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Do you want to improve your writing? What are some helpful writing tips for beginners?
For new writers, the art of writing can be a tough one to master. It requires patience and perseverance, but luckily it’s a learned skill for anyone.
If you’re looking to get into writing as a hobby or career, here are some tips that can help you out.
1. Create a Suitable Work Environment
The first step to becoming a great writer is to create a great writing environment. Whether it’s at home, in a coffee shop, or at the library, you need a place with no distractions, according to The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris.
There are some logistics to iron out when balancing your writing with other priorities, such as your job or family:
- Practice working in new environments. This will help you figure out how to be productive in different spaces and which places best enable you to write.
- Create a workstation. Don’t work in the same space you sleep or relax. Don’t do anything except work in your workspace.
Get Rid of Distractions
Interruptions that waste time aren’t important and can be completely ignored when you’re writing. Often, the time-wasting interruption is a person wanting to talk to you via email, phone, or in person. To deal with these interruptions, limit people’s access to you, and when you do allow people to access you, make sure the interaction is as efficient and action-focused as possible. Make it known that email is your preferred method of communication, then phone, then as a last resort, in person. There are some steps to streamlining each method of communication:
- Turn off automatic send/receive and alerts.
- Check your email only twice a day.
- When you respond to emails, try to anticipate all the options so you don’t have to answer any follow-up emails during your writing time.
- Create an auto-reply to explain the new system to everyone who emails you.
- Check your voicemail twice a day, the same as you’re doing with your email.
- When you do get on the phone with someone, treat them with urgency so you can get back to writing as soon as possible.
2. Read Books and Learn From Them
In his book On Writing, Stephen King claims that to be a good writer, you need to recognize the difference between good and bad writing. Reading exposes you to good and bad writing. The more you read, the more you learn.
Often bad writing is more instructive than good writing. It teaches you what not to do—what’s cliche and needs to be avoided, how characters act unrealistically, and how writers ruin the pacing of a story with plodding descriptions. It might even be inspirational—if you think a bestseller is terribly written, then you might start thinking you could easily do better.
Good writing teaches you what to do. It has style, believable characters, and good plot pacing. It shows you what is possible with the written word. Good writing can be intimidating, but it can also be inspirational—even if you fear you’ll never reach Steinbeck’s level, you can still labor to brush up against it.
Through thousands of hours of reading, you sharpen the tools in your toolkit. You absorb other people’s writing rhythm, how they develop their characters and plot, and how they wield language. You take what you like and forge your own style.
At the end of the book, King covers hundreds of books he’s enjoyed through the decades since On Writing was published. They cover a wide range of genres and time periods, from the classics of Charles Dickens and Joseph Conrad to contemporary bestseller authors like Peter Abrahams and Lee Child.
How to Read More
Bring a book with you and read wherever you can. If you have a dull moment—waiting in a line, in traffic, eating alone—read. Audiobooks make it even easier to absorb a book while otherwise occupied.
Stop watching television. It’s intellectual junk food, and it’s not going to help you become a better writer. Quitting it will probably make you happier.
How to Grasp Concepts from Books
How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster suggests reading works like a professor to fully grasp concepts so you know how to use them in your writing. When reading, be on the lookout for symbolism, patterns, and irony. These elements give you a framework for your own writing because they help you communicate your ideas in a more meaningful way.
Recognizing these elements in other works will enhance your stories and make your writing style distinct from other writers.
- Symbols: When you read with an awareness of symbols, you constantly look for metaphors and analogies. You not only see things for what they actually are but also what they might represent. For writers, symbols are useful tools to show complex ideas without using many words that will bore or confuse readers.
- Patterns: When you read to observe patterns, you recognize the similarities between life and books. You look beyond the plot to see how the drama and characters illustrate the truths about human experience. Knowing how patterns flow in other works can help you smoothly incorporate them into your own writing.
- Irony: An intelligent reader and writer will always be on the lookout for irony in literature—when an author goes against expectations. When irony is at play in a novel, every other chapter in this book might be irrelevant, because the author will invert the typical meanings of symbols and archetypes. Recognizing irony while reading is useful for suspense writers who want to twist reality and create shocking reveals, but don’t know how to execute it on the page.
3. Take Good Notes
An organized note system is good for any type of writer. It’ll help you stay organized, productive, and assure you’re on the right track in whatever stage of your writing you’re currently in.
Use the slip-box system of note-taking from Sönke Ahrens in How to Take Smart Notes to foster the creation and publication of original ideas. There are four steps to this:
Step 1: Take Notes
Ahrens recommends taking three types of notes: temporary notes, literature notes, and evergreen notes.
