Every writer gets the same advice when they’re starting out — write every day, read a lot, practice writing exercises — but that can only get you so far. There are other skills to develop.
It’s like a baseball player who only practices hitting and catching. Yes, those are important skills that he needs to practice over and over. But there are other skills he can practice that will also improve his playing ability: lifting weights, sprint workouts, and even off-season work like chopping wood and playing basketball, will improve his ability to swing a bat.
For writers, there are related skills they can develop, through other activities that exercise their writing muscles, but don’t actually have them writing the same same stuff over and over. These other activities can improve your communication skills, which will ultimately improve your writing.
I always thought I was good at concise writing, until I fell in love with Twitter. After using it for a year, and learning how to fit a single thought into 140 characters, I realized I was doing that in my regular writing. When I went back and compared my work to the previous year, I could see how everything was tighter, and how I expressed ideas more fully with fewer, better words.
Twitter has especially helped my humor writing, because I’ve learned how to set up a joke and deliver the punchline in a single tweet. This has had a huge impact on my humor column writing, because I’ve been able to squeeze more jokes into the same number of column inches.
To learn how to tweet effectively:
- Distill your thoughts into the most expressive nouns and verbs.
- Cut the adverbs.
- Use adjectives sparingly.
- Avoid first person references. Instead of saying “I had lunch at @BoogieBurger,” say “Had lunch at @BoogieBurger” or even “Ate at @BoogieBurger.”
(This last one is more of a space saver, but it also teaches you how to write with greater punch.)
Want to make it a real challenge? Avoid abbreviations if possible, and never, ever use text speak. Then, make your thoughts fit into the required space. That’s the best training you can ever do for yourself.
If you speak in public, you already know how to deliver information clearly and directly, making it easy for your audience to understand and be interested in it. If you’ve been doing it for a while, you’ve already got a speaking style. (And if you don’t, find your local Toastmasters club, and learn to speak in public.)
As you develop that speaking style, try to tailor your writing style to match it. As you’re reading, imagine yourself delivering the material to your audience. If you speak with strong declarative statements, write them. If you’re funny in person, be funny on paper. If you’re calming to your audience, be calming to your reader. Basically, your spoken word choice and delivery should affect your written word choice and style. And as more people hear you speak, the more they’ll hear your voice when they read your work. Match the one to the other in tone, word choice, and even rhythm.
I don’t mean become the kind of storytellers you see at festivals or hear on The Moth, although that helps. Rather, focus on telling stories to friends over dinner. The story should have a beginning, middle, and end. It should create suspense, and have an interesting payoff at the end.
If you can easily tell those kinds of stories out loud, you’ll learn how to tell those stories on paper. Any story or blog post you write should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It needs to have an interesting payoff. (Of course, with blogging and journalism, the payoff comes at the beginning, so you’ll need to learn how to deliver the punchline first, and turn the setup into its own a-ha! moment.)
As you’re writing your articles, write it as if you were going to deliver it in public, but as a five-minute story. If you can shift the storytelling architecture to your writing, that makes your work easier to follow. You learn how to keep people involved from a post or article from beginning to end.
These are the three skills I have worked on over the last several years, and they have made a big difference in what, how, and how well I write. And I’m always looking for the next new challenge or skill to master to make it even better.
How about you? What challenges are you taking on yourself to become a better writer?