How to Be a Better Writer
Tips, tricks, and hard-won lessons: from creating drafts to working with editors.
I have been a writer my entire adult life. I am self-taught. But I have had the pleasure of writing for some top-notch, cutting-edge magazines and dailies. I have written ten books. I’ve worked at Wired, Details, Esquire, The Baltimore Sun, Mondo 2000, and Make; I have worked with some truly impressive and inspiring editors and authors. I always try to learn from those around me, and so, over the years, I have picked up some very useful tips and tricks on the art and craft of writing. Here are some of the ideas that have changed my work life and my approach to writing. I’d love to hear some of yours.
Cultivating the Writer’s Mindset
For so many years, I read books about writing that prescribed different writing routines and ways of approaching one’s work as a professional writer. None of this worked, and the tension it caused in my life (with each new “ideal” approach vs. my reality) was significant. Eventually, I accepted my actual work style. I let my writing find its own path.
So, what’s my work style?
I procrastinate. I over-research. I compose the article in my head first, and then finally, I get it all down, often in a single burst of writing, dangerously close to the deadline. But I get it done. Usually on time. And ultimately, that’s all that counts. I’ve resigned myself that this is my system, my natural way of working.
That said, good habits free my mind and help me capture ideas before they evaporate.
Separate ‘writer’ and ‘editor’ heads
The first book on writing that I ever read was called Writing with Power. It contained one core concept that changed my early life as a writer: when writing, never try to edit as you go.
Say what you want to say — unencumbered by the constant chatter from that fussy editor in your head. Just get it down. Later, you can have at it. Keep what works, bug-zap the rest.
By separating writing and editing functions, you can convince yourself that you’re just doing the all-important “shitty first draft” (more on that below).
Embrace your punk rock confidence
Writing is something that you can do, and do well, if you know how to get out of the way of yourself first—and organize what comes burbling out into something that can powerfully communicate your thoughts and feelings.
A lot of the really talented magazine writers and editors that I’ve worked with over the years started out in zine publishing — the writer’s equivalent of punk rock. Sometimes, it can be very productive to write without thinking too much about it — to just shoot from the hip. The results may suck, but there’s also a good chance you could end up with something fresh and exciting.
Elvis Costello was a punch card drone at Elizabeth Arden Cosmetics when he saw the Sex Pistols on TV. He thought (paraphrasing): “Screw this! I can play better than these louts. If they can be rockers, I can too!” Then, he went out and did it.
There are plenty of big-name writers who started out because they read someone else’s published work, thought they could do better, and then they did. You can, too.
Sometimes you do your best writing by “mistake.” Several of my most reproduced pieces came from rants I posted online that I had no intention of ever publishing elsewhere. One of those posts even became the opening words to Billy Idol’s notorious 1993 Cyberpunk record. I was posting on the fly as part of a written conversation. Unencumbered by my “editor head” and feeling that punk rock freedom to shoot from the hip, I got something out of me that I may not have otherwise.
Keeping a journal of your thoughts on anything (not just the daily details of your life) or engaging in good online conversations are great ways of learning how to write with freedom and immediacy. You’ll be surprised how much turns out to be usable material.
Capture your ideas
Your next big idea may occur to you at any moment, so always keep tools for capturing thoughts handy. I always keep pens and notebooks by my bed, by my chair in the living room, in my basement workshop, by my toilet, and in my shirt pocket.
Write down what comes to you. Do not skip this or tell yourself that you’ll remember it. You won’t! I’ve had brilliant brainstorms (at least that’s what I told myself) in the middle of the night, and — being too lazy to sit up and write them down — I have tried to memorize them before dog-paddling back to Slumberland. Next morning: Nada. El zippo. Not a clue (except the memory that, whatever it was, it was GENIUS!).
If getting up, turning on the light, and jotting things down is too much, or there are other situations where writing is not convenient, use the recording program on your phone or buy a cheap voice recorder.
Mike Gunderloy, the founding editor of the iconic zine review guide Factsheet Five, used to say that even if you aren’t a writer to begin with, after cranking out a million words or so, you’re a writer!
Gunderloy himself was a prime example of this. He wasn’t much of a writer when he started F5, his “zine of zines,” but he sure was by the time he called it quits many millions of words later. By then, he had truly mastered the art of short-form, concise, and spunky media review and criticism.
As the cliché goes: writing is a muscle. You strengthen it by using it.