Temporary notes: Ahrens also calls these “fleeting notes.” Most of us have random ideas as we go about our day. Jot these down so you don’t forget them, and put them all in one place—an in-tray, or what Ahrens calls an “inbox.”
Literature notes: Always read with a pen—and whenever you come across interesting, potentially useful ideas, create literature notes. Using full sentences, summarize the text in your own words, making sure that you only include one idea per note. In each note, include information about the source material (like the book’s author, the year it was published, and the page number on which you found the idea). Place these literature notes in your in-tray.
Evergreen notes: Ahrens refers to these as “permanent notes” that combine your other notes. Each day, go over the notes in your in-tray and any notes you’ve already collected in your slip-box. As you do so, think to yourself: How do these ideas compare with and connect to each other? When you have an original thought about these connections, create a new note—ensuring that each original idea has its own note. Use full sentences, be as clear and concise as possible, and include citations.
Step 2: File Notes
Now that you have notes, it’s time to organize them in one of two places: a reference system or your slip-box.
File your literature notes in one place, like a shoebox: Ahrens refers to this place as your “reference system.” When you file your notes, include the bibliographic information of each source. If you have three literature notes about one book, you’ll file those notes with a fourth note including all the book’s bibliographic information—anything you might need to include in your final published work.
File your evergreen notes into your slip-box, which is specifically designed to help you both have and share original insights to make the writing process easier. To do so effectively, use the following system.
If your new note connects strongly to an old note—like if it supports an argument—file the new note behind that note. Otherwise, file it behind the most recent note.
Then, rummage through your slip-box and look for weaker or less obvious connections between notes you already have and your new notes. If you find any, create links between those notes. (For example, if Note #1 and Note #55 are connected, on Note #1, write down that it’s connected to Note #55, and on Note #55, write down that it’s connected to Note #1.)
Step 3: Link Notes to Your Index
Once you have notes in your slip-box, the next step is to link them to your index. This is any document with a list of topics with references to the notes on which those topics are mentioned. You use it to navigate the collection of notes in your slip-box so that you can find the right idea when you need it. You can link your evergreen notes to your index in one of two ways.
First, you can create a new index entry whenever you notice that several evergreen notes in your slip-box all revolve around a single topic. This will consist of a keyword and the few notes most relevant to that keyword. Customize these keywords so they make sense to you and help you think: For example, a food writer with Note #30 that says “The best honey comes from Australia” might file that under the keywords “ingredient origins – honey.” An economist with that same note might file it under “beekeeping industry.”
Alternatively, link your evergreen note to an existing note (that’s listed in the index) instead of to the index itself. For example, if Note #31 reads, “Australian honey is very flowery,” you could link it to Note #30. Since Note #30 is still in the index, this technique ensures that you can still find Note #31—but it doesn’t overcrowd your index.
Step 4: Develop Your Ideas
Now that you have notes in your slip-box, you can use those notes to develop your ideas further by reviewing and rearranging your notes.
Review the notes in your slip-box and continue researching based on the questions that naturally come up: Ahrens argues that, as you create and regularly review several evergreen notes on similar topics, you’ll inevitably discover new threads of information you’ll want to follow. For example, if you’re a food writer researching Australian honey, one question that you may have—and should research—is what foods pair well with that honey.
Once you’ve created several notes, Ahrens argues, you’ll have enough notes to know what you want to write about. When this occurs, pull out all the notes in your slip-box related to that topic. Logically rearrange them: Ahrens contends that since all these notes are your own ideas, doing so will naturally reveal some form of argument. Critically analyze this argument: Does it still have significant gaps? How can it be stronger? Use the answers to inform further research. Eventually, when you pull out these notes, you’ll have the outline of a paper or book.
4. Keep a Journal
Keeping a journal with you at all times allows you to jot down ideas whenever you feel inspired. A journal can also help you stay organized with your tasks and agenda, especially if you have another job besides writing.
After years spent perfecting his own organizational techniques, author Ryder Carroll devised the Bullet Journal Method—a single-notebook system designed to help you add structure to your life, set goals, and gain clarity on what is important to you. We’ll look at his advice for using the method to become a better writer, as written in his book The Bullet Journal Method.
Carroll explains that throughout the day, you’ll write down tasks, events, and notes that are relevant to you, using as much space as you need. To record this information most efficiently, he recommends that you use a method called rapid logging (which we’ll refer to as jotting). Jotting is a streamlined method of taking notes that focuses on only the most essential information.
While Carroll recommends this strategy primarily for the daily record, you can use it in any part of your journal. By cutting out the excess when you write, you can stay more effectively organized, remain in the present moment, and gain clarity on what you want to write about. What’s more, by jotting information, you’re more likely to capture the details of your experience, and this information can be used for your writing.
