There are some helpful habits you can nurture as a writer that will improve your skills. Some of the habits help capture creativity, while others are ways to survive the writing process.
Writing is not easy for the vast majority of individuals. The difficulties we experience come from a variety of sources, but none is more paralyzing than the fear of making mistakes. Our earliest writing experiences are marred by teachers marking our papers with red pen; regardless of our ideas, it was our grammar that seemed to matter most. Enough corrections and we learn to write cautiously: we take fewer risks with complex sentences and avoid words we might misuse.
If you want to excel at writing, you need to take risks and break free of any fears. There are habits you can adopt that act as safety nets while you develop as a writer. There are other habits that will improve your writing without any risk at all. Taken together, the “during writing” and “any time” habits will build confidence and skill.
A good writer:
- Reads, reads, and reads some more
- Listens to how “real” people talk
- Researches impulsively
- Practices writing
- Maintains a schedule
- Plans in his or her own way
Try speaking “proper English” in complete sentences throughout your day. It is neither easy nor natural!
Remember, this document is all about developing good habits. These are suggestions that should become routine, like a daily exercise regimen. If you only follow these suggestions sometimes, they aren’t likely to be as beneficial.
Read… and Read Some More
Make a habit of reading. Read everything from cereal boxes to novels. Next to writing a lot, nothing beats reading when you want to improve your skills as a writer. This is true for poets, novelists, and reporters. Generally, you learn what works well when you read published works, but sometimes you learn what doesn’t work well. When you find works you enjoy, ask yourself what makes it a success. You will discover “successful writing” does not match a single set of guidelines. Some writers are masters of wordplay, while others are great storytellers. Only by reading can you discover the strengths and weaknesses of your own projects.
Experienced writers know when to break the rules; aspiring writers need to learn the rules before breaking them.
When we suggest reading everything, that means we believe
writers should venture beyond their normal comfort zones. At least 20
percent of your reading should be works you would not impulsively choose.
If you write period romances, the odds are that your bookcases are lined
with… romances. It makes sense to read as much in your niche market as
possible, but you need to develop the habit of reading much more.
The 20 percent guideline means that every fifth book you select should be something unfamiliar. Used bookstores and online exchanges are ideal for this exercise. Some online groups trade books for the cost of postage, so there’s little excuse for not reading a bit of everything. Some of the most successful works mix notions of “genre fiction” to create something unique. How else can we explain vampires in love?
It might be argued that the more “literary” a work, the better example it is for aspiring writers. However, reading only works deemed literature by critics and academics means you miss some interesting writing. It could be argued that “literary fiction” is often as formulaic as other fiction, ironically ending up with its own orthodoxies.
A tough habit to break is “lazy reading.” In lazy reading, we skim and skip words or phrases we don’t understand. We don’t study the page design when we are lazy. We look only for the information we want and nothing more when we’re lazy. Sadly, many people even read fiction lazily. It might seem odd, but reading too quickly is a sign of lazy reading.
We don’t mark directly in books though teachers have said “marginalia” are important. Post-It notes and flags are good ways to avoid damaging the pages.
Active readers are in the habit of taking notes, marking texts, and following ideas to yet other texts. You want to enjoy the text, so develop ways to take notes quickly so active reading doesn’t ruin the pleasure of reading. You should enjoy discovering words, grammar patterns, and more. Active readers start to have “a-ha!” moments, when they realize what makes a particular work or writer special.
When reading quickly, we go back to our school lessons to rely on context for meaning, which means we don’t bother to expand our vocabularies. When you encounter a new word, mark it or record it somewhere. You don’t need to stop reading a good story; you should look up unknown words or phrases when you have the time to explore.
Some writers are known for the use of words and phrases. In English, beyond the notable William Shakespeare, other examples include Jane Austen, Edgar Allan Poe, and for the real lexophile, William F. Buckley, Jr., almost requires a dictionary at hand. Classic literature does tend to feature richer vocabularies, though modern “period lit” often attempts to mimic language of the past.
Beyond what might be considered “standard” language, an active reader pursues non-fiction with specialized lexicons. Terms from the sciences and specialized fields expand a writer’s toolkit. Also, for fiction writers, using terms from various fields leads to believable characters. It’s hard to stress the value of an expanded vocabulary, and active readers are always adding to theirs.
Get in the habit of noticing grammar and mechanics. The best way to learn the grammar and mechanics of a language is to read because grammar is mimicked long before it is learned. Listening helps, certainly, but the printed word tends to follow rules more closely. Remember, children learn to speak in complete sentences long before they can identify the parts of speech. Likewise, we learn to recognize good writing long before we can explain why it is “better” than other writing.
If you write columns or are a reporter, buy magazines outside your specialty area. In the case of non-fiction, the visual elements might be as important as the words, so study more than the text of the work. Aspiring non-fiction writers often forget that they tell stories. These stories sometimes need more than words to be complete and clear. Teach yourself to “read” the visuals and ask yourself to identify when visuals are essential.
Listen to Real People
When reading or listening, pay attention to word choices.
Synonyms vary in effect; some words are more powerful than others in specific situations. The most effective speakers know when to choose a simple word versus when to substitute an “impressive” word. There are times when a longer, supposedly impressive word is ineffective or even disruptive to communicating.
Listening for new words is more difficult because we cannot stop a conversation to write down a great new word. What we can do is listen for what seems to really work well in a conversation and what fails. In this context, working is whatever clearly expresses an idea. Failure is when the speaker is either not understood or is misunderstood. Remember what works and try to replicate those patterns when you write dialogue.
Research and Learn the Facts
Write… and Write Some More
Write Everything Well
Bad habits are hard to break, so start now. When writing any letter or memo, especially email, write in complete sentences with proper grammar. Because most people do not try to write well online, few will notice any minor mistakes you make. If anything, other people might think you’re being a tad pretentious with full sentences and proper spellings. Eventually, your friends and coworkers will come to expect your correspondence to shine. There is no shame in being thought of as the best writer in a workplace.
The best reason to write properly is that it reduces confusion. Clear, well-composed prose means you will not have to exchange a dozen clarifications during the day. When you write well, there are fewer exercises of interpretation by recipients because people understand your initial correspondence. While it takes longer to write a good letter or memo, it saves time and prevents misunderstandings.
Stick to a Schedule
Plan the Words