How can I become a good writer?
You might have asked this question at least once in your life.
You are lounging on a sofa, still in the hangover from reading that great story, thinking how well the writer has woven emotions, incidents, history, and characters into one gripping tale.
You might have fancied authoring a similar work.
Tell me the truth, haven’t you tried at least once? How many times have you taken up that pen and paper, or opened that word processing software — and given up too soon?
You follow that blogger whose content gets gobbled up by thousands daily.
Haven’t you wondered how these great writers churn out creative literary pieces so effortlessly?
I have, my friend. My search for the answer to this question has thrown up familiar advice.
It is as simple as reading, talking, listening, and writing.
There are plenty of articles, blog posts, listicles on this topic out there with up to twenty or even more suggestions. In the end, everything boils down to the four simple building blocks of language stated above.
So here is the complete, bare-bones, beginner’s guide to becoming a good writer. But before we dive in, let me tell you I am not preaching from a high pedestal — the opposite is true — I am a beginner too. This is what I practice on my journey to the same goal. Consider these as tips a fellow traveler shares with you.
A good writer needs to be a great reader
This is very obvious, but true.
Reading develops your vocabulary and ideas. For me, this is the most important step on the journey to becoming a good writer. A beginner needs to know what to aim for. Only when you reach the base and look up the mountain will you get a sense of the summit.
This is where I am at present.
Yeah, your teachers have been telling this forever. And with a good reason too. Turns out that reading helps big time to develop your writing skills.
So get your hands on a great book, sit down and get cozy with it.
Read anything and everything.
I can hear you ask, “Hey Matt, you said go get a book — but what kind of book?”
Buddy, you can pick a novel, a self-help book, a research paper, a newspaper, or a collection of poems. It depends on which genre of creative writing you want to be successful in.
“Devour any kind of printed material you can get your hands on”, my dad used to tell us as kids. I want to pass on the same advice to you. Everything you read becomes part of your subconscious writing-bank-locker. It stays in that vault, ready to be picked up when you need it.
Read the missing cat posters adorning the trees on the street. Read the labels on products at the grocery store. Read the lyrics of your favorite song. Read the fading words on the jacket of the guy sitting in front of you.
Read the newspapers, magazines, and blogs that interest you. Read novels, stories, biographies, essays — read anything and everything.
Sounds crazy but trust me, it works. A writer is the product of everything he or she ever read.
Raid a friend’s bookshelf or get a membership in a library.
I would tell you to get a library membership; since you’re a beginner, I’m gonna assume you are too broke for that. You must have a friend who will lend you a few books.
Don’t tell me you don’t have one. Come out from under that rock and make a friend or two today itself because — you have to become a good writer.
Do you know that awesome corner of town where they sell used books? That, my friend, is a treasure trove of affordably-priced world literature. Every city will have one. Find it. Add it to the list of your regular haunts. Mark the location on a map and make sure to visit once a week.
My small town has three streets where pop-up shops sell used books. The place has a unique charm. There is something about the yellowed, dog-eared pages that carry little notes and messages from strangers belonging to a time and place far away. I see these books as the wild cousins of the ‘domesticated’ new books.
Sorry to digress. Now, back to the topic.
If you aren’t that bad financially, then it’s a no-brainer decision — get a membership in the local library. If you are confused about where to start, ask the librarian for suggestions. The librarian will be delighted at the opportunity to share that wisdom with you.
To become a good writer, make your reading meaningful.
Once you have started to read there is one important thing you have to do. And that is to make your first moves in writing. These are going to be your baby steps to become a good writer.
Keep with you a pen or pencil while you read; highlight words, phrases, and sentences that interest you. Identify the elements of style followed by the author, the use of punctuations, idioms, and phrases. Jot these down in a notebook — a pocketable one is better — for future reference.
A good story will evoke many emotions in the reader. You will laugh out loud at a witty retort, bite your nails in suspense, and drop tears in empathy at the protagonist’s loss. That notebook will turn into a resource book before you even know. When you write your fair copies, it will help you translate emotions into words with ease.
Another thing that you can do is finish reading a chapter and then write your thoughts in the notebook. Either way, it will keep you alert while reading. You will comprehend the idea or information much better. When you do this, you connect your reading to your writing.
A good writer needs to socialize (talking and listening).
Talking and listening are two of the basic pillars of language, along with reading and writing. Listening to different ways people communicate with each other will benefit your writing. The reader feels a connection when your writing speaks his or her language.
Spoken language keeps evolving constantly. It is not uncommon for informal speech — including slang — to be added to the written language. Hence it makes sense to be part of more conversations, whether you take an active part or passive.
