Being a writer means continually evolving into your craft. Each day improving a little more and learning new things. There’s lots of advice around about how to hone your skills. Most of it is helpful. Most of it regards actually writing — getting down to the keyboard and tapping those letters.
However, there are a bunch of things you can, and should, be doing to improve your skill and hone your talent that doesn’t involve writing at all. Because writing is more than just putting words on a page. It’s developing your creative muscles. It’s expanding your ideas and making new, interesting connections. It’s about seeing things afresh and describing them in interesting ways. Writing well means allowing your reader to see the world through your eyes.
Read like a writer
Reading is an essential part of being a writer. The kinds of reading you do take many forms — reading for pleasure, reading for research and reading to verify or clarify the points you are making in your writing. You should also make time to read like a writer.
Reading like a writer means not only reading to understand the text and the information conveyed with it. It’s also reading to figure out how and why the author chose those words, why they work (or not), and which examples or anecdotes support the purpose of the writing best.
To get the most from this practice, re-read texts of many kinds. Non-fiction, fiction, research papers and even brochures. Notice the different levels of language used in each. Take time to feel the texture that is created with the words and try swapping some of them out for synonyms in your mind — do they work as well or better?
‘Reading like a writer’ allows you to understand the depth of flavour and intricacies of a piece of writing better. This knowledge will help you to understand your own writing better and deepen your practice, hone your skill and stretch your talent a little further. Think of ‘reading like a writer’ as drinking wine like a sommelier. You’re concentrating on the flavours, the hints of aroma, and the body of the work to understand where it came from and how it was made.
Ideation is more than coming up with a new topic or headline for your writing. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ideation is the act of forming ideas or thoughts. In a way, writing is ideation.
the act of forming ideas or thoughts
– Oxford English Dictionary
Rather than just coming up with an idea, ideation takes it a step further. It’s the process of letting the idea play out a little. In terms of ideation for writing, it’s developing an initial idea into a little more, giving it some structure and supporting points. Ideation is where your writing begins.
To give you an example, you might have the idea to write about blogging. Your ideation around this would give you the path to follow, something like this:
Blogging (initial idea) > getting started with your own blog > common pitfalls with blogging > writing your first blog > developing an audience for your blogs > choosing a blogging niche.
As you can see it is nothing fancy or complicated. Ideation is simply teasing out the initial idea into something a little more concrete. Sometimes, ideation leads to a dead-end. Other times it can develop into a single piece or a series of pieces or even a trilogy of novels (if that’s the kind of writing you’re into).
Practising this regularly, say a couple of times a week, is a great way to gently exercise your creative ‘muscles’.
Build your vocabulary
Words to a writer are as paint to an artist. The more words you have in your vocabulary, the more tone, definition and colour you can bring to your writing. Regularly reading the dictionary is not necessarily the most enjoyable way to build your vocabulary, nor is it the most efficient or reliable.
Instead, learn just one new word a day. This can be done by noting words you’re unsure of when you read and looking one up each day. Or simply signing up to a dictionary service that will send you a new word each day. Most online dictionaries offer this service for free. Sign up and they’ll send a new word to your inbox every day. All you need to do is read it, try it out in a few sentences and maybe write it down a couple of times to help it stick.
Personally, I quite like Dictionary.com because they send all styles of English words and follow up with a weekly quiz (and a monthly one too). I take the quizzes for two reasons — to see if I have remembered the words they delivered and also to help each word stick in my mind better. The quiz results aren’t so much the aim, the actual taking of the quiz is what helps most. Even if I match the wrong definition to the new word.
Go for a brisk walk
This is a ‘trick’ I use just before sitting down to write a particularly difficult article, or when I feel like my words are coming out stale or a little more slowly than usual. Getting out in the fresh air has multiple benefits that most of us are aware of. Exercise is great for so many things.
However, I’m not talking about a long strenuous walk to get all of your weekly steps in! Rather a brisk 10-minute stroll is all you need. It increases the oxygen supply to your brain. Cognitive work takes up around 20% of our body’s oxygen, so increasing the supply and making it more efficient is a great way to ease into some serious writing.
The idea of the brisk walk is to take your focus away from writing for a brief period. Simply let your mind be free for a short while. Maintaining a slightly faster than usual pace requires your ‘System 2’ part of the brain — the same one used for cognitive work — to stay focussed on your movement. It’s not an overly taxing task for it, but it stops it getting involved in the random thoughts your subconscious, System 1, might throw at it.
Small bouts of acute, focused exercise have been found to enhance cognitive function. While most studies specifically examine meditation with exercise, simply maintaining a faster than usual pace will engender similar results. What’s more, walking is one of the most accessible activities. You don’t need special equipment, environment or abilities.
Don’t take headphones, don’t listen to anything. Don’t try to figure out any puzzling problems. Just walk, take note of your surroundings and the way your body feels, and maintain a slightly faster than usual pace.
Read and edit last years writing
OK, so I’m kind of breaking the promise I made at the beginning of this article. A little writing is needed for this activity, but it is well worth the effort.
Once you get past the cringe factor of reading last year’s work (just one piece at a time is enough), you’ll start to see the progress you’ve been making.
Getting better as a writer is an eternal, incremental process. Reading yesterday’s writing won’t give you nearly enough contrast to learn from. Choose something from a year or so ago. Read it like a writer. Then edit the piece to bring it up to speed with where you are today.
The aim is not to create something you can re-publish, although that is fine too. The aim is to learn from past mistakes and lack of writerly knowledge. You will begin to spot your blind spots. You’ll see patterns in your work that you love (and those you dislike), influences that make you smile and feel the cadence of your words.
If you write a range of different things — blogs, website content, a bit of fiction, poetry and daily journaling — try switching up the past pieces that you analyse. Don’t be hard on yourself when you do this, although, it can be difficult not to feel embarrassed about your older work. I once analysed a piece of writing from my teenage years and was slightly mortified. Needless to say, I didn’t revisit that writing period again for a while!
You will begin to learn more about your style and see the development and progress you are making. This in itself is a valuable thing — it’s motivating and enlightening. You’ll also be more aware of the way you wield words, your tendencies to assume reader knowledge or ramble on needlessly. Or any number of other writer habits you’ve picked up and developed.
Getting better at the craft of writing certainly means writing more, but it is not the only way to develop your skill. Read other people’s work (a lot) through writing eyes, practice developing thoughts into usable sequences, keep building your word palette and use exercise to benefit your writing. Lastly, learn from your past writing by looking back and figuring out what works, what doesn’t, where your strengths lie and which weaknesses can be developed into assets.