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.
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).
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 on writing, you can sign up to join “A Year of Reflection” right this way.