Carroll explains that the practice of jotting consists of the use of bullets, which lend themselves well to capturing concise and objective thoughts. In the Bullet Journal Method, bullet types are used systematically, with the goal being to organize information in a way that you can easily understand at a glance. Different bullet types (and in some cases an accompanying set of symbols) correspond to the different categories of information—tasks, events, and notes—that you capture while jotting:
- The solid bullet on its own (•) represents a task that you need to do.
- An (x) represents a task that you’ve completed.
- The greater than symbol (>) represents a task that you’ve transferred to the monthly log or another project section in your journal.
- The less than symbol (<) represents a task that you’ve transferred to the future planner because it’s not time-sensitive
- A struck-through task (
task)is no longer relevant.
- The empty bullet (◦) represents events
- The dash (-) represents notes.
5. Always Practice
In Everybody Writes, Handley first recommends that you make writing a daily practice. Most of us already write regularly, whether it’s emailing for work, posting on social media, or journaling. However, we may not be writing to the best of our abilities when we do these things, and better writing produces better results. The key to improving your writing is to do more of it.
Handley recommends a strict daily writing routine and says that missing days lessens your motivation to write. She recommends practicing writing in whatever form works best for you, whether it’s a journal where you jot down a few sentences about your day, using writing prompts, or doing stream-of-consciousness writing (writing down thoughts and feelings as they come to you).
Handley also advises that you identify what time of day your writing is the strongest and write at that time every day. If you’re a morning person you may want to begin each day with writing, but if you find that your voice is strongest in the evening or even late at night, write then. She also suggests slowing your writing down by using pen and paper instead of typing on a computer so you can process what you’re writing more deeply.
6. The Drafting Process
Once you’ve organized your notes in your preferred workspace, it’s time to actually start the drafting process. There are a few things to note before drafting, which is to write with simplicity and clarity. That way, you’ll make fewer mistakes along the way and won’t have to do major revisions later.
Write With Simplicity and Clarity
Simplicity is essential and you can achieve it by eliminating clutter and choosing precise words. Then we’ll explore how to achieve clarity through logic and consistency, as explained in On Writing Well by William Zinsser.
What Is Simplicity?
Simplicity means your writing is easy to understand because it uses common and precise words as well as simple sentence structures.
To write simply, follow these guidelines:
- Use common words: To avoid confusing the reader, a good rule of thumb is to write like you speak. For example, you wouldn’t say “pulchritudinous” in conversation with a friend, so reconsider using it in your writing.
- Use precise words: Precise words help simplify your writing because you say what you mean in fewer words. For instance, instead of describing the sun as “hot,” you could call it “scorching” depending on the context.
- Construct simple sentences: Writing with straightforward sentence structures clearly conveys the subject of the sentence and the action the sentence is performing. Zinsser recommends using active voice rather than passive voice to achieve this. For example:
- Active: John will drive my car.
- Passive: My car will be driven by John.
- Eliminate clutter: To eliminate clutter from your writing, delete any indirect, wordy, or redundant words and phrases, such as adverbs and euphemisms. Replace these words or phrases with a more succinct term.
What Is Clarity?
Once you’ve achieved simplicity in wording and structuring your sentences, focus on bringing clarity to your writing. Clarity occurs when you logically explain your idea to a reader. Zinsser believes that it’s your job as a writer to guide the reader through your thought process rather than forcing them to dissect disorganized or underdeveloped writing.
Zinsser believes that to write clearly, you must clearly understand the topic you’re writing about. If you don’t understand the topic, you’ll never be able to explain it well to your reader. Zinsser recommends two techniques to bring clarity to your writing:
- Follow a logical sequence: Each sentence should build off of the idea in the previous sentence. Constantly ask yourself, “What is the next thing the reader needs to know?” Then answer that question in the next sentence rather than repeating the previous sentence differently.
- Be consistent: Clear writing requires consistency across all key elements of your narrative—the main idea, the point of view, tense, and tone. For example, the tense helps the reader situate themselves in the timeline of events. Timeline inconsistencies create confusion about your story.
The 4 Stages of the Drafting Process
You now know how to write with clarity and simplicity, so let’s cover the practical process of writing. In Everybody Writes, Ann Handley frequently reiterates that there is no single correct way to create content, but she offers tips and processes to help you get started.
First Draft: The Rough Draft
Once you’ve made writing a daily habit, you’ll be better practiced for the writing you have to do for other purposes. Handley describes a writing process that begins with identifying what format you want to write in, what purpose it will serve for the audience, and what structure will best fit your piece. It can help to make a list of everything you want to cover and then see how you can best organize these ideas.
