Writers write. And writing is the absolute best way to become a better writer. Period.
But writers are obsessive. Sometimes we get so involved in a project we forget about the other aspects of writing, the ones that don't involve pen and paper.
Here's a quick refresher.
1. Be Observant
Be that person who notices everything. Eavesdrop on conversations. People-watch. Pay attention as you navigate daily life. Finding something to write about should never be a problem. There are ideas everywhere, if you're looking for them.
It's the details that make writing—the small pieces of imagery, the perfect comparisons. Those things don't come from thin air. You notice them. You notice the way snapping twigs feel under your boot, and later, when you're writing, you'll be able to pull that out and compare it to snapping bones. Or whatever you do—the way skin feels to the touch, the smell of meat on the grill. You have to notice the small things. If not, you will have no details, no imagery to draw on, and the world of your writing will be flat.
I know that reading technically has something to do with writing, but it's just too important for me to leave out. You cannot become a better writer without reading. It's impossible. It's like trying to paint without brushes. You have the paint. You might get something on the canvas, but it won't look like art.
Read everything you can find. Good books, bad books, textbooks, instruction manuals. Everything. Bonus points if you read with a pen in hand, taking notes in the margins. Notice what works and what doesn't. What makes you feel something, and what falls flat? What would you change?
Every writer begins by emulating the styles of others (hopefully others who know what they're doing). If you never read, you have no base, nothing to grow from.
I am a firm believer that running can teach you invaluable lessons about writing.
Go for a long run—whatever's long for you, a mile, ten miles. It's just like writing a long piece. You start out strong, excited, with long deer-like steps. Then you start to slow down and settle into your pace. About halfway through, you might get bored. Your mind wanders, and you have to pull yourself back to the present.
That is free mental training, my friend. It toughens you up, gives you a simple ultimatum: quit or finish.
What you choose to do during your run is likely what you will choose during your writing project. Will you quit when "writer's block" sets in, when putting down words feels like slugging through mud? Or will you fight through it and get your story on paper?
Near the end of your run, it will hurt. Your legs will be on fire, and there will be needles in your side. Then, it will happen—the magical second wind. The more times you run, the more confident you will be that this second burst of energy will appear in your body, and the more you write, the surer you will be that even when inspiration starts to wane, it will reappear, stronger than ever.
Remember when your teachers called you out during class—when you were staring into space instead of listening to the lecture on cell structure? You were actually practicing to become a writer.
When it comes down to it, writers are storytellers, using words to transmit to others the thoughts and visions floating around their imaginations. So daydream, fantasize, and stretch those imaginative muscles so that when you sit down to write, they're already warmed up and ready to go.
Wonder about things. A story starts with a, What if...? What if a bunch of boys were stranded on an island? What if an entire town was trapped under an invisible dome? A writer's job is to flesh out these questions, but first you have to ask them. Watch people you pass on the street. Wonder where they're going, where they've been. Wonder what kind of family they have, what kind of problems—and what would happen if they encountered someone or something else.
Then write it down.
5. Talk to People
Writers write about people. Yes, there are dogs and planes and ghosts in stories, but they're not what people care about. People care about people.
How they sound, what they do, how they feel. So when you talk to people, listen. It's easy to fall into the tendency of nodding along and waiting for your turn to speak. But really making an effort to listen to what people are saying—whether it's your mom or the cashier at the grocery store—will give you insights to draw on in your writing. Pay attention to body language. Remember what people do when they're angry or when they're lying (reminds me of a great article on writing liars). Being around people and noticing what they do will give you a better idea of how to write them.
Which brings me to...
6. Don't Shut Yourself Away
Writing is a solitary activity, I know. Many of us are introverts, and being around other people is exhausting. You don't have to go to the raging party. You don't even have to interact with others—sometimes just people-watching at the mall or the park is enough.
It's important to remember that without life, there is nothing to write about. Go outside every now and then. Talk to the real people. Get inspired. There is no muse who will magically grant you ideas; you have to go find them.
Writing is the best way to become a better writer, but the best writers are writing all the time. They're writing in their minds, where no one can see. They're tasting words every second because every second is an opportunity for a new idea, a new character, a new story.
Don't waste it.
What do you do (besides writing) to hone your skills?
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