How I Became a Better Writer…and You Can Too!

This is the last post in Better Writing Month. Please don’t remind me it’s no longer April ūüėČ

The money cow

Writing skills are funny. You could spend years studying ‘important’ literary works, deconstructing obscure texts, and writing post-colonial analyses of Salman Rushdie books…but still be a mediocre writer.

I speak from experience.

One English degree earned, hundred of books read, thousands of pages written…and I still can’t spell¬†onomatopoeia¬†without a spell checker.

However, over the past two years, I have become a much better writer. I’m no Joyce Carol Oates, but compared to where I was when I finished university, the difference is like comparing Spam burgers to¬†Kobe¬†steaks.

Did I climb a mountain, talk to an oracle, and receive sage advice? No. Did I deconstruct even more texts? No. Did I go back to university for more education? Hell no. I’ve had enough post-colonial/post-structuralist/marxist/feminist/post-deconstructionist theory for one thousand lifetimes.

How did I become a better writer?

The answer will shock you. Hold your breath…

I developed the habit of writing. Every. Damn. Day.

While doing research for Better Writing Month, I became sucked into a swirling red vortex of articles on writing. Most of  these articles say write everyday. Thanks for the letter postmarked Obvious City. But how does one develop the habit of writing every day?

Developing the daily writing habit is the hard part.

But once you have it, writing everyday is easy, natural, and as necessary as breathing.

Before I developed the daily writing habit, I wrote about 2,000 words per month…even though I wanted to write more. I simply couldn’t do it. After I developed the habit, I started writing over 2,000 every day (without writer’s block, excessive procrastination, etc.)¬†Again, the difference is like spam and kobe.

Like curling, kayaking, and fly herding, writing is a mental game. Developing the discipline to practice is difficult. Writing without an audience (or without the immediate feedback of academia) is difficult. But when you write every day, the effect is like compound interest; your skills build and multiply over time. You¬†do¬†become a better writer.¬†Plus you’ll learn the secret of creative inspiration.

Please don’t think I’m bragging. I’m still a 3rd-rate hack with ambition. And please don’t think I’m saying the development of the daily writing habit is the¬†only¬†way to become a better writer. Reading one book a week, taking writing classes, getting feedback and critiques, reading books on writing, all these will help (some more than others). And of course, everybody’s different; what works for me mayn’t work for for you.

How did I develop the daily writing habit?

Well, I met this guy in a graffiti-covered alley. He wears a hoodie, his eyes are always bloodshot, and he carries little glass vials

If you want to develop the habit of daily writing, you need a routine or a system¬†that makes you write everyday. You need to be writing with some purpose or goal. Just saying you¬†want to write every day doesn’t work. At least it never worked for me. I tried for years. Finally I tried something a little more regimented and structured…and it worked.

I found structure and regimentation in two different ways:

  • Nanowrimo (past two years): Write 1,667 words a day for a month. Easy, but damn hard. The end product is unpublishable drivel, but that’s not the point. The real payoff is a the discipline you learn and the skills you pick up along the way. Check out¬†10 Lessons Learned from Nanowrimo.
  • Before I started blogging, I set up a thirty day challenge to write a 1,000 word article every day. By the time I hit thirty articles, I could write faster and better than before.

I know I dramatically improved my writing because, at the end of each project, I wrote and revised test pieces and compared the results. For Nanowrimo, the¬†before-and-after¬†was a chase scene. If the¬†before¬†wasn’t so pitiful I’d post a before-and-after sample. Same for the articles. Spam and kobe.

For me, hitting daily word counts for a minimum of thirty days burned the daily writing habit into my brain like a branding iron on a cow’s flank. Thirty days is kind of an arbitrary number to establish a new habit, but it seems effective.¬†Some people claim a new habit is established in as little as¬†twenty-one¬†days. Here’s an interesting Google¬†answers entry on this topic.

If you want to develop the daily writing habit…

  • Set a daily word count goal or target.
  • Create a visual way to measure your progress (calendars, spreadsheets, % complete bars).
  • Hit your wordcount goal every day for 30 days.
  • Write for an¬†audience (even if it’s in your head).

That’s it. Soon you’ll develop¬†a routine and experience positive¬†creative inertia. That’s all you need to do to begin to develop the daily writing habit.

Set a goal. Write towards that goal.

Every. Damn. Day.

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Photo credit: Robert S. Donovan

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Ziggy Kinsella May 4, 2010, 10:24 am

    Very useful article. It’s often said that writers write which is about as useful as a ice cream monkey wrench. Speaking as someone who can fall into the lazy pit and not emerge for days, getting yourself into some sort of rhythm is vital. I have to make myself sit down and start writing – unless I do that the day is ruined. It helps to pick a set time and to stick to it for at least a month. That way it becomes ingrained and (hopefully) less painful.

  • Great post. Writing every day. Butt in chair. Learning. If I live long enough, I may learn to write…. On the plus side, it’s darn good fun while I’m in the learning process.

  • Michelle May 4, 2010, 8:53 pm

    SO SO SO true! And I really need to do NaNo at some point. Maybe this year. ūüôā

  • Seth May 5, 2010, 4:08 am

    Hey all, thanks for stopping by. Great to hear from you.

    @Ziggy – I know what you mean about ruined days. If from some reason I don’t get my work in, I spend the rest of the day feeling like I’ve got rusty nails in my head. A daily rhythm, a daily routine, it makes it so much easier for me.

    @Adventures – I wonder if I’ll ever reach a point where I can say I’ve learned to write. Like growing old, it’s an ongoing process. Forever learning, never learned? Or maybe we all learned to write in elementary school and everything else is just details.

    @Michelle – Nanowrimo is so worth it and the time commitment isn’t huge. I think for you it’d be pretty easy anyway. Hope Seattle is treating you well. Watched the video you posted; I’m jealous of all the live music.

  • Margaret Polk May 8, 2010, 12:45 pm

    Good advice for writers, whether the writer is young or old. As a second grade teacher, I encouraged my students to journal daily…write about whatever was on their mind. And like you said, when they got used to writing daily, they wrote more. Again, Seth, I feel you gave and have given good advice to those who want to write. Changing the subject, I am looking forward to seeing you on May 15th! Safe travels home ūüôā