Five Ways to Improve Your Writing

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Note: Yesterday I sat at a table on my back deck with Jason Gray, Pete Peterson and Jonathan Rogers and declared that I never wanted the Rabbit Room to be one of those blogs that always lists things, (i.e., “Four Ways to Make Your Life Awesomer”). Then I had to go and find this on my hard drive. I don’t remember what publication I wrote it for, but I offer it here in case it’s helpful to any of you.

1. Write—This is the most basic, and most important. There’s quite a market out there for books on writing. I know this, because I supported it for a while by purchasing the ones with the coolest covers. Those books aren’t necessarily bad, but I don’t think they teach you as much as you’d learn by just writing. If you’re going to read one of these books, look for the one’s that are more about the why than the how. (Four good ones: Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, Mystery and Manners, by Flannery O’Connor, Walking on Water, by Madeline L’Engle, and The War of Art, by Stephen Pressfield.)

2. Read—I don’t mean reading books on writing. I mean reading books that feature good old fashioned excellence. Fill your brain with beautiful language. It’s okay to read a popular novel for fun (I do it all the time), but try temper it with reading a classic now and then. C.S. Lewis said you should read an old book after every new one. He was pretty smart. (If you’re a songwriter, listen to good music–and you should dig into music you may not prefer. I decided several years ago to find out why Bob Dylan was such a big deal, and MAN I’m glad I did.)

3. Write—This may seem like I’m trying to be funny. (“Oh, so he’s repeating the first one for emphasis. That old gag.”) That’s exactly what I’m trying to do. After you’ve read an old, stirring work of art (see #2, above), I bet you a Barnes & Noble gift card you’ll be in the mood to write. When that mood arises, latch on and don’t let go, because the mood will be gone before you can say “Facebook status”.

4. Community—You need people around whom (a) you respect, (b) who respect you, and (c) who will tell you the truth in love. Art begets community, and community nurtures art. It may take a long time, but if you’re working in earnest at your craft, you’ll encounter others who are doing the same. Meet with them once in a while and talk about story and song. Talk about what you’re reading and listening to. Muster the courage to let them read your work and then (gasp!) make them critique it. You may be a good writer, but you aren’t a great one. You should aspire to be a great one, and the only way to do that is to discover your blind spots by listening to instruction. And by remembering point five:

5. Write—Look! I repeated numbers one and three for even greater emphasis! I’m hilarious! But seriously. After you’ve stopped laughing, wiped the tears from your cheeks, and taken a deep breath, lean in close and hearken unto me: Whether you’re a songwriter or an author, a basketball player or a preacher, there’s no way to improve your craft except by practicing. After you’ve stopped reading how-to books and begun to write, after you’ve read great books and listened to great songs, after you’ve written some more, after you’ve gathered a community of songwriters or writers around you and raised the artistic bar, you keep working. Write terrible first drafts (thank you for that advice, Anne Lamott), ask the Creator to help you create, and get to work. Shed light.

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


42 Comments

  1. JJ

    Great stuff. Thanks AP.

    I’ve actually planned in 2011 to read a classic every other book or two. I’ve read Dracula and the first two Sherlock Holmes novels. In between those I read some new books. It’s really interesting to go from a book written in the 1800s to one written in 2010. It gets my brain churning. It actually makes my brain work harder to shift from the classic to a modern book and then back to a classic.

    I found participating in NaNoWriMo the last few years very helpful too. I only finished in 2006 and 2009, but I was very happy with my novels. I’m only aware of one of my sisters-in-law reading my 2006 novel (late into the night in one sitting) and she another another sis-in-law couldn’t get beyond the first chapter of my 2009 novel (it was too creepy they said), but I really enjoy writing. I’ve actually been in the process of reworking my 2006 novel to try and post on the Kindle store, just to see if I can get some input. I don’t expect anything from it. It’s the first thing of any substance I’ve written beyond papers in school.

    I really enjoy it when I write. I need to just make a habit of doing more of it. Like you said, the only way to get better is to practice. At least I think that’s what you were driving at. 🙂

  2. sarah

    what’s funny is that #1, 3 and 5 are the HARDEST things to do!

    Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird rocked my writing world.

    thanks for the encouragement. list away!

  3. Cherie Clayton

    Thanks for the input! I am halfway there…I read classic as well as modern writings, and have a community of people who love me enough to be honest…I just need to write more! And according to your post….I need to write 3x’s as much as I have been!!

  4. Sally

    Just wondered — does reading The Wingfeather Saga count towards #2? I read aloud to my kids nearly every day, usually classic children’s books. We just finished North! or Be Eaten, and can’t wait for the Monster in the Hollows.

    Anyway, thanks for the encouragement. I’ve been writing for years but only in the past year or so have I gotten brave enough to let others read my stuff.

  5. Chris Yokel

    Just finished reading Walking on Water for the second time. Definitely meat (not chicken soup) for the writer’s soul. I was actually just realizing that my songwriting has been improving over the past year or so. Coincidentally, I’ve been listening to a lot of older music in the past year and half: Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, etc.

  6. matt

    so… speaking of community and being together to talk about “story and song”… any date for the next Hutchmoot yet? 🙂

  7. Jess

    And my soul emerges, gasping for more. There is nothing I like better than to look on the Rabbit Room and find a post on writing. Yes, the previous sentence is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Thank you. 🙂

  8. Fellow Traveler

    And for the mechanics of writing, I highly recommend Strunk & White. Great ideas are no substitute for technique.

  9. Dano

    Funny to read this, as I picked up Bird by Bird on Friday and am 3/4 through it over the weekend. A strong book it is. Thanks for the post.

    -Dano

  10. Kalen

    I read that book by Anne Lamott for a college English class. She has some really good advice. I’m pretty sure she used a different word than “terrible” when referring to first drafts, though;) I like your advice a bit better!

  11. Jen

    First: I second Matt… I am waiting with extreme (im)patience for Hutchmoot dates. 😉

    Thanks for this… all true. Too bad the actual writing part, as Sarah said, is the hardest part! I always find focus and discipline and *finishing* things especially difficult. But that’s all you can do, one word after the other. Thanks for the reminder.

    I second Bird by Bird and Walking on Water 100%. Those books are my old friends when I get in a writing funk… so much good advice. I have a copy of the Stephen King book in my “to-read” pile because I’ve heard it’s really good. And as far as books on learning by reading go, I’m really enjoying Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. She really digs into what makes good writing so beautiful and makes you want to jump in and start writing awesome sentences.

  12. Aaron Alford

    Very good advice, and I add another voice to the Stephen King recommendation.

    I am definitely practicing 1, 2, 3, & 5, though writing is a slow, involved process for me (a thousand words comes at a snail’s pace). It’s step 4 that’s been hardest to find. My community is full of creative types, but mostly of the musical variety. While I take great encouragement from their encouragement (see those masterful writing skills at work in this sentence?), I am hungry for critical input. Are any of the writers from and around The Room here exchanging stories and such somewhere in the internetverse?

  13. Dan Schmidt

    “Art begets community, and community nurtures art.” A good reminder/encouragement, esp since a lot of writers tend to be somewhat (and more than somewhat) introverted. That community piece–getting outside yourself and letting others into the process–can be hard, but valuable. Thanks for the strong insistence.
    And on the reading? Annie Dillard is a personal favorite: who turns a phrase like this person? Her book “The Writing Life” is a gem, too.

  14. Brian

    So what tips or tricks are there to help us with the process of editing/rewriting? In the instructions above I see how to write things that, themselves, are better and better. But then you look back and see this ever-increasing body of progressively less-mediocre work; at what point do you go back and look for diamonds in the rough? And how do you do that? How do you disengage emotionally from that moment of original writing, which often gets connected to one’s heart, and evaluate your own stuff more objectively? And then, presumably, you run it all through the wringer again. So in addition to knowing how to start, how do you know when to stop? I’ve been told that AP is remarkably good at self-editing; can you share tips to bridge our incomplete (or sometimes non-existent) self-editing habits with better habits?

  15. Fellow Traveler

    Aaron, I write more academic papers than fiction, but I’ve helped college and graduate students with their writing. I’ll stop by your blog and offer suggestions if and when I find the time. 🙂

  16. Loren

    #3 (Write #2) is my hardest: “After you’ve read an old, stirring work of art (see #2, above), I bet you a Barnes & Noble gift card you’ll be in the mood to write. When that mood arises, latch on and don’t let go, because the mood will be gone before you can say “Facebook status”.”

    LOL! With three kids five and under, I find that half the time I don’t even have time to get the Facebook status renewed before the thought has flown. The good news is that recently time has increased, and I have more chances to finish a blog post before I’m interrupted and the mood is gone 🙂 .

  17. Jenny

    Love it! Love all those books you mentioned. The War of Art–wow. Talk about a kick in the pants. Just picked up a fantastic book about the intersection of faith and art at Signs of Life today: Breath for the Bones by Luci Shaw. Are you familiar with her work?

