I have roughly a million words in print. I have several hundred thousand more in eBooks, online articles and blogs, not to mention quite a few unpublished works. As a result, I am often asked for advice on writing, but I rarely write about writing. The reason is that I am slightly suspicious of that recursive behaviour whereby writers write about writing, film makers makes films about filming or playwrights stage plays about plays. But in this article I’ve overcome that suspicion and broken my habit to give five very simple tips which anyone can follow. This is not advanced advice as you might receive on a writing course, but some basic habits anyone can adopt to improve your writing.
It sounds obvious. Very obvious. Maybe too obvious. It is an apparently obvious truth that if you want to be a writer, you must write. Yet the world seems to be awash with would-be writers who never write. They can’t find the time, don’t have the inspiration, are too tired after work. Sounds familiar? You must make a choice. Those issues aren’t going away unless you make a choice to write, and ideally write regularly. You don’t need to write much. A few sentences a day is a start. It builds the habit and helps you practice. Don’t worry too much if you are not impressed with your first efforts. Most people are not automatically gifted writers. It takes a little time and practice.
There is no reason you should not write purely for your own pleasure without ever sharing it with anyone else. Like any other form of creativity, you don’t have to be doing it for other people. This is often forgotten – writing can be a solitary joy. Yet, most writers are writing to be read by others. If this is the case, then sooner or later, and ideally sooner, you need to get other people to read your writing and give you feedback. If the feedback is to be worthwhile, this may be a painful process. When I started writing, I hated getting even the most gently critical feedback. One gets quite attached to one’s own words – feedback can be seen as a personal attack. But taking feedback, even the most critical of feedback, is an essential part of honing your skills. Nowadays I am, mostly, quite relaxed about it. Occasionally, it touches a raw point, but I try to grit my teeth and accept that as part of the game of being a writer.
See the everyday opportunities
There are millions of everyday opportunities to be a writer. Take email. You can dash off emails as a painful daily chore. Alternatively, you can see email as an ideal opportunity to practice and develop your writing style. Now and again don’t just scribble out a rapid response. Compose yourself. Think about what message you want to communicate. Work on the response. Refine your email. Your recipients will not always recognise or appreciate your efforts – but that’s not the point.
If you don’t enjoy reading, why do you think anyone will enjoy reading your writing? Reading can be one of life’s great pleasures. It can also be the source of wisdom, inspiration, and insights. But for a writer reading is more than this – it is an opportunity to see different ways of expressing ideas, conveying emotions and creating images. When you read, don’t just learn about the message, think about how the writer is expressing it. The aim is not to copy other writers, but to explore, discover and develop your own style.
I always ask those who read my books to post reviews. This is partially the selfish need to get feedback and the desire to promote my books. Reviews are critically important to authors and their book sales. In return, I have always written reviews with a sense of duty to my fellow authors. But a year or two ago I realised my reviews were quite bland.
Since then, I have tried to craft my reviews. My thinking is simple. If I cannot express clearly, in written text, what I like or dislike about a book then what kind of writer am I? I doubt many people read my reviews, but again that is not the point. Of course, I am gratified when people do, and more so when they enjoy them. Yet fundamentally I see it as yet another way of exercising and improving my writing. I do this on goodreads, but anywhere, even in the back of an old notebook, will do.