How to Become a Better Writer
There are so many ways to become a better poet and writer. It involves a host of skills, a way of being, and a lot of practice.
I’ve noticed that some would-be poets (and a great number of would-be prose writers) use “quantity” as their sole means to try to improve their skills. They write and write and write. Pages proliferate. Poems fill notebooks, then fall out the sides.
This can be like practicing the piano every day, by playing your scales over and over again—wrong. In time, it is simply a means of “practicing in the wrong direction.” The playing solidifies into a repetitive bad habit.
As someone who happily works with a lot of writers and loves to see them grow, I want to say: practice doesn’t make perfect. You must practice in a direction.
I am not saying “quantity” doesn’t count for something. As part of a well-rounded writing approach it absolutely can.
A Well-Rounded Writing Approach
What does it mean to have a well-rounded writing approach? Of course, there must be writing. A lot of it. There must be playing, too, without fear of being “wrong.” And there must be practice in a direction. A great writing day might look like this:
1. walk the dog and daydream
2. free write for 15 minutes when you get back home or make poem stacks (the idea is simply to play freely with words and let your mind wander under your pen)
3. make a cup of tea
4. read a truly great poet or prose writer for 20-30 minutes
5. draw or doodle some of your favorite things from the reading or copy down a few favorite quotes
6. practice writing in a direction
How to Write in a Direction
Here are a few good tricks for writing in a direction:
1. Take a class (or try a prompt book) that focuses on a genre you haven’t tried. I’ve seen writers show real improvement when taking our writing workshops. Writing in a new genre often compels a writer to take note of how the writing is constructed, so it’s an opportunity to leave behind old habits that may not be working.
2. Revise a paragraph of your writing with a specific goal in mind.
• Not a single extra word! Keep deleting until you can delete no more
• Reach for a certain tone (snarky, sensual, sorrowful). You could do this a few times over, each time reaching for a different tone
3. Find an article you really appreciate for its writing quality. Consider how the opening of the article is constructed. Choose your own topic and begin a similar kind of article. No need to finish. Use this as a time to really pay attention to how the writing is working (and model yours on it).
4. Find a poem that has a clear form you enjoy. Rewrite the poem from a different viewpoint or with different details (see the comment box poem that Monica Silva modeled after Vermillion).
Below is a sample of The Raven, rewritten from the viewpoint of the raven. Note that the writer kept the original style. This allowed her to practice in a direction.
T’was a midnight quiet and cold,
As I flew through branches tired and old,
That I saw a light ahead and landed,
Upon the sill of a chamber’s door,
And within a lone man whispered,
As I started gently tapping,
‘Tis some visitor, ‘ he said, ‘tapping at my chamber door –
Only this, and nothing more.’
I peered in through the purple curtain,
As it rustled in the night,
And a lone man sleeping,
overtook with silent weeping,
Met my sight till he stood repeating,
‘Tis some visitor entreating
entrance at my chamber door –
This it is, and nothing more, ‘
Tapping twice upon the door,
I heard footsteps on the floor,
And then rusted hinges creaked
As the man swung out the door,
Yet no one standing caught his sight,
Just shadowed movements in the night.
He stood there long in riddled silence,
Till a word was faintly whispered,
‘Lenore!’ he called and I replied,
‘Lenore’ I said, and nothing more.
Slowly then he shut the door,
And I tapped louder, just once more,
On the window now instead,
Then he stood, and then he said,
‘Now what do I worry for? –
‘Tis the wind and nothing more!’
Suddenly he swung the shutter,
I saw him, and he saw me,
And I rose and flew again,
To perch above his chamber door,
Simply this and nothing more.
Scared he was, and tried to move me,
From the spot I stayed each day,
Yet here I rest, never flitting,
Still I’m sitting, always sitting,
Mind goes round then round again,
Then I whisper ‘Nevermore.’
Not alone will he lie each day,
I’ll stand by and watch each day,
Sit upon his chamber door,
Mark the place of lost Lenore,
She whom angels name Lenore,
I shall whisper ‘Nevermore.’