  18. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Rick,

    That’s a hard list to make because everyone is going to differ on which classics they enjoy the most. Those that some love, others will hate. Here’s a post a wrote a while back on the issue: http://www.rabbitroom.com/?p=10899

    Among classics that I can’t imagine doing without are:

    Les Miserables (the abridged version is totally acceptable)
    The Hunchback of Notre Dame
    Paradise Lost
    A Tale of Two Cities
    Crime and Punishment
    Moby Dick

  19. Jen

    Aaron: #4 is hard for me too! (and the lack of #4 makes it way easier to ignore 1, 3, and 5.) I’d be happy to give you some input if you want. I’ve really fallen out of practice with creative writing, but I’d love to get back into it. Having a community would help a lot.

    I really struggle with editing and re-writing too. I have a couple messy drafts I’ve done in NaNoWriMos past that I think have potential, but I don’t know where to begin to fix them. I guess that’s where #4 comes in again. 😛

  20. Rachel Bastarache Bogan

    Haha! Just write! Isn’t that the kick? I’m a big fan of the writing to improve your writing approach as well. I’ve found that just keeping at it, re-reading what you wrote a long time ago, keeping a list of ideas to write about, putting your ego on the line and letting somebody else read your work, and being willing to take a suggestion are all good ways to improve your writing. But nothing can compete with just taking time to write.

    Personally, the community involvement is always difficult for me. I loathe the idea that somebody else may have to read my imperfect ideas and stories. Yes, there’s always room for improvement in my work. But striving for improvement means my precious words must come out of the box and live again as air. I just got married and moved that box of words into my new closet, my spouse letting me place it there un-opened. He shared some poetry with me the other day from his high school years. I guess it’s time for me to share that box of half finished stories.

  21. BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck

    Along the _War of Art_ lines, I just finished Robert Henri’s _The Art Spirit._ (If you are a _Asher Lev_ fan, this book was referenced repeatedly in that novel.)

    Henri deifies art a few times, and he contradicts faith in some places. However, some of his concepts on simplicity and essential form transcend all artistic disciplines. Excellent read that helps creators think well while making.

  22. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    I was going to do 23 Steps To Improving Your False Self To No Avail, but I guess we’re not allowed to go in that direction.

    Another good prompt by AP. I had several songwriters at my house last night, Julie Lee, Eilidh Patterson, Lee Holland, and others. Julie said a few things to me at the end that kicked me in the right direction, and then I woke up and read this in the morning. Then I sat down and put a Jeanne Guyon poem to music. Thanks AP for your continued prompts in the Rabbit Room to use our gifts wisely.

  23. Shelley R.

    Difficult yet inspiring steps–although I may disagree with point #3. For there are times when reading a well-written novel, delicate and yet edgy poem, I’m not inspired to write or respond to it at all. I’m simply filled with a flesh-grown jealousy that someone else had/took/committed the time/talent and aided it to flourish instead of my own creativeness that lies dusty and inactive on the floor of my mind. Yet, when “the mood” is present, I just tend to be more frustrated by my own set of excuses that tangle and trip me up.

    Yet, notion number five holds the treasure. A friend of mine recently shared a quote from Chuck Close that smashed my excuses “Inspiration is for amateurs.” Sometimes, that may happen and then create like crazy but often times it’s just not there. Practice is where those excuses are left behind (and worldly jealousy). Practice is when I’m able to observe the Creator, respond to Him freely, and realize that “Oh, this thought may someday be a poem.” Practice is how I remember that I’ve been knit to be “a verbal carpenter” (Alan Jacobs) and that it is a wonderful way of being. So… off to practice!

  24. miles365

    A quote to emphasize the “Write” aspect again:

    “One is not, by decision, just a writer. One becomes a writer by writing, by shaping thoughts into the proper or improper words, depending on the subject, and by doing it constantly.” — Louis L’Amour (from “Education of a Wandering Man”)

    The book that has helped me most with my writing is called “The Artist’s Way,” and is by Julia Cameron. It’s designed to be read a chapter per week, and each week Cameron suggests some exercises. Sure, some are corny, but a lot are really helpful.

    I also recommend L’Engle’s “Walking on Water,” and Syd Field’s “Screenplay” (I don’t write screenplays, but I found this book very helpful). I’m not sure that I learned anything new from Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” or King’s “On Writing,” but I enjoyed reading them. It’s always reassuring to hear that professional writers have the same struggles that I experience.

  25. Gina Burgess

    I, too, found Syd Field’s book helpful, especially for writing dialogue and for discovering the whole background story does not have to go into the novel, but is necessary for character development.

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