Oftentimes I am asked how it is that one can become a better writer, and I thought I’d meditate on that question in this blog post.
Writing is, like a martial art, a discipline. It is a practice. As the student of karate must practice the forms and techniques of karate frequently, so the writer must practice his or her art. In order to become better, it is necessary that you have a daily, or mostly daily, practice.
I know so many aspiring writers who do not practice; as a result, they produce little actual writing, and what they do produce tends to stay within a limited range of aesthetic quality. As with any discipline, you must seek continual improvement, knowing all the while that there is no final end goal. The process is the goal; the journey is, in some sense, the destination.
In my own writing life, I have found that setting a minimal 30 minutes for writing is optimal. And, I usually don’t have any expectations as to what it is that I’m writing. I put it all in the form of a journal, and I allow my mind to wander.
Sometimes, I’m counting the clock. If what is currently on my mind is “how much time I have left, and how I can’t think of what to write,” I will write that down. Sometimes the mind needs to put its anxieties out into a tangible form before it can unleash its creativity.
Sometimes, I merely write down notes from the books I’m currently reading, or make plans for my future, or allow myself to fantasize freely. I know that no one is going to read what I’m writing, and that I can be absolutely free in what I say. The court of world opinion is not in session when I’m writing in my journal; I am free from the judgement of others there.
Establishing a habit can be difficult at first, but it is so important that you make writing habitual. Just as your physical body has muscles, so your mind has muscles as well; they need to be stretched, worked to the limit, and put into different situations in order to grow and develop.
Here are some tips on establishing a daily writing habit:
First, try to write in the same place, and at the same time. Your brain looks for cues, such as objects or situations, before automatically locking into automatic behaviors. If you wake up at 7am and sit at your desk while drinking your morning coffee every day, the behavior just becomes normal for you. In fact, you feel weird when you don’t do it, and that’s because your brain has encoded the various behaviors of writing with a set of cues–sitting at your desk, smelling coffee, et cetera.
Second, give yourself an allotment of time. I usually set a thirty minute timer when I sit down to write. I allow myself to go over that time if I desire, but I usually stick to thirty minutes at least. Even when I’m not feeling productive, the act of sitting down at my desk for thirty minutes establishes the habit, and that’s more important than just having a productive day, in the long run.
Author James Clear calls this “mastering the art of showing up” in his book Atomic Habits, which I highly recommend reading. The first step to performing a behavior is putting yourself in the context where that behavior occurs; in this case, that’s at your desk, or table, or wherever you normally do your writing. Master the art of showing up, and the behavior is bound to follow.
Consistency is obviously key, but don’t beat yourself up if you miss a few sessions. Just make sure that you get back on track as soon as possible. Feeling guilt can actually lead to a downward spiral, just as procrastinating something tends to draw out the procrastination. If you associate negative feelings with your writing, you’re less likely to return to your habit.
There are many other ways to establish a habit, and I recommend both James Clear’s Atomic Habits and Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit to help you.
Second to establishing a daily writing practice is to actually read great writing. And this, too, should become habitual. Since both reading and writing are linked, I personally practice both habits together. As soon as I wake up, I read for 30-60 minutes. And as soon as I’m done doing that, I immediately go over to my desk and write for thirty minutes.
Reading great literature helps you in many ways, but the most obvious way is through imitation. Like it or not, you will begin to imitate what it is that you read. If you spend a lot of time reading science papers, for example, you will likely begin to write that way. If you read a lot of Hemingway, your writing will likely become terse and to the point.
Just as your body’s health depends in large part upon the food you are eating, so your mind needs to be fed good food. That’s one key reason why you should seek out the classics, the masters of the writing craft. You become like that which you associate yourself with, and your reading and writing life is no different.
There are many lists or ‘canons’ of great literature, and of course everyone will have their own opinion about what is great and what is not. But you should start somewhere. I recommend listening to what other writers consider to be the classics, and seeking out those works. You’ll soon have growing lists of ‘must reads’, and your shelves will pile up!
There are other practices that you can engage in to become a better writer, like keeping your mind open to new ideas, seeking out novel experiences, and even learning how to better plan out your writing. But these two central practices, daily writing and daily reading, are the most essential. Writing is a spiritual practice on so many levels; it can foster personal growth and sharpen your mind, but it needs to be actually practiced in order to obtain the best results.