“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
– Anton Chekhov
At least once a month someone asks me for writing suggestions. They’ll send me a message explaining some idea for an eBook or blog, before quickly adding “But I can’t write.” I usually then get asked about what books or videos helped me to improve my writing skills. While this would be an ideal time to thrown in an affiliate link to some overpriced product I’ve never used, I’ve decided to be honest instead. The only two things that ever helped me to become a better writer were practice and constant reading. If you go back to the very first posts on this site you’ll quickly realize that I sucked at writing.
All early the posts were under 300 words, I made even more grammatical errors than I do now, and I didn’t really have a writing style yet. All the posts I put out while reading Hemingway are characterized by short sentences. The articles I produced while reading Tim Ferriss sound like first drafts of something Tim Ferriss would write. Essentially I was just ripping off other people. I didn’t do it out of malicious and never really thought about it at the time, I’d just see a writing style and try to copy it.
How to become a better writer
If you want to improve your writing abilities you are going to have to read a lot. Go to the library and spend an hour or two wandering around, picking up books, and just flipping through them. I used to have a class that I hated, so I’d skip it to go down to the library and look at everything that interested me. I read Japanese poems, hurt by brain trying to read Immanuel Kant, and plowed through Heart of Darkness.
It costs nothing to go to the library. If you don’t take your phone in with you I assure you that you’ll end up reading something. Checking a book out from the library also has the added advantage of creating a deadline for you to finish it. If you only have a week or two to get through a book, you’ll actually read it.
Go online and take a look at some of the books and blogs that are popular. Once you realize that most of them suck, ask yourself if you are smarter and more talented than half the people who write “21 Cats Who Can’t Stop Sleeping” or whatever is trending at BuzzFeed. Assuming the answer is yes, as it should be, you’ll officially have no excuse as to why you can’t sit down and write. If people are dumb enough to read “10 Ketchup Stains That Look Like Scott Baio” the bar is low enough for you to start writing.
Before I had a blog I just wrote in notebooks every single day. I’d go through paper constantly and it wasn’t uncommon for me to have to buy a new notepad every week or so. If you’re self-conscious about your writing, just keep a journal or write privately. Do it every day for at least an hour. While I’ve never given myself a word limit, I do try to write more each week. It’s a more natural way to expand your thoughts without having to pad full of fluff.
I own a lot of books about writing. While most of them are pretty good, I’d only recommend starting with one or two guides. The problem with these kinds of books is that it becomes easy to get caught up in reading theory, and doing so becomes a major distraction from actually producing anything.
For the technical side of writing, I would recommend picking up both The Elements of Style and Grammar Slammer. The Elements of Style is a classic and will teach you a lot while also making you sound intelligent and well read when you go to dinner parties. Whereas Grammar Slammer is a bit more uncouth with lessons such as:
“What are the functions, grammatically, of the word F*CK in this sentence, using the proper grammatical terms?”
In short, the book is a lot more fun than reading one of William Strunk’s dry jokes about how inflammable and flammable mean the same thing.
Recently, I’ve also picked up Writing Philosophy: A Student’s Guide to Writing Philosophy Essays. While I haven’t finished the book and can’t review it yet, it’s been good so far. I’d definitely suggest it to anyone who is looking for a good guide on writing articulate arguments. It’s something that can definitely help your writing to become more persuasive.
Lastly, I suggest that everyone use After the Deadline. You can run it online for free, or download for a variety of platforms. I have it installed on my blog and it has really helped me to catch mistakes. As far as proofreading tools go, it’s one of the only ones that I really use. I find it to be effective and I’ll often run my oDesk work through it in order to spot anything that Google Drive overlooked.
Although I get a lot of concerned emails and questions about learning to write, the skill is quite simple to develop. It costs almost nothing to sit down and pen an essay or article. There’s no physical strain like from lifting weights or doing endurance running. And there’s zero actual risk of injury or death. Compared to most hobbies, writing is pretty tame. You aren’t jumping out of a plane, shooting guns at an enraged bear, or punching another trained fighter until one of you passes out. Men dying of syphilis have managed to find the time to get their thoughts on to paper, so there is no physical requirement. You don’t have to be a certain height or capable of running a five-minute mile to author something.
If you want to write there is nothing to hold you back. Between the library and the internet there is literally zero reason that you can’t find an author that you like and learn his style.