Plan Your Writing Week
Try planning a writing week based on a well-rounded writing approach. Include:
1. physical movement (and maybe a little social interaction with your dog)
2. a mildly guided play time where you fool with words
3. a ritual hot drink
4. the intake of excellent writing by reading
5. the chance to lightly process your reading and let the ideas or words sink into your psyche
6. writing in a “skilled” direction rather than continuing to solidify bad writing habits
Do this throughout the week and save your heavy-duty assignment writing for the latter part of the week if you can. I often take a full hour or two on Tuesday and Thursday mornings to do the “well-rounded” thing. Then by Friday I’m ready to write what’s due.
Photo by Waferboard, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by L.L. Barkat, author of Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing (twice named a Best Book of 2011).
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Maureen Doallas says
Wonderful revamp from Sonia.
L. L. Barkat says
It’s my favorite thing she’s done all year for English. When I told her so, she said, “Well, I actually *tried.*”
It was spell binding, as the Raven is such a smart and wonderful bird. How I enjoyed each and every word.
I tend to the birds here, placing lots of houses for the Bluebird, watching other small birds build nests inside too. Hanging a wire basket full of strings, cotton, ribbon, all things needed for nesting. Five feeders up and suet cakes. Three birdbaths with one with a pump to constantly give them water. It’s so serene to sit and listen to the male sing for it’s mate. Watch the red birds take baths on dewy grass. Sweet little souls that give us such pleasure.
Sonia did a brilliant revamp of the poem. I long for ordered days, but they are rare in this season (the one I thought would be so leisurely). I know this is something I need to do. Thank you for this.
L. L. Barkat says
Linda, I’m thinking you might look at the week as a whole, rather than trying to accomplish the “well-rounded writing day.”
Taking time for physical exercise might come on Monday. Followed by tea and a day dream.
Maybe on Tuesday you let yourself free write while at an appointment.
By Wednesday, you find something really well-written, to read and ponder and copy out parts of (I loved my Shakespeare in Every Day Poems today and read it 3 times and will probably read it 3 more times before the day is through). And so on.
For me, the real issue is not to let ourselves think that because we make a blog post or toss a poem into a comment box… that we have *written.* We have quite possibly played (so so important), but writing will ask a little more of us. If a writer never “practices in a direction,” I’d say that person is not particularly a writer but rather a recreational word person (which is fine and can be fun and healing 🙂 )
Diana Trautwein says
Interesting distinction between ‘writer’ and ‘recreational word person.’ I wonder which I am.
L. L. Barkat says
Which would you like to be? 🙂
Megan Willome says
Love this view of “The Raven” from the other side!
And such good writing tips! I’m a big believer in walking the dogs and hot tea as part of the process, along with some time to play with words and notice what’s around you. Also, if you’re stuck, starting a load of laundry.
And now, off to order a new book because, yes, reading is key.
L. L. Barkat says
Tea and books are paramount. I pretend about the dog. 😉
(Actually, it is quite delightful. I walk and say hello to other people’s dogs. There is one trio of long-haired bitty dogs behind a fence at the corner, who fight over which one is going to get the best view of my walking-by when I sing-song my hellos to them. It makes me laugh, laugh! I laugh to the air. I feel happy.)
Chris Yokel says
I should try this over the summer.
L. L. Barkat says
Which part would you like to try, Chris?
I have found that my writing really takes off when I use this simple approach.
On Saturday, I did the walk, the tea, the reading. Then I set myself a challenge to begin writing a piece in the middle. I don’t know that I succeeded (Curator will tell me, I suppose). But I tried, and that was a good push.
I’m already practicing a few of these (I’ve been paying attention around here, and to Claire’s book, Spin). The one about revising a paragraph in different tones is new to me. I shall give it a whirl.
And instead of poem stacks, every other day I could make a pancake stack. 😉
Charity Singleton Craig says
Can I just say how very much I needed this gentle reminder this morning? It’s true. Thank you.
Bethany R. says
I’m looking for ways to improve my writing. Glad I found this piece and your practical, helpful advice. Sharing now—