If you want to write well, you have to have a practice of writing. That means writing even if you don’t feel particularly inspired, or even if you have to block out time to stick with it. Journaling habits can be a way of ensuring that you write every day. Working from lists of writing prompts can help if you suddenly find that you don’t know what to write about.
Writing is a practiced behavior, but it is also learned behavior. Most writers are also avid readers. This is a chance to combine an enjoyable activity with an opportunity to learn from the best in your field.
Be mindful when you’re reading, both fiction and non-fiction — not just to the narrative, but also to how the piece is crafted. Pay attention to what you like in terms of writing forms and styles. Think about how the author’s styles differ, and why.
Examine a few paragraphs and think about the form, the rhythm, the style— what do you like and what don’t you like? Over time, you will incorporate what you learn about authors’ approaches in developing your own writing style.
Stylistic Tools to Improve Your Writing
There are tools beyond grammar that can help you create more elegant sentences, paragraphs, and essays. Here are some that work especially well for me.
Using parataxis and hypotaxis
What on earth are these, you ask?
To grossly over-simplify, these terms basically refer to the “heat” of sentences.
Parataxis (para = beside, or side-by-side, taxis = arrangement) refers to usually short, simple, and independent statements of similar weight, resulting in “hot” energetic prose. Think of the way toddlers speak: “I’m hungry. Pick me up. I pooped my pants.”
Perhaps the most famous parataxic sentence is Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vici” (“I came, I saw, I conquered.”). Hemingway was a master of parataxic writing: “Manuel drank his brandy. He felt sleepy himself. It was too hot to go out into the town. Besides there was nothing to do.”
By contrast, hypotaxis (hypo = under, beneath, taxis = arrangement) refers to the subordination of one syntactical unit to another within a more complex sentence. This creates “colder” prose.
In William Blake’s The Clod and the Pebble, we have: “So sang a little Clod of Clay, trodden with the cattle’s feet.” The second part of the sentence is subordinate to the first. And from E.B. White’s The Ring of Time, we have: “After the lions had returned to their cages, creeping angrily through the chutes, a little bunch of us drifted away and into an open doorway nearby, where we stood for a while in semi-darkness watching a big brown circus horse go harumphing around the practice ring…”
By controlling the para- and hypotaxical “heat” of your sentences, you can create pleasing and effective rhythm in your writing. Hypotaxis is good for expressing complex thoughts, to help the reader understand how concepts are related to each other. Too much of this, however, might make for a tiresome read. Parataxic sentences can offer relief.
To learn more about para and hypotaxis, here’s an 8-minute lesson from The Nature of Writing YouTube channel.
Damn the clichés!
Many, many moons ago, I contributed to a book about multimedia for Time Warner. My editor was big on cliché busting. I’d never realized how many clichés I larded into my writing until she pointed them out to me. Ouch.
So, in order to weed out those moldy chestnuts, keep your eyes peeled and your ear to the ground. Then, your work will be fit as a fiddle and fresh as a daisy.
(See what I did there? Yuck!)
Create thoughtful headlines
Writing great headlines and subheads is an excellent way of framing the concepts of your piece and can add another level of wit and humor to your work.
I hardly ever do proper outlines—but I create the headline, the subhead, and the section headlines, and then I hang my story from there. If you write these before or during your draft of the content, you should give them some attention in the edit: sometimes the focus of a section shifts slightly, requiring a revision of the header.
The Headline Analyzer from CoSchedule can be helpful in making headlines stronger for online content in particular. You can use it to test headlines and revise them to raise the numerical score and improve your headline to garner more clicks.
Leveraging Momentum and Overcoming Procrastination
We all have to deal with writer’s block, procrastination, and simply feeling stuck. Here are some techniques that can help you get the words flowing again.
Knowing how to “get in and get out”
A friend of mine, who is a TV news “crime and grime” reporter in DC, once shared a TV journo’s trick for doing a live on-the-scene report: know how you’re going to get in (how to set up your piece) and how to get out (how you plan on ending). Then, you’re free to B.S. your way through the middle. If you get stuck or run out of things to say, jump to your closing.
A similar pattern holds true in writing. Once you know how to set up your piece (obviously with a great attention-getting head and lead) and how to end (with an equally clever and compelling wrap-up), much of the heavy lifting is already done. The rest is just the who-what-where-when-why and some painterly details to make the story engaging.
Switch up the medium
This is a great tip I learned from several of my fiction-writing friends. Don’t always write in the same place (e.g. at your desk) and using the same tool (desktop computer).
Write in different rooms of your house, go outside, write at different times of the day, switch from a desktop computer to a laptop, or change from computer to handwriting on a legal pad. Switch it up.
This is more than just a gimmick. It works to reinvigorate and shake things up a bit. Try it. It will surprise you.
Bird by bird
As mentioned above, “writers write,” but often, this only happens when they can trick themselves into doing so. In Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, she tells the title story about how she was inspired to overcome her laziness about writing. The title refers to an incident when Anne was a child. Her brother had waited until the night before a school project on birds was due to start working on it. He sat at the kitchen table, with a blank pad of paper and a pile of bird books, overcome by the immensity of his task. His father sat down, put his arm around him and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
This became Lamott’s mantra for tricking herself into working. She tells herself that she’s only required to write a small amount each day, just one “bird.” No matter how busy, how distracted, or how depressed, surely there’s time for one measly paragraph, character description, or scene outline.
Of course, once you sit down to bang out that one 3x5 card’s worth of text, you end up producing two or three or more. But you always tell yourself you’re going to take it one non-intimidating chunk at a time. Bird by bird, buddy. Bird by bird.
Shitty first drafts
One of Lamott’s other “tricks” is to perfect the art of what she lovingly calls the “shitty first draft.” Stop making excuses. Get over yourself and get it down!
Tell yourself it’s your goal to craft a shitty first draft, that you LOVE shitty first drafts, that shitty first drafts are what you are all about. Amaze yourself by the impressive quality and quantity of the crap that you can generate. Bow to the Buddha of that shit! Nobody but you has to ever see these unsightly monstrosities.
Lamott says her career might be over if readers saw some of her drafts. But it’s this rough, let ‘er rip copy that she’s crafted into numerous best-sellers.
How To Edit Your Own Work
Taking your work from draft to a polished piece is the sign of a true pro. If you don’t have editors to rely on, you’ll have to edit your own work. This is a challenge: your brain will tend to skip over the same errors it made before. Here are some ways to find the rough spots or errors yourself.
Read it out loud
The late William Safire suggested that you read your work out loud. Writing is not the same as speaking, but they each have a lot to do with rhythm and satisfying flow. If your writing sounds good when it is spoken, it’s likely to read well on the page.
It’s definitely a good idea to read all dialogue out loud, especially if you’re new to writing it or struggle with getting character voices to sound right. Aloud, you’ll find many individual words, sentence choices, and rhythms that just aren’t natural to speaking.
Your own Greek chorus
The celebrated musician, producer, and whole systems thinker, Brian Eno, says that he has certain people that he imagines are looking over his shoulder, hearing his music, reading his words — a kind of virtual Greek chorus of different critical voices.
I do this too and it can be helpful. The trap to avoid, however, is wanting to please one or more of these imagined voices so much that you change what you need to say. Do that, and your work will end up as invigorating as lukewarm bath water.
Stephen King advises that you designate someone you know, you trust, and whom you think represents the audience of your work to act as “The Reader.” Then, write for that person. They don’t even have to know that you’re doing this. In his case, it’s his wife, and she eventually does read his drafts, but he always keeps her in mind when writing and directs everything he creates at her.
Again, this can be a trap, but it can serve as a useful framing and analyzing tool. Use that person (or persons) as something of a muse.
The stumble-twice rule
If you stumble over a sentence every time you read it, your readers likely will, too. Chuck it!
It’s amazing how frequently I will stumble over something I’ve written, but perhaps it includes a turn of phrase I like, or there’s some other reason that keeps me attached to it. I’ll have this nagging feeling that it’s awkward or otherwise inappropriate, but I can’t bring myself to cut it.
When I was working on my book, Borg Like Me, every single time this happened and I sent it to my editor, she would flag it as a sour note. So, if you stumble over something more than once as you read over your manuscript, EXTERMINATE!, EXTERMINATE!
Change the font
From Derek Thompson, a writer The Atlantic: “Simple copyediting tip from somebody who sucks at copyediting: In your last pass, change the font to something unfamiliar. Then change the font size. When you’re familiar with a piece, your eyes gulp whole passages and you miss typos. New fonts focus your eyes on each letter.”
Throwing out the first waffle
One of the things I noticed when I first started getting my work published was how often my introductory paragraphs got unceremoniously sliced into the trash by delete-happy editors.
