Five Tips to Write Better

I write a lot. Obviously, reading this, you know about the Spark blog (which started in 2008, long before Spark was even a twinkle in my eye, as the independent association blog Thanks for Playing). I also write whitepapers. And for other association industry publications. And I write a food blog. And I’m just kicking off my 9th consecutive season blogging about the NFL. And, to brag for a minute, I’m not too bad at it (writing, that is).

How does it happen? How does one become a passable writer?

  1. You have to read. One of the best ways to learn any skill is to apprentice to a master. Does that mean you should expect TC Boyle or Natalie Angier or Virginia Wolfe or Michel Foucault to tutor you personally? No (and Virginia and Michel are dead anyway). But you can learn from them by reading what they wrote. The best thing you can do for yourself as a writer is to read voraciously and widely: essays, articles, blogs, poetry, magazines, newspapers, short stories, novels, fiction, non-fiction. The surest way to get words to love you is to love them back.
  2. You have to know yourself. Where do your skills lie? What writing style suits you? What genre? Short or long? Opinion or research? Fiction or fact? Flip or earnest? How do you know? You have to experiment and find your voice. Which leads us to…
  3. You have to practice. Although Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours thing has been pretty much disproved, he was right about the fact that without focused, intentional practice, you’ll never get better at anything. You have to develop a writing practice. Err on the side of structure, at least initially: “I will write for 10 minutes only for myself every morning over my second cup of coffee. I can write about anything I want to, or nothing at all, but I have to write for 10 full minutes. I will do this six mornings a week for a month.” It doesn’t have to be precisely that structure, but you have to get into the habit of writing by making it a habit for as long as it takes.
  4. You have to learn. It’s extremely rare for people to be excellent writers immediately upon starting to write and in first draft form. In fact, it pretty much doesn’t happen. Ever. You need to develop a thick skin to be able to critique yourself and take criticism from others. Start by writing something a little more substantive than your morning 10 minutes, something that took a little more working, thinking, and research. Set it aside for at least a few days. Come back to it, and try to read it objectively, assessing both content (“what did I say?”) and form (“how well did I say it?”). After you’ve edited it, share it with someone you respect and ask for her feedback. When she gives it, don’t react – accept it, unpack it, learn from it, get better. It’s tough to improve without someone to help you see where you’re going wrong. Even pros have coaches.
  5. You have to be bold. Writing, particularly writing that you intend to share with another person, is scary. Putting your thoughts and ideas out into the world can feel an awful lot like taking Butterstick away from Mei Xiang and throwing him into the tiger enclosure at the zoo. You have to be willing to make public mistakes, occasionally look the fool, and withstand sometimes harsh (and unfair) judgement. But if you really want to do this, trust me, it’s worth it.

Finally, I’ve found a few resources that have helped me in developing as a writer: Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and Natalie Goldenberg’s Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind. I won’t lie. All three are a little “woo-woo,” but the practices they recommend *will* help you develop your chops.


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