Read More Fiction
Other than, you know, writing your butt off, the best way to improve your prose is to read … a lot.
Many writers fall into the trap of thinking they’re too busy with their own writing to do much reading, but that is a mistake.
You will never reach your potential as a writer if you close off avenues for new ideas and learning new words and techniques, and other authors are a gold mine when it comes to broadening your experiences.
Want to know if you’re reading enough? Try these questions on for size:
- What books did you read last month?
- What books are you reading right now?
- Who is your favorite contemporary author?
- How many blog posts or articles do you read per day?
If you stumbled on any of these questions, then you’re not reading enough to keep your creative pump primed.
Read. A Lot. Every day.
Journal Your Journey
This one is simple but powerful: beginning on January 1, set aside five minutes a day to write down SOMETHING about what you’re doing with your writing life. Write with pen and paper, in a blog, in Google Docs, or in EverNote, but write. By committing to write down what you have done, or what you haven’t, you build in instant accountability for your writing success.
A year from now, you will look back over your notes and be amazed at the journey you’ve taken. Who knows? Your journal might even form the backbone of a full-blown book.
Great art — you are creating art,right? — is useless if you keep it locked up in a drawer. Yet so many writers toil for years, producing stories and even novels, without ever publishing their works.
Not only are they wasting their time, but they are missing out on a prime opportunity for improvement. Only through frequent feedback from someone who is not you can you force your writing to grow and improve.
You must get your prose in front of an audience if you want to be the best writer you can be.
The good news is that it’s easier to get published now than ever before. If you’re journaling through a blog, then you publish every day by default, for instance.
If you’re writing fiction and haven’t worked up the nerve to submit your work to a publisher, or have not had any luck doing so, then you can self-publish. Both Smashwords and Kindle Direct Publishing offer free platforms for you to get your writing into the hands of eager readers, and there are other options as well.
I’m not going to tell you to lose 20 pounds or that you should run a marathon— those are specific outcomes that don’t really matter for your writing life.
What does matter, if you want to be the best writer that you can be, is that you keep your body as healthy as possible, and here’s why:
It’s darn hard to create stunning prose or blog posts that touch the spirits of your readers even when you are at your best.
If you’re short of breath, or if your blood sugar is spiking and crashing, or if your blood pressure is so high that you’re teetering on the edge of a stroke, there is no way in the world that you will be creating to your potential.
So, find something you like to do, or can at least tolerate, and do it. Lift weights, ride your bike, or run a marathon, and drink in those endorphins that can whip your mind into a frothy, word-cranking machine.
And don’t forget to …
Take a Walk
Sure, walking is exercise, but it’s so much more than that!
A good walk can clear the clutter from your mind and loosen stiff muscles that are nipping at your creative process, even if you aren’t aware of it. Get away from your desk or that chair at Starbucks for a few minutes every hour or two, and take some good, long strides around the block, down the hallway at work, or out to your mailbox.
Suck in deep breaths through your nose and let them out through your mouth. Feel the oxygen flow to your muscles … and to your brain.
Let the frustrations of being stuck for a word or phrase go with each exhalation, and take in the sights around you.
That turn of phrase or full-blown story idea that will set you onto your next breakthrough may be just a few steps away, and mental clarity is almost always guaranteed for your walking efforts.
Set a Writing Goal Every Day
If you were to make just one resolution for the New YEar, this would be the one to grab onto. It’s painless to put into play, and it gets your writing wheels moving even if you’re standing still.
Here’s how it works:
Before you go to bed on December 31, write down two goals for January 1 —
- the number or words you’ll write on New Year’s Day
- to set two goals for January 2, on New Year’s night
Then just repeat this ritual day after day after day. Make your original word goal very modest — 10 words? one sentence? a paragraph? — and then build on it as the year unfolds.
That’s all there is to it … and it works!
You start with something you can handle and then add more when your writing muscles are bigger and stronger. Each day builds on the next, and there is no excuse for you blow off this easy ritual that will keep you focused.
Best of all, you can record these goals in your daily journal and keep two resolutions at once!
Get Some Sleep
Everyone is super busy these days, and we make sacrifices all the time in order to fit everything in. For most of us, one of the first cuts we make is to sleep less.
There are tons of studies that show the deleterious effects of inadequate sleep, but Americans know the score on this front without much prompting: a lack of sleep can lead to mood swings, memory loss, heart disease, diabetes, and other maladies. Worst of all, sleep deprivation will rob you of your ability to put together your best thoughts for the world to read.
Your writing will suffer.
If you want to be your absolute best in all you do, then you need to buck the trend and sleep more.
Eight uninterrupted hours a night is a good baseline, but you may find that you need more for optimal performance.
Wouldn’t you rather write for one hour per day at peak capacity than fumble around for two or three hours because you’re so tired that you can’t keep your thoughts together?
Talk to People
None of us lives on this marble alone, and we can only be at our best if we expose ourselves to the thoughts and ideas of others. A narrow world view may serve you well if you cater to a small audience of fanatics, but it will do nothing to help you reach your potential as a blogger or fiction writer, and it will stifle your creative efforts.