I once heard the phrase “throwing out the first waffle” used to describe a divorce from a first marriage. I’ve come to think of these intro paragraphs like the first waffle(s) of writing. Writers, especially newbies, often waste this first paragraph (or more) dancing around their subject, consuming precious page real estate awkwardly warming up themselves and their readers.
When you’re done with your initial draft, take a hard, dispassionate look at those first few paragraphs. See if you can toss them out.
Apply Occam’s Razor
When it’s time to switch from your writer’s hat to your editor’s chapeau, carefully scrutinize every word. Ask yourself: is this necessary? Is this the simplest, most straight-forward way I can say this? If not, toss or revise!
You’ll be amazed at how many words you can trash. Then sit on the piece overnight. The next day, whip out that happy, happy razor again. You’ll be surprised how many more fat (and not so sassy) words you’ll find, wasting perfectly good electrons and laptop battery life. Not to mention the energy of your reader.
Forget about it!
I cannot stress how much your piece will improve if you can let it marinate for 24 hours (or more) before you edit. You need some distance from the work; perspective. The longer you can wait, the more perspective you’ll gain.
When Stephen King finishes a book, puts it in a drawer (and immediately starts in on another book, but he’s not human). He waits at least two weeks before he starts in on the editing — and knowing to split writer and editor heads — he had done no reading/editing of the manuscript while he was composing it.
Two weeks is a luxury for most of us, but the worst thing you can do is to take all of the time leading up to the deadline writing, then quickly editing, and sending it off. When you read it when it’s finally published, you’ll hate yourself for all of the glaring mistakes, poor word choices, too-late ah-ha moments, etc. So, do yourself a huge favor and leave some time to sit on it!
Working with Editors and Publishers
Keep writing, and eventually, you’ll probably begin working with editors and publishers. Here are some good things to know.
Deliver the requested word count
Never, ever find yourself saying the following in an email to an editor:
“I know you only asked for [your assigned word count goes here], but here’s [your outrageously flabby, up all night buzzing your brains out on caffeine till you’ve lost all restraint and perspective word count goes here].”
Editors are busy, over-worked people, with little patience for sloppy, logorrheic writing. Getting the piece at least in the neighborhood of the assigned word count is your job, not theirs. If they have to spend a lot of time wrestling your piece into the allotted space, you may not get the gig next time.
You don’t have to make every change
One of my writer/editor friends (who should probably remain nameless), shared this gem with me many years ago, after I’d suffered through a couple of endless rounds of “Frankenedits” on a Wired feature.
I was always under the impression that when an editor sends back a manuscript bleeding profusely with red ink, that you have to make every change they suggest or insist on.
Nah. Pick the two or three really big changes — especially the ones you agree with — make those, and then any additional suggested changes that are easy to make. Then send it back and say that the edit suggestions were really great, insightful, and you’re really happy with the piece with the new changes.
Nine times out of ten, that will be it. You’re done! (Of course, telling you this might be a little bit like revealing stage magic secrets. I probably just violated some sort of writer’s Fight Club rule. I apologize to all of my fellow corner-cutting wordsmiths.)
Develop a thick skin
Writing, especially open and honest writing, can make you vulnerable to correction and criticism—sometimes harsh criticism. And as we all know, some people on the internet don’t seem to care that there’s a human on the other end of the keystrokes who has feelings.
Also, within the struggling realms of print and online media, editorial departments are frequently overworked and underappreciated. You frequently will hear a lot more loudly — from both your publisher and your readers — when they are not happy with what you have to say. You have to adjust yourself to this reality.
Once, I had been working for a magazine for a while, delivering my work on time, seeing it go into the print without fanfare or comment. Finally, I asked my editor if he was happy with my work. His reply (while a bit of a cop-out) conveyed an important lesson. He said: “You’re here because we wanted the best. We expected great things from you and you have delivered.”
That was obviously the recognition I was seeking, but his response also made me realize that me getting hired in the first place was the publication’s vote on confidence in me. The writing world can be a fast and furious business and often if you do things smoothly, (and well) you can end up feeling unacknowledged. That doesn’t mean you are unappreciated. But trust me, even though you can go a long time without high-fives and pats on the back, you’ll periodically get a message from an editor who is truly moved by what you’ve written, or a reader who says that you changed their life, or their career path, or even, saved their life.
I had a guy come up to me at a reading once to tell me that my writing had literally made him decide not to kill himself. Moments like this make up for all of the “You suck!” comments you will ever receive.
Ultimately, you write because you have something to say. Have the courage to say it, and try not to sweat the Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down mentality of our age.
And always remember: writers write.