I was excited when my workspace community sent out a newsletter about how to instantly improve your writing…and then immediately surprised when it turned out to be just a list of apps. While apps and web gimmicks can sometimes be a fun way to experiment with your writing process (I’m a huge fan of Written? Kitten), they aren’t really solutions. However, whether you’re writing epic fantasy novels or interdepartmental e-mails, you don’t need technology to become a better writer.
1. Read out loud to yourself as if your life depended on it.
Last year, I casually told my roommate that I had started working on an essay, and she said, “I know, I could hear you reading it from all the way outside.”
The advice to read your work out loud is pretty common, but in order for it to work, you have to do it right. I’ve seen a lot of people blow through the words as fast as they can under their breath. That’s not helpful. The point of reading out loud is that it fires up your natural intuition; if it doesn’t sound right out loud, it’s probably not right on paper. You have to really listen to yourself and make an effort to read exactly what’s on the page. When you read out loud, pretend there is someone else in the room who’s listening to you. (Or better yet, find an actual person to read to. ) When I was a writing consultant, most of my students would find and fix a lot of their own mistakes just from reading their paper to me.
2. Cut “seems to,” “I think,” and other softening phrases.
I’m a little bit guilty when it comes to this.
Good writing is confident and clear. It is much more effective to say, “Colin Firth’s last line in Bridget Jones’s Diary is the best moment in cinematic history.” than “I think that Colin Firth’s last line in Bridget Jones’s Diary is the best moment in cinematic history.” If we’re talking about fiction, it is a stronger image to say, “The light from the streetlamp bounced off the windows like unasked questions.” than “The light from the streetlamp seemed to bounce off the windows like unasked questions.” It is very tempting to use these phrases, but ultimately they just end up being fluff that dilutes what you’re trying to say.
Whether you literally use Ctrl + F or not, look through your writing for any phrases like these and find ways to cut them out.
3. Write a little bit every day. But give yourself some slack.
Most writing workshops you take will advise you to write every day, but does anybody actually manage to make it happen? Finding time to write is one of the biggest struggles of being a writer. We get busy, we don’t feel inspired enough. and we fall into patterns of guilt and dread. The kicker is that the best way to get better at writing is to write.
So, don’t put too much pressure on yourself. It doesn’t matter what you write, just write something. You can delete immediately if that will make you feel better, just get words down on the page. Last Christmas, I bought myself 642 Things to Write About by the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto which gives you great, tiny prompts you can do in five minutes or less.
Find little pockets of time to write. I’ve been journaling and doing 642 Things to Write About prompts every time I get on the subway. (In fact, I wrote most of this post on the subway.) But if you live in a city that doesn’t have mass transportation, you can do things like write in the time between classes, in the last ten minutes of your lunch break at work, or for ten minutes between chores.
4. Make an inverse outline.
This was probably my most common trick as a writing consultant. It really helps if it feels like you’re having problems organizing your writing.
I know not everyone prescribes to the writing process guideline of creating an outline before you write. That’s fine– I personally like to get it all out, too. But ultimately good writing has organized thoughts, so you need to get to that point somehow.
Enter the inverse outline. Take a piece of writing you’ve already written, and, next to each paragraph, mark what that paragraph is about. Now, it should be very easy to go through and visualize how everything pieces together. Does it make sense to have a paragraph about trains right after you’ve introduced an idea about planes? Does every sentence in the paragraph about monster trucks contribute to the point about monster trucks? Move things around and see what works best– remember, on computers it’s easy to put things back if you liked it better the first way!
5. Turn off your inner editor.
One of the best things I ever did for my own writing was NaNoWriMo. As you may know, NaNoWriMo is when you attempt to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November, which means writing at least 1, 667 words a day. This is a lot of writing, and the only way to do it is to think about the amount of words you’re writing, and not the quality of what you’re putting down on the page.
After doing NaNoWriMo, even the years that I didn’t succeed, my writing changed a lot. I became accustomed to getting a huge amount of volume out in short amounts of time, so blank pages and deadlines didn’t scare me as much. Everything felt easier. My writing became more daring and imaginative, because I was letting my brain loose.
So, I say to you now: put what you’re thinking down on the page as-is, and worry about the rest later.
It seems counterintuitive to improve your writing by not worrying about what you write, but it really works. A lot of times people get stuck because they feel pressure to put the right thing down on paper. It’s a lot easier to edit than to come out with perfection right away. Not to mention, good writing comes from honesty, from aha! moments, and from introspection. If you’re constantly stopping yourself, those elements are not going to come.
To wrap up, I want to leave you on this thought: The most important element of writing is clarity. Your number one priority as a writer is to make sure your audience can understand what you’re saying. Sometimes all it takes is to be simple and direct.