We all know that practice makes perfect. Even if you don’t feel you’re progressing, the more you do something, the better you get at it. This is true for almost everything – including writing. The best way to make sure that you’ve become better as a writer is to simply open the file with one of your earlier stories, blog posts, or whatever, and compare it to your most recent piece of writing. Most likely, you’ll notice the difference immediately.
However, as a writer, you’re probably familiar with the feeling that you’re just not progressing fast enough. At least this is how it is for me. I often wish there was something specific I could do to improve my writing, not just keep on doing it hoping that quantity will someday transform into quality. So, I started researching for creative techniques and methods, the application of which would give me the direct feeling of improvement. Now, after having had tried out dozens of them, I can say that there are some reliable and efficient ways to build up your progress, so that writing like crazy for years is no longer the only option. In the list below, I’d like to share some of my findings. These tips worked for me, and I hope you can also make some use of them. So, let’s roll…
1. Get your thoughts out of your head.
As any creative person, you might sometimes feel all the thoughts and ideas swirling in your head like a tornado. Whenever I start writing a new story, or contemplate on the development of an already existing plot, I have to cut through the jungle of possibilities: “What if I make X act like this? What if Z is not what he/she seems to be, and their motives are actually opposite to those they declare? What if the whole story is just a dream A had when falling asleep in his car and the reality is totally different from what I’ve described so far? What if make this whole chapter a flash-forward, and then unfold the premise in the upcoming chapters?”
Such a mess in your head can seriously obstruct the writing process. You might think that it’s great to have so many ideas at once. Theoretically, it means you won’t run out of creative juices in the middle of writing, and so you should always have something to write about. This is partially true. But let’s think of writing as if we’re trying to find your car keys in a messy apartment. Imagine tons of potentially useful and valuable stuff crammed everywhere; you know you’ll need all of it someday. The problem is you need your damn keys right now, and you just can’t find them because there are too many things lying around. What do you do with the mess? Right: sort it out. The same works for writing: get all the thoughts and ideas out of your head; clean some space inside your mind.
How? Well, one of the most effective ways to do it is to simply write your ideas down on paper, in form of brief notes or theses. Sometimes, an idea looks good only when it is in your mind; on paper, about 75% of them turn out to be dull and useless. Reading through such a list, you’ll be able to see more clearly, which of these ideas are prospective, and which can be tossed away. Also, writing them down will free you from the necessity of having to remember them all, and so you’ll be able to focus on your “main” writing more effectively.
2. Draw mind maps.
This technique is used in the cases opposite to the ones described above. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, our minds remain empty, and it seems like we’ve lost the capability to put words together in meaningful sentences, or to come up with vivid characters, unexpected plot twists, and so on. We can spend hours in front of our monitors without writing a single word, trying to figure out what to write about.
Mind mapping is a technique that allows you to explore your associative chains. Briefly, when you think of something, your mind digs up an association. For example, your first association to the word “juice” might be “orange;” in its turn, the word “orange” may lead you to “fruits,” “tropics,” “Africa,” “masai,” and God knows what else. This is a typical associative chain. As a writer, you build up these chains in your mind all the time; of course, they’re more complex than the one described here, and are built not only from nouns, but from abstract concepts, behavioral patterns, and so on.
Mind mapping is a way to force the associative process when something goes wrong. Usually, associations pile up in our minds naturally, but if you stumble upon writer’s block, or are tired, or can’t think of anything nice for any other reason, you might feel like you’re incapable of continuing. Take a sheet of paper and write down the first five (at least) words related to what you write; these are going to be the core, your starting point. It can be anything: character names, locations, feelings you have about writing this story, and so on. Don’t worry if your list looks labored: the main task now is to kickstart your brain. Now, for each of these associations, think of five more associations. Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat. Gradually, you’ll draw a whole “tree” branching out in all directions.
Explore this map for a while; contemplate each of its branches; go back and forth, from the roots to the top, and vice versa. This might give you a couple of nice ideas such as unexpected connections or storyline projections. Even if you don’t have problems generating ideas, this method can become a nice bit of help every now and then.
3. Figure out your writing routine.
If you’re like me, you probably write in huge chunks. When I started writing this blog post, I had to kind of breakthrough past the inertia of my mind. I had to think over my word choices more carefully; I felt unwilling to work at all, and every five minutes I felt a strong temptation to give myself a break, drink coffee, and just do something else for a while. But after about thirty minutes, I got into the flow, as I call it. I began to write not word-by-word, but in whole sentences, and thoughts about taking a break stopped bothering me, for I knew that getting distracted would mean diving out of the flow. In this condition, I prefer to write for as long as I can, unless I feel tired and overwhelmed by the text: only then I can take a break and relax a little bit. Writers like me can be compared to siege commanders who, once they get into battle, prefer to persist until the end.
But I know people who hate such an approach. These writers prefer to approach their work in the “hit-and-run” manner. They pounce at their writing, work on for a while (up to an hour usually, according to my observations), then retreat. Then again: a sudden attack, a brief period of intense work, and falling back for a respite. Such writers are more like guerilla warriors: they favor diversions, fast engagements, and quick retreats for replenishment and planning new attacks.
Both approaches are effective – not to mention there are many other ways to write. Some enjoy writing in the morning when the day is young and they’re full of energy; others like night dwelling, with a lampshade shining cozily, and a cup of hot coffee nearby. Some can write anywhere no matter how noisy it is around them, or how many people are nearby; some need silence, concentration, and solitude. Whatever is your thing, figure it out, and stick to it.
