How to Write Like Your Life Depends on It
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
So said Ernest Hemingway, who knew a thing or two about pouring one’s élément vital onto a blank page. I wholeheartedly agree with the late Mr. Hemingway in the sense that I don’t think writing ever gets easier. I do think, however, that with focus and a bit of dedication, it’s certainly possible to improve tremendously over time.
Without further ado, here are three tips on how to write like your life depends on it.
1. Don’t let your thoughts be limited by your vocabulary.
When I was in high school, I used to memorize SAT words.
I had a list that I’d pull from — the 500 hardest, most commonly missed words.
Aberration. Abeyance. Abject. Abstruse. Abnegation. It was all Greek to me at first.
But after months of daily memorization, the words started to stick.
I got really good at taking apart critical reading passages and contextualizing difficult words. Eventually my efforts paid off, and I ended up with a great score on the SAT.
Beyond the immediate benefits of acing a test that required an extensive college-level vocabulary, I was now a high schooler with an extensive college-level vocabulary. This didn’t earn me any cool points with the boys, but I could now read and understand more difficult material without having to look up all the words.
That’s when a golden nugget of insight hit me. I realized that all these words I’d memorized weren’t just “SAT words.” They were just words. Words that existed in the world. Words that literate people knew how to use, with flair.
No more flipping through vocabulary flashcards as a dreaded chore. Every unfamiliar word I come across now is a precious learning opportunity.
So next time you come across a word you don’t know, don’t skip over it. Remember that words are the foundation of your writerly bandwidth — that you can only think as far as your vocabulary.
Treat each new word like your new best friend.
2. Use reading as an excuse to hone your sense of beauty.
Whenever I read a phrase that really resonates with me — a clever snippet from the New Yorker, a sly remark from Vice, a beautifully wrought metaphor in a book — I always write it down.
Doing this has not only made me a better reader, it’s made me a better thinker.
It forces me to critically examine how the information was presented. It cements interesting insights into my mind. It trains my brain for faster recall, giving me easy access to the best parts of everything I’ve read.
Perhaps most importantly, it hones my sense of beauty, so that I can recognize and appreciate good story-telling for what it is.
I’ll give you a line that I read recently, written by Milan Kundera in 1984.
Notice the way he framed the situation.
He could have talked at length about how bothersome she found the music, about how she couldn’t sleep at night, how it tortured her, how she couldn’t escape. But why mince words?
Why not have ten times the visceral effect on the reader by planting the image of a pack of bloodthirsty hounds, being sicked on its prey?
That’s the mark of a good writer — elegance in simplicity. That’s why we still read Milan Kundera today.
Tricks like these are everywhere, as long as you care enough to seek them out. So while I absolutely agree that it’s important to read a lot, it’s a lot more important not to read blindly. Find writing that strikes a chord. Notice the aha! moments you experience, the little word-gasms you get from reading. And write them down.
The more you seek out beauty in your reading material, the more you’ll seek it out in the world at large. Eventually you’ll hold your thinking to higher standards, and your writing will follow as an extension of your thoughts.
3. Understand that your writing needs a reason to exist.
Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess.
She had rose-gold tresses, cerulean eyes, and a tiara encrusted with a thousand shimmering gems. Like all princesses from time immemorial, she also had the gentlest of dispositions and a heart of gold.
But underneath all her glitter and grace she had an aching loneliness that nobody knew how to cure — not the doctor, not Prince Charming, not the King or the Queen, not the fortune teller or the astrologist or the mystic, not even God Himself.
Then one day, she was visited by a faraway philosopher. He gently takes her hand and asks, “Princess, why are you here?” And the princess is quiet for a long, long time.
“I don’t know,” she finally muses.
And with that, she dissolves into stardust and fades away.
What the princess was missing all along was a reason for being. You’ll notice that I never gave her one. I used her as a gimmick to practice my descriptive writing — to prove a rhetorical point. I never thought about why she existed, who she was under the surface, or what made her tick.
But nobody likes a careless creator. Even fairy tale princesses need a reason to exist.
Purposeful creation is the secret ingredient behind every good story, something you need for the magic to work. Like love or sentimentality, you can’t always pinpoint what it is, where it is, or why it’s there. But when it’s there, you just know.
And in writing, as in life itself, when you have a reason for being, the rest will fall into place. You’ll find a way to tell the stories closest to your heart. They’ll come pouring out of you, fully formed. You’ll be throwing everything you have into the darkness, hoping to land among the stars.
After all, there is nothing to writing.
All you do is sit down at a typewriter, and bleed.