Writing as a Form of Craftsmanship
Michael H. Rand
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How to become a better writer

The blank page, and a chance to pursue perfection

No one ever becomes a perfect writer.

Pulitzer Prize winners make errors in their copy. Popular bloggers won’t go viral with every post. A tweet from someone with a million followers can still fall flat.

But then you try again.

That’s part of the beauty of writing. You can’t achieve perfection, but you can always do better than the last time.

Writing never gets any easier. The process is always the same: Doubt, hopelessness and finally breakthrough. Experience just makes you better at coping with this process. — Wyatt Massey

Writing is an art and a science. You will find habits that work best for you through trial and error. But there are also tried-and-true routines refined by writers for years that can help you improve.

“Writing can be taught and practiced; writing can improve over time, and this raises an important point,” writes Michael H. Rand. “Writing, like carpentry, is a form of craftsmanship.”

Here are some methods to become a better craftsman.

Pay attention

If you’re not fascinated and curious about the world around you, your readers won’t be either. You can cultivate your curiosity by paying attention. Writers notice the small details or the overarching truth that others fail to see clearly. If you don’t start here, don’t bother writing.

Ask better questions

Boring questions lead to boring writing. If you ask original questions, you’ll produce original writing. The best way to produce original questions is to produce a lot of questions. Most of them will be boring. A few of them will be interesting. Hang on to the interesting ones.

Keep an idea file

Sometimes you’ll be energized about an idea and ready to immediately start writing. Other times you’ll have a semblance of a thought that needs to marinate. Put it in a file in let it sit. When you come back to it, you might be surprised to find it’s now fully formed in your brain. You’ll also be grateful for this reserve for the days the fresh ideas seem to have run out.

Leave your ego out and put your heart in. — Ron Smith

Read

Read for pleasure. Read for knowledge. Read ad copy. Read billboards. Read ancient mythology. Read self-help books. Read liberal and conservative websites. Read physical newspapers and magazines. Underline. Highlight. Read the same sentence 10 times. Skip whole paragraphs. Skim. Scan the page. Speed read. Read slow. Read s-l-o-w-e-r. Take time to think about choices made by the author. Admire the admirable. Try to fix what isn’t. Read a chapter. Read one page. Read the masters. Read terrible work and laugh. Know that sometimes your work isn’t any better. Be OK with that.

Turn off your iPhone

Your email, too. Don’t even peek at your inbox. Put on noise-canceling headphones or lock yourself in a quiet room. Or go to a coffee shop in an area of town where you don’t know anyone. Then start writing. You have to be OK with being anti-social for a while if you want to concentrate and let the words flow. Make the cursor move to the right.

Write like you talk

If you can talk, you can write. Pretend you’re explaining your story to a friend and telling him about what happened. What’s the first thing you’d say? Be conversational, hook your readers early, and give them a reason to care.

Don’t just let an editor mark up your work, sit and discuss it, learn why the changes are being made. The lessons will stay with you longer. — Melissa Trice

Use a timer

Start with 5 minutes of uninterrupted writing. Don’t check your notifications. Just write for 5 straight minutes. Then increase it to 10. Then 15. Keep going. But don’t go much longer than 45. Longer than that and your brain and writing will just turn to mush.

Take a walk

Exercise. Especially when you’re stuck. Bouncing a ball helps, too.

Edit ruthlessly

Take out anything that doesn’t contribute to the goal of your writing. If you’re not sure, listen to your gut. If you’re still not sure, get a second opinion. Rage against your writing. Make peace with your words.

“Learn how to focus your writing: What do you really want to say here? Delete the very many superfluous, extraneous, over-the-top and often unnecessary words.” — Jennifer Haberkorn

Don’t be an idiot

Just good general life advice. It helps with writing, too.

Publish every day

Some writers tell you to write every day in your journal. That’s fine if you want to do that for yourself, but if you’re writing for others — which is what the media does — you have to publish. This will show you what gets a good response and what doesn’t. Remember, you serve the readers, not the other way around.

The physical process of writing can be like a train. It takes a lot of energy at first to get the train rolling and leave the station. But once you’re up to speed, it takes much less energy to keep it rolling.” — John Bernaden

Rules are meant to be followed — and broken

Good writing needs constraints. Be thankful for the rules of grammar, spelling and style because they give you the building blocks to get started. Without them, there is no writing or even any language. Great writing breaks through those constraints, but only when necessary. Break the rules too often and it becomes a crutch. Don’t break them often enough and you become a prisoner.

Travel

New surroundings will stimulate ideas and creativity. It will get you out of a rut. As Saint Augustine said, The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page. You don’t have to go around the globe to achieve this effect. Simply go to a new coffee shop across town. The caffeine will give you a boost, too.

Sleep

It’s hard to concentrate and focus if you’re tired. You can get by for awhile, but eventually you’ll crash. Aim for at least 7 hours a night. The bonus to getting enough sleep is your brain will make unconscious connections while you sleep that will help you connect ideas when you write.

Write in the morning

When your brain is fresh. Putting it off just makes it harder and increases the chances of getting interrupted.

Work with mentors who have high standards. — Samantha Smith

Read your work aloud

It’s the fastest way to tell if your writing sounds stilted. It will also help identify if you’re missing a word or making another mistake.

Work on a deadline

A piece of writing is never done. It can always be revised and edited again. But the difference between a draft and published work is a deadline. Often, writers won’t even start if you don’t have a deadline. If you don’t have an external deadline to turn in your work, give yourself one or ask a friend to enforce one for you. Then stick to it.

Churning out tons of words is fine, but in my experience, it’s editing and fine-tuning that helps really helps dedicated writers improve. — Caroline Zelonka

Learn from others

Above all, stay humble. An arrogant writer is a stagnant writer. Seek and accept feedback. Ask people to be harsh with you, because that’s the only way you get better. Don’t be afraid to find a new critique partner if yours is too soft or not giving valuable feedback.

Write with a buddy. Have someone there to give you prompts, challenge your ideas and edit along the way. — Tyler Tucky

Repeat

No matter how great your finished product, it will never be perfect. There will be something you could have done better. The next time you face the blank page, you have another opportunity to chase perfection.


I am indebted to many students of the writing craft as I compiled this list. Thank you to Kevin Orland, Victor Jacobo, Amanda Lutey, Jonathon Colman, Philip Batzner, Amy Jahns, Patrick Johnson, Brigid Skoog, Melissa Trice, Matt Braun, Maryann Mrowca, Samantha Smith, Kelly Crandall, 
Jonathan Surratt, Andy Leiser, Jeramey Jannene, Abigail Gilman, Logan Adams, John Bernaden, Matt Langoehr, Gabe Wollenburg, Sarah P. Miller, Megan Costello, Caroline Zelonka and the many many others who offered advice. The No. 1 tip bears repeating: Read.