4. Practice handwriting.
This tip might seem to be a little bit off the course, but in fact, it is a good one. Have you ever had the feeling that you are doing something wrong? That being a writer is not a real thing to do, or that you do not produce anything tangible? I tend to get this feeling from time to time, and I hate it; it is almost like I am not a real writer, but just pretend to be one.
If you know what I’m talking about, this little trick might help you get rid of the unpleasant thoughts: practice handwriting. Buy a fancy pen, a Moleskine notebook, and write short stories, diary entries, daily observations, plot outlines, etc. into it. Having your thoughts written down on paper makes you feel that what you do is for real; you can touch your records, flick through the pages and listen them rustle, scribble with your pen in them, smell the scent of ink. All this gives weigh and materiality to your writing. Besides, writing with your hand is, for some reason, an inspiring activity, as well as a nice change after typing on your laptop all the time; so, you might actually write something unusual in your notebook.
5. Attend workshops and lectures.
I bet there were times when being a writer was mostly about being literate, being able to write, and having enough money to buy an inkpot and a feather. Books were relatively rare, so whatever your writing skill was, you were almost guaranteed to find your reading audience. Those were probably good times for writers and wannabe writers, but now things are different. The amount of literature available both in bookstores and online is overwhelming. Nowadays, it’s not enough to just express your thoughts on paper; rather, it must be done in an engaging, masterful, and unique way. Therefore, what you should consider attending all kinds of writing workshops and lectures. If you want the audience to value what you do, of course. Such workshops are not just great because they are conducted by skilled and successful writers, but also because they provide a great place for networking, developing new connections, and communicating with other writers. You also have a chance to learn a lot of new tips, hints, get professional advice, and maybe solve the problems you’ve been trying to deal with on your own, such as finding a publisher, self-promoting in social media, getting lost in your storylines, and so on.
6. Analyze novels, articles, stories, and poems that you like.
Seriously, just reading them over and over again is not good enough. This way, you can only copy your favorite writer’s style. If you want to progress and learn something new, you should dissect the writing you admire, as if you were a meticulous surgeon with a scalpel.
Pay attention to how other writers structure their prose or poetry. Some may start with a flash-forward, and then gradually develop the story from the very beginning, up to this flash-forward, and beyond; some prefer to be consistent, sticking to the classic “beginning – development – culmination” formula; some writers’ prose reminds of twisted postmodernist labyrinths – but if you look at it more carefully, you’ll be able to see structure even there. I know few writers whose works have no structure; for example, Shiratori Kenji – a Japanese author experimenting with texts’ shape – and generally deconstructing literature to a set of artificial symbols and forced relationships between them. If you have no idea what I’m talking about here, take a look at his “Blood Electric” – the book speaks for itself.
Pay attention to what language means and what techniques the authors you love use; how they put words together; what methods allow them to affect your mind and evoke emotions. For example, some authors may shock you with straightforward and naturalistic descriptions (Charles Bukowski or Irwin Walsh, for instance); others may prefer to thoroughly build up tension by entangling you in masterfully crafted linguistic constructions seeping with emotional tension and suspense (Fyodor Dostoevsky is perhaps the best example of such an approach). Some writers bid on action scenes and dynamics; whereas others prefer to carefully develop characters, and highlight their inner world.
In any case, the writing of other authors is one of the best sources you can learn from, so do not miss such an opportunity. Every time you read something – analyze it.
7. Be a copycat (but a decent one).
I mentioned copying other writers’ style above. Well, if you’re an amateur writer just starting to pave your own way in the world of writing, this might be a useful technique for you. Yohji Yamamoto, a famous Japanese designer of clothes, said that once you start copying what you love, you’ll eventually find your own style. This is very true.
Don’t plagiarize, though. Unlike trying to inherit one’s writing style, plagiarism is stealing. Keep that in mind.
8. Edit, edit, edit.
I bet there was no writer whose first drafts were always amazing. Well, of course, the first draft by a skilled writer is worth a dozen final copies written by an amateur, but still, as Hemingway used to say, “The first draft of everything is sh•t.” Well, sorry, but this is a quote. Anyway, if you have a conviction that you should be able to write brilliantly from scratch, or that a professional writer is a person who always writes well from the start, get rid of it as soon as you can. The truth is that in 99.9% of cases you’ll need to edit. A lot. Re-reading and rewriting sentences, paragraphs, and sometimes the entire chapters – this is what writers do.
The key here is to refrain from editing while you’re still writing. This is what many amateurs do: they write a sentence or two, and then start modifying and rewriting them “to make them sound better.” Leave it. Regardless how bad your writing looks to you (or actually is), give yourself time to say everything you wanted to say first, and then start editing it. If you mix up these two processes, you’ll quickly lose track of your thoughts and most likely will get confused.
In case you didn’t get it – this sub-heading is a verb in an imperative mood. I seriously believe that nothing worthy can be written without careful preliminary planning and outlining. I won’t even elaborate on this point any further – just create outlines for whatever you write, plan your work ahead – this is one of the keys to any writer’s success.
10. Stay positive about yourself and what you do.
There are days when it seems that the whole idea of being a writer is wrong. Creative people are often extremely harsh in terms of evaluating their own work, and tend to be their own cruelest critics. If you feel like everything you write is garbage; if you constantly compare yourself to more successful writers (and many of us compare ourselves to not just successful colleagues, but to the titans of literature); if you think you should have chosen another profession – know that this is normal. Just remember that it’s persistence that makes all the difference. If you give up and stop developing your writing skills, networking, and self-promoting, you’re done; however, if you keep on doing what you do no matter how difficult it gets, you’ll eventually succeed.
Hopefully, these tips help you out in your time of need. Never miss an opportunity to learn and apply something new about your profession, because being a writer means to study and self-improve all the time. The more you do it – the better you become as a professional. Good luck!