6 Steps to Becoming a Better Writer

I use the word becoming because it’s important. Because, as in anything at all, there is no being a better writer. No arriving as a better writer, certainly no tricks to staying a better writer.

There is only becoming, both on the page and off.

My writing “career” began as a ripe 10-year-old who had lost herself in the story of Harriet the Spy. A simple chapter book that, once finished, named in me something I didn’t know had been nameless: that the journals and jots I’d kept might offer meaning. That a hobby could become moreso.

That a life could, too.

I have been writing ever since. Grocery lists, daily reminders, small goals. As a kid, mirroring my own mother, I kept vacation journals that told tales of sandy dunes, of sunburned feet, of tell-all conspiracies: which sister ordered which chicken sandwich at Wendy’s?

I would have no childhood recollection without these touchstones (my memory is painfully dim if left to ether), and for that, these spiral-bound, glitter penned journals are priceless.

But the other reason they’re priceless, of course, is the space they offered to learn. To write terribly in the crinkled margins, to run my sentences on and on and on.

(To have never stopped since.)

Below, then, are my own 6 steps to becoming a better writer. No, you needn’t scale them in order. No, they’re not a formula for riches. But they’ve made themselves known in every facet of my life, from shooting off an email to the dry cleaners to penning a bestselling book to writing here, week after week – to you and to me –  for 15 years counting.

Whether you’re blasting out an Instagram caption or a letter to your senator, whether you’re authoring the neighborhood newsletter or your grandmother’s memoir, whenever you have something to say or show or tell or speak? Here. These will help.

1. Read well.

There’s simply no way to get around this one. If you are indeed what you eat, a well-strung sentence is a rack of lamb. Read plenty, read often. Get thee a library card. Try on the classics; abandon what doesn’t fit. (I have attempted Proust five times to no avail.) Familiarize yourself with technical writing; find beauty in the dishwasher manual, that understated joy of saying only what you mean and meaning only what you say.

Find an author to love, one who reveals the impossible to you, who shakes you by the shoulders a bit. Mine are many and oft-changing, with an inexplicable loyalty toward Joan Didion.

2. Learn the rules.

Brush up on your writing knowledge, on the ins and outs of a good paragraph. I’d start here, here and here.

3. Next, break the rules.

Listen, Jenny Offill wrote one of the most compelling books about motherhood and ambition, yet the traditional “arc” is altogether nonexistent. It’s fragmented, drifty. (It’s wonderful.) Salinger’s Franny and Zooey is arguably plotless, yet remarkable still. Ray Bradbury was rumored to write his bestsellers in 9 days, stream-of-consciousness style. Cheryl Strayed took a mere advice column and transformed it into a living memoir.

What I’m saying is this: Get a little bit Lorrie Moore about it. Circle around, if you’d like. Poetry can be prose, and most certainly vice versa.

4. Avoid “got.”

This, from my writing teacher in university, who was known to issue an automatic F if you turned in any paper containing the word “got.” There is always a more suitable replacement, he’d said.

He was right.

5. Throw in some weeds.

This, from my dear friend and brilliant editor Karey: resist the temptation to make each and every sentence beautiful. If your paragraph is a garden, throw in some weeds among the prettier blooms. Contrast is key. Surprises are good. Too many lullabies make for a sleepy reader.

(Related: a well-timed curse word can work wonders).

6. Write.

To become a better runner, you must run. To become a better parent, you must parent. To become a better cook, you must season the pasta, simmer the sauce, stir the pot.

Go, now. Stir the pot.

 

 

p.s. For more writing advice, you can sign up to receive my 10+ tips for bloggers right this way.

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  • Too many lullabies make a sleepy reader. So, so true. (is ‘so’ as meaningless as ‘got’? I suspect so – oops – there it is again). Recalling your hope*writers chat about your working schedule – for inspiring us to stir the pot, even if we miss sleep, thank you. Your words intertwined with wisdom and rule-breaking inspire me every time. I will never not read the posts of Erin Loechner.

  • What a wonderful, transferable set of guidelines! In essence, in order to do “it” better, whatever my “it” is, I must actually begin to “do it”. In my latter years (72 1/2) my “it” is to let go of perfectionism and dive in. As a child I feared making mistakes … It got you in trouble. What I never knew was I could be creative, and I am basically a random thinker and doer, but had to reign that in to support my kids as an Admin Asst, which I was pretty good at (allowing the dangling preposition here) . since I’ve retired I have discovered another side to myself … And enjoy being freer in how I do life, just because I can. Given myself permission to be more creative and enjoy the process, however it turns out … And sometimes it actually turns out pretty well …

  • Thanks for this enjoyed the read and excited to dive into some Joan Didion. Would love to see you put together a list to share of books you’ve been reading. Always looking for suggestions.

  • One of my favorite things to do in becoming a better writer is to follow Design for Mankind! I love your writing, the brevity that packs a punch, yields a smile and a chuckle or two, and always leaves me inspired and satisfied. Thank you!

  • Ah great tips and post here. Very timely. I’m in the process of just recently deciding to blog more seriously again after losing momentum and allowing fear to creep in. I was happily blogging away for fun and loving the process, then my readership grew quite suddenly and I totally panicked. Suddenly feeling painfully self conscious of my words, of feeling exposed, that people would see me fail, or think that I was a fraud. Or worse as completely self indulgent for even blogging in the first place. Slowly I am putting the voice of that mean girl away and getting back to what I love, simply for the sake of it. Because life is too short to not do what you love, even as simply a hobby or a fun pastime. Here is to writing our words, as imperfect as they may sometimes be!

    I shall never look at the word “got” in the same way again!

    – Emma

  • I want to print these out and keep them on my wall. Such beautiful, simple reminders. I began a blog a couple years back with the main purpose of keeping up a disciplined writing practice, and sometimes it is easy to get lost in all of the other aspects of it- publicizing, social media, etc. I always try to come back to the writing, so this post is exactly what I needed to read. Thank you.

    • oh i love hearing this, ruby — and i agree: it can be so hard to make space for quiet writing in a sea of shouts. sending peace and warmth your way. :)

  • I love this post. I have heard some of these tips before… except “avoid got” and “throw in some weeds”. LOVE these tips. On my own blog I mostly focus on the photos because I love photography. I tend to just throw in whatever words seem relevant at the time. Your last three tips have left a mark on me though… have me thinking about my favorite blogs and that they most certainly include these elements. I will try to put a little more thought into my next post :) I love reading your blog. Thank you for inspiring me!