Next, gather any information from outside sources that you may need, and be sure to cite them when you write. In selecting sources to use, try to find primary sources instead of secondary ones. Secondary sources might have hidden biases or misinterpretations, and getting your information straight from the primary source prevents you from perpetuating these and makes your writing more credible.
Additionally, try to find recent sources for facts and data, as information can change rapidly, and you don’t want to misrepresent any facts in your piece. Keep track of your sources as you go and create formal citations as needed. If you try to do all of this at the end of your writing process, you may forget what information you got from other sources and accidentally plagiarize them.
Next, draft your piece—Handley recommends writing four drafts. The first is your rough draft, which she emphasizes will not look good. This draft is just about getting your ideas on the page, and you don’t need to spend time focusing on things like correct grammar or complete sentences. Once finished, she recommends stepping away from this draft for a while before coming back for the next one.
Second Draft: Editing
Once you’ve written a first draft, the next step is to begin editing it. Eventually, you’ll need to have someone else help edit your work, but at first, you’ll edit on your own.
There are different types of editing, including what Handley calls developmental editing, or editing on a larger scale, and line editing, or detailed editing. The editing process includes applying writing “rules” to your piece, but Handley emphasizes that the rules are secondary to your purpose and that you can always break the rules if it suits your piece. Let’s look at each type of editing.
Large-scale editing involves confirming that you’re conveying your main idea and purpose clearly and logically and that your piece has a strong lead-in to grab the reader’s attention. Also, make sure that all information on both the paragraph and sentence level is necessary to the whole piece and cut anything extraneous. Finally, identify anything that’s been left out, such as missing research or logical connections.
Detailed editing involves making sure that every word conveys something important and cutting words that don’t. Handley recommends being particularly wary of fluff words like “very” and “potentially,” and any other adverbs that don’t add real meaning. Clichéd phrases such as “When all is said and done” should be used sparingly and only when they add something meaningful.
Third Draft: Audience Connection
Once you’ve done your large-scale and detailed editing, you can move on to the third version of the draft. This is when you’ll focus on your connection to the audience. Handley recommends imagining one specific individual as your reader and switching perspectives with them. Read through your piece as this reader, identify what misunderstandings or questions they have and make sure they can see themselves in what you’ve written.
Fourth Draft: Style and Voice
Finally, add style and voice to your piece. This includes things like humor and figurative language. Here, Handley emphasizes that you should write in the second person and make sure your sentences and paragraphs read quickly and clearly. Cut any sentences or words that slow the pace of the piece. She also suggests using things like bullet points, visuals, and blank space to make the piece more visually appealing.
7. Don’t Be Afraid to Start Over & Rewrite
In On Writing, Stephen King suggests that rewriting is bound to happen. To avoid being disappointed with bad feedback, keep in mind that your first draft (or even the first few drafts) is just for you and no one else. When you rewrite, keep your readers in mind and how to make them happy.
When you rewrite, you need to open your door to suggestions and opinions from others. You’ll think about your readers and how to make at least some of them happy. You’ll take in feedback from people you trust and grapple with reconciling their feedback with your vision.
Each person’s reaction to writing is naturally subjective, so you’ll get feedback along a wide spectrum, and you’ll get feedback you disagree with. Here’s how to work through the feedback.
Dealing with Feedback Resistance
Some writers struggle with incorporating feedback healthily. Changing your masterpiece simply because your readers didn’t like it feels like a corruption of art.
But if you feel this way, why invite readers you respect to review your draft at all? If it’s simply because you want adulation for what a genius you are, then at least be honest about what you’re looking for.
Think of reviewers as your own personal focus group to improve your writing. Movie studios do this with early cuts of their films. While it might seem arbitrary to shape an auteur’s vision to the tastes of a crowd pulled off the street, focus groups seem to work in actually making films more successful.
King recommends putting at least six weeks between completing your draft and starting your revision. The purpose is to get enough distance from your work that you no longer treat it as sacrosanct. Be willing to kill your darlings.
How to Weigh Feedback
You’ll get feedback all along the spectrum, and you should weigh the feedback to see where it’s pointing. If your reviewers are unanimous about one direction (whether something is great or terrible), they’re probably right.
Say there’s a tie—one person thinks Johnny is believable but Mary is ludicrous, and another thinks the opposite. Then the author wins. You shouldn’t feel compelled to change anything.
You shouldn’t weigh feedback from each person equally. It depends on how much you respect their opinion, and what area they’re particularly insightful about. Some people specialize in dialogue, others in character development, yet others in pacing, factual accuracy, and so on.
Now that you know the basic steps to writing your piece, it’s time to publish. Getting a book or an essay published can be tough for anyone, but if you follow the above tips, you’ll see your name in print in no time.
Do you have any more writing tips for beginners? If so, leave your suggestions in the comments below!
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