Humans are genetically inclined to speak and listen. We listen to narratives right from childhood. Instructions, messages, and stories were transmitted through word of mouth before the invention of writing.
Listen to people / Involve in conversations.
Make sure to listen more. Great speeches are lessons in conveying emotions through story-telling. Listening to others brings fresh insight. Use it to your advantage in writing.
I’m sure you watch a lot of TV and movies. That is good. Conversations between characters in a movie or people in an interview are good starting points. Notice how the scriptwriter of the movie transitions the story from one situation to another.
Get involved in conversations with people. Everyone has a story to tell. Human beings are born storytellers. They just need someone to share it with. If you are a good listener there will never be a shortage of ideas and information for your writing.
And besides that, everyone has a distinctive style of conveying information. Pick up interesting styles of speech and weave them into your narrative. Keeping your writing raw where needed is important to become a good writer.
Keep your ears open to the world around you.
Conversations happen all around you. Keep your ears open in the metro, elevator, cafeteria, mall, everywhere. Yes, I am asking you to eavesdrop on people. But be careful to maintain moderation while employing this trick.
Listen to how people talk with each other. Jot down interesting snippets of conversation in your notebook when you can. Use this as a reference for your piece of work. When you write as you talk it sounds natural to the reader.
But don’t go overboard with enthusiasm. You want to be known as one of the good writers and not the pervert of the town, right?
You will become a good writer only if you write.
Now let’s get down to writing.
At this point, you are talking with and listening to people. You are reading and comprehending what you read. Right now your mind — as well as your notebook — will be filled with enough writing material to fill at least a page.
This is the moment of truth.
Your mind is now active and alive with thoughts and opinions. Sometimes there could be confusion or tension. Whatever it may be, pen them down.
What emotion did you have on reading that novel, short story, or blog post? Give it a physical form. Didn’t like the opinions of the blogger? Then write a rebuttal blog post.
A good writer writes regularly.
Malcolm Gladwell says that if you do anything for at least 10,000 hours you will become an expert in it. Whether you need that many hours of practice or not, one thing is certain:
“What you don’t use, you will lose”.
Keep the momentum going by writing often. Improvement comes with repetition and continuous practice. Like a body muscle develops with exercise, your writing muscle needs development too. It is important to let the words flow for now and leave the corrections for later.
What if you run out of inspiration to write? Worry not, for there are plenty of writing prompt services available on the internet. A Google search will throw up plenty of such websites.
If even that doesn’t float your boat, try copying a chapter or two from great author’s books. Sounds unoriginal but that was considered to be the best way to teach the art of writing in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of history’s great authors have been students of this school of writing.
A good writer edits his or her writing religiously.
Somebody has rightly said that a good portion of writing involves rewriting.
Once you have finished writing, make a critical analysis of it. Become a ruthless editor of your work. You may have to revise your writing more than once. The third or fourth sweep may reveal mistakes you missed earlier.
Sometimes you need to take a break and come back to the editing later.
So if you put your manuscript away for three months, your creative brain will keep writing on the back burner. You will, in turn, develop “new eyes” with which to do your “re-vision.”Mary Kole: acclaimed editor, author, and blogger
You could also get the help of a friend for editing your piece. Nowadays many software are available to help in editing. Do everything it takes to clean up your writing.
If you don’t get it right, please don’t give up. Even the best writers have to rewrite their work many times before they publish.
Get honest feedback.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of getting feedback on your work.
Feedback should be honest. Your friend may go soft on you and not give honest advice. So I would suggest joining with other writers, either in a workshop or a writer’s group.
I know that it is an appalling idea to share your work with strangers. But once you get over the inhibition you will realize how beneficial it is. Have you seen the acknowledgment page in books where the author thanks other writers for their help? You need help from other writers if you want to be a good writer.
So get good and honest feedback, revise your draft, and repeat this process for good measure.
Let it go.
Eventually, you will reach a stage where you have to stop the revision process and just let it go.
Yes, it is now time to submit your work.
This could be the most difficult part for many. Each time you read, you will feel that you can make it better. Accept the fact that perfection is a hazy concept. If it is good enough, it will be accepted. If not, it will be an education for you.
Have an open mind to criticisms. Be ready to take rejections in your stride. Convert failures into axle-grease that helps turn your writing machinery better.
I have laid down the most basic things to be taken care of for you to transform from a beginner writer to a good writer. These are common and often repeated. But many beginners get the wrong idea that there is some formula which when applied, creates magic.
Good writing is a repetitive process that involves reading, writing, speaking, and listening.
Dear reader, these are the not-so-secret ingredients to good writing. What tips do you suggest to become a good writer? I would love to hear your thoughts.