Do One Thing Today that Makes You a Better Writer

without writing a thing


Putting pen to paper won’t make you a writer.

Through many (maybe, even all) of your writing years you’re still learning to be better. There will be some good pieces to show for it, but most will be less than stellar. Write the crap. Write lots of it. But don’t stop there.

Because what you can do really well right now doesn’t just involve writing.

Develop Better Taste

Most creative work relies on taste, and it’s a myth that it’s an unchangeable trait.

Yes, Ira Glass did say that everyone who gets into creating something gets into it because they have killer taste. But that’s compared to everyone else. Your personal taste will — no, must get better with time.

“As in any job, as you continue to design things, you’ll get better at it. Your tastes will change. And, like anyone who gets better at their job, you’ll know you’re getting better. If so, your old tastes were not merely different, but worse. Poof goes the axiom that taste can’t be wrong.”
- Paul Graham, Y-Combinator founder

And professionally speaking, learning to tell good writing from bad writing is quite valuable.

The One Thing that can Improve Your Literary Taste in 15 Minutes

Reading poetry.

“The way to develop good taste in literature is to read poetry. For, being the supreme form of locution, poetry is not only the most concise, the most condensed way of conveying the human experience; it also offers the highest possible standards for any linguistic operation — especially one on paper.”
-Joseph Brodsky

A good list to begin with:

Not a fan? Here’s how you can learn to enjoy poetry.

Learn to Edit

Editing is a powerful skill for writers. And I underestimated it for a long time. When I finally got the chance to work with some amazing editors, I realized how much they helped me streamline my thoughts, cut out clutter and rephrase for elegance and brevity.

That’s another professional gold mine: recognizing bad writing, especially when it’s your own, and learning to fix it.

“I’ve found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that somebody else wrote it and then to rip the living shit out of it.”
- Don Roff

Writing is not a job where you can hold onto your ego and declare yourself the sad little king of your sad little hill. I’m humbled by the amount of work a ‘completed piece’ needs before it’s fit to be published.

Today’s 15-minute Editing Workout

Edit a piece you wrote more than a month ago.

Getting started:

Discover Great Ideas in Unusual Places

When was the last time you searched for information somewhere other than Google? I’m guessing it’s been a while.

Remember that Google can only give you recommendations based on popularity and chronology. Which is good, but it makes it next to impossible to find timeless content and insights online.

For one, valuable information often comes at a cost, in money, time or effort so googling something won’t always get you far. And two, even if it’s free, unless it’s trending or new, Google has no incentives to push it to the top of your results. So almost everything you find through search engines is a recycled version of something else.

“We really need an antidote to this culture of “if it’s not Google-able, it doesn’t exist”. There’s a wealth of knowledge and inspiration offline, ideas still very relevant and interesting.”
-Maria Popova

A colleague of mine whom I respect for her writing and editing prowess quipped that she used to read at least a thousand pages a week on a variety of subjects (poetry, literature, history, fiction & nonfiction) for nine years, so she always has a lot of associations and ideas floating around in her head that needs to be written down. That’s the kind of internal reference engine we need to build.

But one thousand pages a week for nine years is steep for most of us.

How Can you Pursue Original Stories and Ideas in 15-minutes?

Subscribe to curated emails from experts and scan them for interesting book recommendations, products, events, news and ideas.

Some newsletters worth following:

  • Now I Know by Dan Lewis — Learn something new everyday
  • Sidebar by Sacha Greif — The 5 best design links everyday
  • Brain Pickings by Maria Popova — A weekly interestingness digest
  • AWAD by Anu Garg — A Word A Day
  • Next Draft by Dave Pell — Witty takes on daily news from the net
  • The Weekly ForeKast — Learn about really cool things before they happen

That said, I did use Google to write this post. But the trick is knowing where to look, and well-curated, topical archives are the bomb.

TL;DR

Do one of three things today to give your grey cells something to think about and write better:

  1. Read Poetry
  2. Edit your own work
  3. Find original content in unusual places

If this post helped you write better today, please help it reach more people by recommending it. Thanks!

Further reading: