My writing has been read by hundreds of thousands of people. I am a published author, poet, and speaker. And the reason for my success? A rigorous approach to learning called deliberate practice, which is the same approach used by world-class musicians and Olympic athletes. In this article, I will explain in detail the three most effective tips for writers I used in my practice to reach where I’m at today.
But first – a dirty little secret. Being a great writer has absolutely nothing to do with talent. That’s right. You read that correctly. At fifteen, my high school English teacher told me to focus on other subjects because I wasn’t a natural writer. And I wasn’t. I was a terrible writer for many years. So much so that when, after dealing with a terrible drug addiction that left me homeless, I decided to go back to college at the age of twenty-six, I took a remedial writing class designed mostly for ESL (English as a Second Language) students. Putting my thoughts into a coherent sentence was excruciating.
Six years after I took that class, I graduated summa cum laude with my Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Columbia University. Oh, how far I’d come.
So without further ado, here are my 3 tips for writers that if followed will guarantee – yes, guarantee – you to become a better writer.
3 Tips for Writers
1. 15 Minutes of No-Look Freewriting
For many, getting started is the biggest hurdle to overcome. You have so much you want to see but looking at the blank page or seeing the blinking cursor is like a death sentence. It paralyzes you. This is normal. Imagine a world-class sprinter walking into the Olympic stadium for the biggest race of his life and lining up for the 100-meter dash without having first stretched. The truth is we all need to stretch.
For writers, we must begin each writing session with at least fifteen minutes of free writing. Free writing is a form of writing designed to get you to start writing. It’s easy. Sit down at your desk or in front of your computer and just start writing. What you write doesn’t matter. Just write the things that pop into your mind, however nonsensical they may be. In fact, the best free writes often start with “I don’t know what to write” written twenty times. Once you get this junk out of your head, once you are physically writing, then coherent words and sentences will come. They just will.
The most effective way to free write is not to look at what you’re writing. It’s human nature to delete and read over or judge what you write. Time and time again, it’s what stops us from writing. I almost always write with a laptop. So what I do is close the screen just over my knuckles so that I can still type but that I can’t see what I’m typing. I’ve also been known to dim my screen black. You may decide to blindfold yourself. Whatever tactic you use, if you eliminate your eyes from this writing practice your mind will begin to start feeling freer and words will come out.
2. Copying Passages Word-for-Word
Copying is a long-held tradition in both the arts and sciences. As a young painter, the great Diego Velázquez spent hundreds of hours in famous museums in Spain and France copying from the greats – El Greco, Rembrandt, etc. For one, it’s an incredible way to teach you the fundamentals. More importantly, it teaches you why great artists chose to paint the way they did. Why would El Greco choose to illuminate this part of the painting?
The same should be done of writers. Take a work of writing you greatly admire and type it out word-for-word. Do this hundreds of times. And as you do, ask yourself why did the writer choose to end the sentence here? Why is the writer using a semicolon instead of a period? Why is the writer delaying answers until the middle paragraphs? When you begin to come to conclusions about why brilliant writers write the way they do, you will find yourself having a great deal more control over your own writing.
This is probably the single most effective strategy I used to become a better writer. E.B. White is famous for his clear and precise prose, particularly his essays. So I bought a compilation of his essays and picked one essay each week to copy. Years later, I would have a professor at Columbia praise me for my clear and precise my prose. Thank you, E.B. White.
3. Shitty First Drafts
Several years ago, I remember reading the first draft of an Ernest Hemmingway short story and comparing it to the finished work. It was like night and day. To be honest, the first draft was terrible. This was quite illuminating and empowering to me as a young writer. If the great Hemingway, who, like White, was known for his short and precise control of prose, wrote terrible first drafts that I surely can’t be expected to write good ones either.
In the best book on learning how to write, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott calls this the “shitty first draft.” We need to get over ourselves. No first draft is going to be good. That’s because writing is as much about the journey as it is about the destination. You don’t start out knowing where you’re going to end up. You should have some direction you want to go but as you begin to write you begin to see where you might have missed something or you may go down a path that leads to a dead end. Writing is a way of thinking. We must write in order to think something through.
So get to writing. Don’t hesitate or stall or second guess your first draft. Don’t scrap it halfway through. Just complete it. The real fun of writing comes in what I call the sculpting the phase. Now that you have some raw thoughts down, it’s time to sculpt those thoughts into points and plot and metaphor.
In sum, you MUST give yourself time to write more than one draft. This can be especially difficult for those of us on deadlines – whether students or journalists. But you MUST find the time – schedule it, write quickly through it. I don’t care. Just do it. It’s painful. First drafts are brutal. It’s like walking through a thousand knives, each word cuts into your skin. But no one said that becoming a better writer was going to be easy.
One of the keys to deliberate practice is to take something complex – like becoming a better short story writer – and breaking it down into small parts, parts which you then create exercises to target directly. That’s how I originally developed these three tips for writers.
Benjamin Franklin is my mentor here. To become a better writer, he would take brief notes on every sentence in an article he admired. He would then put those notes aside for a few weeks – until he forgot about the essay entirely. When he returned to them, he read his notes and then reconstructed the sentences in his own words. He would then compare what he wrote to the original. Where he went wrong, he corrected his mistakes. He did this repeatedly. Incredible, isn’t it? He took this idea even further. To learn how to better structure his essays, he would take brief notes on every sentence in an article and put each collection of notes he took on a separate slip of paper – so that each slip represented one sentence. We would then put those slips into a bag and shake the bag up. Weeks later when he returned, he would dump those slips onto the floor and rearrange the sentences into a coherent essay again. He would then compare to the original and make corrections where necessary.
I must admit that I’m greatly excited by these two tips for writers from the great Ben. So much so that in the coming months I plan to try them out for myself. I’ll defintely be writing about the process soon!
The truth is that none of these tips for writers will instantly make you a better writer. If you want to be a better writer, you must do practice every day. And the practice must be painful. If you’re aimlessly practicing without challenging yourself, then you aren’t learning anything. So yes, I spend thousands of hours between twenty-six and graduating from Columbia. It was painful. I was horribly bored at times copying word-for-word what E.B. White wrote. But damn did I learn about words and sentences and syntax and paragraph construction. Which is why I feel so strongly on the value and effectiveness of these three tips for writers.
For those of you curious to learn more about deliberate practice (what it is and how to use it for your own practice), I highly recommend the book Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin.