How to be a better writer

young girl pausing with a pencil in hand

A good friend of mine has some issues with language.

She is, by her own admission, a lousy speller. While her vocabulary houses more than a few five-dollar words, they’re as likely as not to turn up as malapropisms when hauled out. Her sentence construction can be choppy, her grammatical structure inelegant and her punctuation, when she uses it, would most charitably be described as “creative.”

My friend is one of the best writers I know, and I’d read almost anything of hers I could get my hands on.

* * * * *

I get asked sometimes how to be a better writer. Me! Who, if writer prizes were being handed out would almost certainly win the one for Least Aware of Her Own Process. (Note: I’m currently taking pains to change this. They are painful pains. More on this shortly.)

Sometimes it’s the earnest request of a person wildly capable in another arena, or someone who came up in another language, then moved to the U.S. and got by on things like wit, smarts, hard work and the acquisition of practical skills. Usually, anyone who bothers to ask me this isn’t half-bad at writing already, but is frustrated with not being as good at writing as they are at their core competency, or is embarrassed by their lack of facility in arcane areas like grammar and usage.1

Other times, it’s the annoying non-question of the dilettante. They don’t really want to know, or rather, they have no interest in actually doing the work required to get there. They’re looking (maybe) for a class or a book or a coach, a silver bullet.

But I tell them the same thing I tell anyone who really wants to be a better writer: (1.), read more good stuff; (2.), write more, period; and (3.) if you’re already doing quite a bit of both of those things, consider taking an acting class or an improv class or something that will get your stubborn head connected to your damned heart, along with the rest of your organs.

While good teachers and coaches and classes can absolutely help move things along (and make the moving-along way more pleasant), there’s really no avoiding numbers 1 and 2. (You can get around #3 via other kinds of emotional education, either on a shrink’s couch or in the classroom of life. Budget accordingly.)

* * * * *

This how-to-get-better-at-writing business has been much on my mind lately.

Partly because I have been getting a lot of very nice compliments recently via the electronic mails about my own writing. (You know who you are, and thank you. They have been lifelines to me lately, especially given my low spirits from the Crohn’s flare.) I usually look at my own writing with a giant shrug of “Meh.”, because I’m always looking at other people’s writing and comparing it to that. Yes, Mark, I know comparison is from the devil. But I’ve only recently been made violently aware that I am actually comparing my struggles with writing to other people’s finished writing. Talk about your a-ha! moments.

Anyway, sometimes the nice things are just nice things, but sometimes they come bundled with a query for writing services. While I know there’s gold in them thar hills (and I also know the only thing I’ll never say “never” about again is saying “never”), I’m afraid that’s off the table for the foreseeable future. Call me superstitious, but I couldn’t write a damned thing of worth until I’d put a fair bit of distance between me and copywriting, and I’m terrified that picking it up again might the writing equivalent of shaving Samson. Or worse, something of more lasting or even permanent nature, a really, really strong depilatory or a laser or something. Besides, at this point, my voice is so my voice, I would probably be a rotten copywriter. I think the best ones are great mimics who thrive on perpetual new intake. So not me anymore.2

But another big reason it’s been on my mind is that finally, FINALLY, I am preparing to teach what I know about writing. A very particular type of writing (blogging, natch), but still, writing. I feel woefully ill-equipped for the task. I feel stupid and ungainly and lost. I feel 100% certitude that I am worse than every other teacher of writing who ever taught.

In other words, I feel like those people I’m always fielding the “how-to-be-a-better-writer” question from.

* * * * *

So that thing about pain I brought up, above? We’re back to that. Lots and lots of pain and shyness and anguish and nervousness. As I slow down to look at the things I already know. As I bring my full attention to all the things I do not know. The good news in this is realizing I’m actually a better writer than I give myself credit for most of the time. The bad news is everything else: The unknown! The fear of failure! In public! The anxiety over not feeling good enough!

And at the same time, I know that putting myself through this not only will teach me how to teach, but will teach me more about writing. And probably speaking. And definitely learning.

Everyone who is any kind of a writer worth being always wants to be a better writer. The reading changes, and should keep changing. The form the writing takes changes, and should keep changing. But it keeps on keeping on.

Everyone who is any kind of a writer worth being is also, on some level, balls-out terrified. Because if you are really becoming a better writer, while you are certainly building on what you have done, you are always, always, always doing something you have never done before. You are living, you are improvising, you are making it up as you go along.

Which is why no matter how great a writer you are, you should have a few butterflies scattered around the joint. Because if it ain’t butterflies, it’s probably buzzards.

Remember my friend, the great writer with wobbly vocabulary and the rickety foundation of grammar and usage? She is a great writer because when she writes, she is 100% alive. She is living, which is to say growing, changing, in that very moment. So life pulses through her writing, and flows through you as you’re reading.

* * * * *

Read more (good) stuff. Write more, period. If necessary, please do get some improv training or qigong lessons or your head shrunk.

