Friday, May 21, 2010

I'm a hacker, not a writer. Can you give me 3 to 5 practical tips on becoming a better writer?

Like any other skill, the only way to get better as a writer is to actually write. My buddy David Finch just pointed me to this Amber Naslund post on how to go about the actual work of writing, and I agree with most of it.

I always point out that writing non-fiction is RADICALLY different from writing fiction. I write nonfiction almost everyday and at this point, while it all isn't art, I can pretty much hammer out a decent instructional, referential, or evaluative post on almost anything in an hour or so (excluding research). That comes from having regular deadlines for non-fiction work for the last decade.

Almost none of that writerly muscle memory translates over to fiction, which includes things like character, setting, and plot. Dialogue I can handle, because even my nonfiction stuff has a voice and a cadence to it, so giving that to characters is not so difficult. The structural meta-points of fiction? Those I'm still hacking at.

All of which is to say, if you want to write fiction, practice fiction. If you want to write tech articles practice tech articles. Write blogs; practice blogs, etc. You won't get very good at baseball by practicing basketball, other than simply getting in shape. You hone specific skills for specific results.

As to explicit practical tips, here are a few:
  1. Writing is a habit, just like not writing.
    If you want to be a writer, you need to set aside time on a regular schedule and write. I'm a big believer in setting regular wordcount goals -- 300 per day is a good beginner pace, at least 3 days per week -- because it's too easy to "try" to write for an hour and just kill time. Having an output goal keeps you (or, at least, me) from dicking around. The goal doesn't roll over, either. If on Monday I feel the muse and blow out 1000 words, I still owe Tuesday another 300. That doesn't mean ignore the muse, but again, this is about a disciplined habit.
  2. For frak's sake, read. A lot.
    To continue the athletic analogy, the best athletes watch tape of their rivals to get better. The best writers are also copious readers, and not just of the genre or style they wish to write. And while I own and have read a few "How To Write" books, nothing is so helpful as reading actual writing. There are skills aplenty to be found in almost any successful writer's output. And if you paid for the writing in question, you know at least one thing about it: It did enough right that someone would pay for it. Figure out what that is and see if you can duplicate those qualities.
  3. Join a writer's group, if only for the deadlines.
    This is advice I've personally done a lousy job of following lately, but do as I say and not as I do. To completely exhaust the athletics analogy, the best athletes play against the best competition they can find. And they do it often. Having a writer's group not only exposes you to other people's "game," it also gives you someone to whom you're accountable. To completely invert the athlete analogy, the best aspect of Weight Watchers isn't the meals or the guidebooks, it's the meetings. Having to face your peers and explain why you haven't written anything in the last week or month will do wonders in ensuring that you write something every week or month. There's no better managing editor than peer pressure. Trust me.
  4. Don't wait to be inspired.
    The final point I'll leave you with is that the muse is a fickle bitch and you can't live your life on her schedule. Inspiration is fleeting and nebulous; writing is a job. Scott Kurtz over at PvP pointed me to this TED talk from Elizabeth Gilbert, author of "Eat, Pray, Love." It's a must-watch for anyone who does creative work, but especially so if you want to write. You write when it's time to write, inspiration be damned. That's what separates the writers from the wannabes.