Every day, make the effort to engage at least one person in a brief conversation about a topic unrelated to work or family matters. You may be surprised at the feelings and ideas that such a simple exercise can stir.
Nothing can pinch off your capacity to create faster than isolating yourself or becoming an unfeeling automaton. Great stories and ideas are built on emotion, and you are at a severe disadvantage if you do not allow your own feelings to blossom.
Resolve now to drop your guard for awhile every day and let your wife or father or sister or child or dog see your vulnerabilities. Hug them and tell them that you love them. Ask them what demons are eating at them, and offer sincere commiseration or sympathy, or just a caring ear and a dry shoulder.
Giving a piece of yourself to those around you can work miracles for your mood and for opening your eyes to beautiful possibilities in your world.
Beyond loving those who are most important in your life, generosity to others is one of the secrets to becoming the writing hero you know you can be.
The good news is that you do not have to give money in order to make this resolution work for you, although that can be part of the process, if you want it to be.
Give away something on your website.
Volunteer at the local pet shelter.
Offer to edit someone’s manuscript for free.
Take some of the load off an over-stressed co-worker.
Whatever you have to offer this world, find a way to spread goodwill each day, and your writing will open up.
Your ideas will flow more freely, and that spirit of generosity will come through in your words.
You will begin to provide more value with each blog post and story that you whip up, and your audience will love you all the more for it.
Be Less “Social”
Social media is a wondrous innovation and an invaluable tool for engaging your audience and keeping abreast of the latest trends in your field. But jeez, Louise, it can also be an incredible time sink if you’re not careful. All of the Tweets, Pins, Stumbles, and Diggs in the world won’t help you become a better writer if they keep you from cranking out your next story.
If writing is your primary objective, limit your social media investment to a few minutes a day, half an hour at the most. That’s plenty of time to publicize any new writing you’ve done and to respond to comments your followers have left for you.
“Social” is important, but it can be dangerous to your writing health.
Keep it in perspective.
You know what the main bottleneck in writing is for most people, beyond just sitting your butt in the chair and writing? It’s trying to be perfect as we create. We agonize over every word and bit of punctuation, and it cripples our productivity.
Your words are not going to be perfect at your first sitting, no matter how much time you spend on thesaurus.com, so don’t sweat it.
Get your ideas down on paper, or in bytes, and then put it away for later.
Your writing output will jump and your frustration levels will plummet.
Now, even though you aren’t trying to be flawless when you write, you still want your finished prose to be as amazing as possible.
That doesn’t happen by accident, so you must spend a good deal of time and effort revising your first drafts … and your second drafts … maybe even your third drafts.
Don’t worry … even though fixing up your blog posts and stories is vital to success, it is not as daunting as it may at first seem.
Start each writing day by revising a previous draft for 15 minutes or half an hour, then move on to creating, unfettered.
Or, if you find that it’s too hard to switch off your “editor’s mind” once it’s engaged, write your new material first, and then go back to edit something from an earlier time.
Either way, you’ll soon have a pipeline primed with articles and stories for revision, freeing you to be as innovative as you can be when writing new material.
Write Without Looking
Want an easy and thrilling way to get your word count up on a daily basis? Then you need to try writing without looking at your computer screen.
Get your writing space in place — Word, Google Docs, Scrivener, whatevener — and then set a timer for 15 minutes.
Now, go! Spew out your words onto the “paper” until the timer goes off, but make sure you’re not watching the screen as you type.
You can accomplish this in a number of ways:
- Go full-screen with your writing software, then turn off the monitor and look out the window while you write.
- Make your writing window small and then open up YouTube to peaceful scenes or some sort of ASMR. Focus on the YT window as you write.
- Sit with your family in front of the TV and type on your half-closed laptop.
Have some fun with the “how.”
The important thing is that you allow yourself to crank out prose for a focused period of time without worrying at all about what it looks like. Nothing is more liberating for an author.
Don’t worry about producing garbage, either. We all produce garbage on a regular basis, which is why you built the “Edit” resolution into your New Year plans.
This little technique is an absolute bulletproof remedy for writer’s block and will allow you to get more writing done in less time than any other method I’ve found … if you have the courage.
With some prodding from a post on The Write Practice, I put the “no-look” word sprint to work on my NaNoWriMo novel when I fell behind and was in serious danger of giving up. Within two days, I had erased my thousands-of-words deficit and went on to “win” the challenge by November 20.
Don’t be afraid to let go, because true innovation sometimes requires a leap of faith.
Tell Your Family and Friends … Now
Self-accountability is vital to your success as a writer, but it’s pretty easy to fool the man in the mirror, too. Or to just not look at him at all.
To short-circuit your tendency to cop out when it’s just you who will be disappointed, you need to tell your family and friends what you plan to accomplish in the New Year.
Tell your baby boy — whether he’s five or 65 — that you are going to write a new short story every week, and, by God, you’re going to have 52 stories under your belt by the time next year rolls around.
You have in your hands a set of goals that will take you further down your path as an author in the New Year than you’ve ever been before. Now, summon the resolve, the courage, to tell your family and friends about what you will accomplish in the next 12 months.
Make it serious. Make it real.