If you really want to be a better writer, though, learn how to make friends with fear and open your heart to change.

And then get yourself used to the idea of doing that forever.

xxx
c

1And I get why they sweat it, some people are horrible snobs about usage. I wish I could remember who said it, but someone big, like, Seth Godin-level big, went on record as saying a lot of our grammatical and usage rules are b.s., elitist, kept in place to make people feel bad about themselves. English is crazy plastic (callback alert!); we’re adding “bad” pronunciations and rules along with new words all the time. I can be a little on the snobbish side myself, dangerous in someone who plays pretty fast and loose with rules she’s not 100% sure of, but only time it really bothers me when people “break” English is when they are trying to make themselves seem more educated than they are. Even then, I mostly just feel sorry for them now that I am all grown up and full of equanimity and stuff.

2I do have an inkling of how I can employ my writerly skills to help you out, though, so if you’re interested, watch this space. Better yet, get on the newsletter mailing list.

Image by milena mihaylova via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

15 comments

  1. Colleen – I think you will be a terrific writing teacher. I would *love* to take your class. But I get it. I, too, am about to start teaching writing for the first time. And while I’ve taught a lot in my life, I’ve never taught writing and I’m flat-out terrified. But I love that, as you say, it does force you to re-examine the whole process from the outside in, as it were, and to confirm that yes, it is a process.

    Best of luck.
    x
    Delia Lloyd

  2. It’s always painful to compare your own inside to everyone else’s outside, your own WIPP (work in perpetual progress) with everyone else’s edited, run-through-the-critique-group prose. Which, as you note, has been polished. So don’t.
    If what you write isn’t teaching you something about doing it backward or sideways, or terrifying you sightless … guess what. It might still be good writing.
    The only way to know is to be able to trust your Inner Editor, and the only way I know of to develop one of those is to read good writers (like your wonderful self, my dear; now go brew yourself a nice cup of weak automobile-bumper tea) until the words burst out of your brain like a burst pimple of prolixity. And then realize that the Inner Editor will tell you true if you learn to trust her, or him, as the case may be. Believe your Editor, not your self-doubts.

    1. I need to send my poor editor over to you to unload her frustrations at my stubborn unwillingness to listen.

      Thanks, Vivienne. Very wise, and (as usual), very well-written.

  3. Being new to the world of extras & hopefully acting, (& computer usage)
    your posts are a beacon of light for my inexperience.
    A note of thanks & looking forward to more illumanation
    thanks
    gslu

  4. Colleen! I too think you will make a great writing teacher. Excited to see what comes next.

    A (hopefully helpful) tip – good writers always say that the way to get better is to read good stuff and just write. You need to practice. I think where that gets tough for people is that it can be very hard to see progress in your writing. “I’m practicing, but am I getting any better?” It can be hard to ask other people for help with this too, because they might not tell you the truth, might not understand your writing, or they might tell you the truth and it might sting like a mo-fo.

    For me, what really helped cement my faith in practicing writing, where I can’t see my progress (or why being exposed to great writing, especially at this age, is helpful) was taking up practicing photography. With just a point and shoot digital camera. Over a fairly short period of time, with a bit of help, and a lot of just looking at other people’s photos I liked and then imitating them, I’ve gotten a lot better at taking my own photos (where I imitate no one). It’s remarkable.

    Being able to do something where I can *see* clear progress gave me faith that practicing writing in the same way is actually helping.

    Not sure that will be helpful to anyone else struggling with this, but at least I got a little writing practice in.

    Cheers.

    1. That’s such a smart notion about having a side creative activity where you can see more tangible progress. And funny that you mention photography: I’ve been pulled toward it again, seeing what all these great ASMP shooters do at SB3.

      I think this will be very helpful to people. Thanks!

  5. And this is why I have never been able to remove myself from your newsletter subscription every time I purge my emails. Thanks for continuing to give me good stuff to read.

  6. The form may change, but learning the craft is a beautifully uncomfortable. Beautiful in the writing produced, uncomfortable in embracing fear and getting my butt in a chair to write. But I think that is a focus issue more than anything.

    Thank you for the honest post and thanks for offering to help us with the craft.

  7. “If you really want to be a better writer, though, learn how to make friends with fear and open your heart to change. And then get yourself used to the idea of doing that forever.” Colleen Wainwright

    I am framing that quote and hanging it on my favorite wall.

    You are such a gift.

  8. This is a print-it-out, hang-it-on-my-wall-right-in-front-of-my-face post. That way I will never forget that even great writers get “balls-out terrified” too. Who knew? I certainly didn’t, but it helps a lot to know it’s just part of the process.

    Even more importantly, I take away this: maybe if I focus on writing about what makes me feel “100% alive” (instead of trending topics I hope will make people notice me) I’ll see some progress and finally find my own voice.

    Thanks again Colleen, you always provide inspiration!

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