Most of the people I know don’t listen at all. They’re waiting to talk about themselves or prove that they can say something insightful. Even an average listener isn't meant to be a good writer because that means they’re probably listening half the time. Being a strong writer means being a strong listener. You don’t have to hang on every word a person says, but you have to pick apart what they’re saying to see what you can learn from it. If you want to be insightful, ask interesting questions. Everyone in the world has a little nugget of wisdom about life, and it is your job to carve out what they've been acquainted with into a custom piece that fits your puzzle. Get to know them and build a whole person from the conversation you have. That helps when you sit down to write. It all goes into the melting pot.
People watching is free entertainment. Don your anthropologist hat and soak in the world around you. See how things relate to one another in whatever it is you’re watching. Say you see someone walking down the street. . .it’s easy to describe their body shape, their clothes, or even their hair. But how are they carrying themselves? Where do their eyes go while they walk? Are they like the people around them, or does something make them stand out?
Articulate your thoughts
I've never been one to excel at on the spot thinking, but give me time and I can usually cobble something together. It’s less to do with how fast you come up with something and more to do with how well you’re thinking critically and able to express those thoughts. So, pontificate and articulate. And not with a screen in front of your face. Disconnect, sit, and think about the things that are going on in your life and the world at large. Form cohesive enough opinions that you’re able to put into words. The more you become in tune with your thoughts and emotions, the more you can convey that in the stories or characters you create, even if they’re different from your own personal views. Something that’s helped me with this is freewriting. . .and yes, you can freewrite without a computer. Paper isn't completely obsolete yet.
Upon my death, I hope the world will have figured out how to turn the dead into books. I will shine bright on a shelf, waiting to be read instead of rotting in the ground taking up space. Well, not really, but ever since I can remember, I've always been obsessed with books. I thank my parents for that, especially my mom. My parents were great about making sure my sister and I were aware of the things going on in the world. They made us watch the news and report to them the things we learned. They brought us to public libraries at least once a week to pick out books. The books could be anything we wanted to read, and they didn't try to shove our interest into approved boxes [read: they let us pursue our reading passions]. I think those scenarios helped create an environment conducive to being curious, which is the key to learning. Writing is such an intellectual challenge that you need that; you have to be willing to research and learn and then bundle what you were trying to get at with quaint packaging and a bow made of your own voice.
Most humans need sympathy. It may be a friend hearing you vent over a couple of beers or just offering a shoulder to cry on when things go wrong. It’s all the same. As a writer, you don’t get the luxury of judging. At least not at first. You can have your stance on things, but don’t judge someone until you can bridge some level of understanding to their plight. Writing is a messy business for personal beliefs. An exceptional writer will take on stories that deal with issues from sides of the fence that are not his or her own. And to truly give those sides justice and flesh out real perpsectives or characters, you have to be sympathetic to differences in personal beliefs. If your characters were all like you, it’s gong to make for a very boring, one-dimensional read.
Same mountain, a different path. All forms of art are linked. I love reading, but I also love movies, paintings, video games, plays, and television shows. They all have interesting concepts, tropes, and elements in them from which I can draw inspiration. That all goes in the melting pot too and colors my writing in some way. Support your fellow artists because we’re all in the battle together.
Be open to the human experience
You have to be willing to go on an adventure, not only on paper but in life. Take life’s reigns and ride out the journey. Some parts of it are frightening and some parts are absolutely lovely. And you have to take both and be ready for them. Whether it’s taking the leap of faith in moving across the country with your significant other, taking a job you don’t think you can do, aspiring for things, traveling, trying out new foods, meeting new people, they are critical experiences for a writer. We are nothing but the sum of our experiences and the things we've learned. It’s so important that you feed your intellectual appetite and grow fat, full of experiences.
The most important thing, above all else, is to write. Sit down and churn out those words no matter how painful it is. Colin Nissan, in The Ultimate Guide to Writing Better Than You Normally Do, says to treat writing like a muscle:
Writing is a muscle. Smaller than a hamstring and slightly bigger than a bicep, and it needs to be exercised to get stronger. Think of your words as reps, your paragraphs as sets, your pages as daily workouts. Think of your laptop as a machine like the one at the gym where you open and close your inner thighs in front of everyone, exposing both your insecurities and your genitals. Because that is what writing is all about.
Just like the gym, some days working out with writing will be better than others. Over time you’ll see progress and realize overall it gets easier the more you glue your mind to the art of wordsmithing.
If you’re feeling stagnant as a writer or feeling the talons of writer’s block clawing your creativity, focus on one of the things above. Go to the library and read a good book. Call up a friend and ask them about their life. Go on a trip somewhere and get away from thinking about writing. Go meet someone new. Sit at a bar and people watch, barring yourself from leaving until you strike up conversation with at least a couple other people. Go take a walk and write snippets of what you see: scents, people, buildings, things on the ground, the way people respond to you when you say, “Hello.” Sign up for a class or do something you haven’t done. Writing is inherently solitary, but the resources you need to build up to write well involve immersing yourself in the world by way of experiences. So get out there and live!