence the need for a second draft.)
The point is, practice works. So do it. Make time to write. I promise you will improve.
You’re here; so I know you’re reading. But do you read with intention? Do you seek out great writing? Do you read deep and wide?
Many of us get into our echo chamber and read the same things over and over again. We follow the same thought leaders, read the same genre of books, look at the same magazines.
Nathalie Goldberg in her book “Writing Down the Bones” talks about the need to add compost to your pile. You need all sorts of materials to make rich compost for gardening, and you need all sorts of input to add fuel to your ideas for writing.
If you’re asking the question about how to become a better writer, I imagine this suggestion may be uncomfortable for you; do it anyway.
Play. Write something different. Write a poem. Write a haiku. Write a limerick. Write a short story. Write a personal ad. Write like somebody else.
A friend of mine loves to write fake (and ridiculously funny) missed connections posts on Craigslist. Whatever floats your boat is what I’m saying.
Write your sales page as your favorite author. Write your blog post as your favorite poet. Write your email in the style of a science fiction movie. Or in the voice of an inanimate object.
Google “writing prompts” or search the same on Pinterest and do a few. It will feel silly. It will be a lot of fun.
4. Ask for feedback
Of course, one of the only ways to improve as a writer is to identify what you need to improve on. And most of the time, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. You need someone else to point out your strengths and weaknesses.
This is uncomfortable at first. But I can tell you that the more constructive criticism you get, the more you will crave it. As getting feedback becomes a habit, you will look forward to hearing what you need to improve — because it will make your writing stronger.
One of the classic suggestions for writers is to do the morning pages exercise from Julia Cameron’s book, “The Artist’s Way.” Her suggestion is to sit down every single morning and write three pages, nonstop. Let’s be real: that is a lot of pages, and most people don’t have the time or energy to do that.
So instead, I say set yourself a mini goal just to sit down and write something in your journal every single day. I like to do it right when I wake up, but you can do it whenever. Free yourself from what you think a journal ought to be. Write about how tired you are, or complain about your life, or record your dreams, or make a shopping list — just write. I deliberately use a cheap notebook so I don’t have to feel precious about what I put in it.
I swear, the ritual of putting pen to paper has magical properties for a writer — regardless of what dreck actually comes out. 😉
6. Read a book on writing
You may think that books about writing are just for “serious” writers — and you just want to get a little bit better at writing blog posts, or emails, or sales pages.
But the best writing and creativity books are for anybody. Here are some of my favorites:
- Bird by Bird — Anne Lamott
- On Writing — Steven King
- Page After Page — Heather Sellers
- Big Magic — Elizabeth Gilbert
7. Study writing that you like
About that sales page / blog post / email that you want to write… Do you ever study examples of those things that resonate with you?
Copywriters in particular have a habit of saving and squirreling away writing that speaks to us. We save them in what we call “swipe files.” You should steal this practice.
The next time you read an email that grabs you, or an article, or a blog post, or a sales page — no matter what the subject — save it somewhere you will be able to find it again. (I like Evernote for this.) Then, go back and re-read it with an eye to what makes it work. Highlight the passages you like. Why do you like them? How could you do this in your own writing?
Learn from the words that move you.
8. Give yourself permission to suck
You may have heard the advice to write a “crappy first draft” and then edit. You may have thought that only applies to books.
One of the (bad) reasons it took me 10 years to finish the first draft of a novel is that I didn’t take this advice to heart. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I started giving myself permission to put things like [FIX THIS SECTION] or [SOMETHING ELSE HAPPENS HERE] or [I DON’T EVEN KNOW] in the text of my draft to come back to it later when I got stuck.
And you know what? When I started allowing that, I started making a lot more forward progress.
Give yourself permission to suck. Tell yourself that it’s OK to write a crappy first draft. Don’t try to be perfect and erudite and poetic on your first pass. Just get the thoughts out on the page, even if it’s just stream of consciousness.
9. Learn to edit
Of course, when you give yourself permission to have a crappy first draft, that means you need a subsequent draft (or drafts) before you publish.
That may mean that you need to schedule more time for writing, that you need to give yourself the time and space to put a draft aside for a while before you edit it.
It also may mean that you need to either a) sharpen your editing skills or b) enlist the help of an editor.
Editors are amazing people. They can tease elegance and meaning out of the biggest pile of writing poop you’ve ever seen. In addition, working with an editor will teach you how to edit your own work better.
10. Just write
I realize I’m repeating myself here, but it’s important enough that I feel it needs to be said again.
Write some more.
Write something else.
Write something new.
Rewrite something old.
Write for fun.
Just keep writing.
And you will improve.