When it comes to writing, practice is a verb, not a noun.
I used to have the notion that I would hone my writing skills the way a hunter hones in on their target, pull the trigger, and bam, done. Writerly prowess. I figured I would find my “voice,” and then I’d spend the rest of my life singing onto the page.
But this is folly. Writing does become a bit easier the more you do it, but it still takes active work. Rather than thinking of your work as something fixed, you should, instead, think of writing as something you practice, something habitual and ongoing.
Editor and author Tatiana Ryckman compares writing, and editing, to running. “You train for a race, or project, and after some time you look back and see how you could have done better. You use that knowledge as you train for the next event. Maybe you get injured, maybe you win, maybe you consistently come in third. But if you’re a runner, you run. If you’re a writer, you write.”
Here are a few ways to actively practice your skill every day, even if you’re stuck writing something so gut-wrenchingly boring you’re fantasizing about dropping everything and joining a traveling circus.
Try these out on your next writing project, and observe how your work improves.
1. Find joy through empathy.
Your client hired you for this project because they needed something. Try to tap into their mindset for a moment:
- Are they excited to launch a blog because it’s going to spread the word about their amazing product?
- Are they relieved that they found you, a technical writer, because they struggle with communicating complexities in written form?
- Are they eager to get their new venture off the ground, and the business plan you’re writing is just the ticket?
- Is your editor nervous about deadlines, and hopeful that your article can help her look good to her boss?
- Is the novelist whose book you’re editing feeling inspired and motivated that you’ve taken the time to help him make his book the best it can be?
I’ve found that no matter the project, if you can get inside the head of your client, you can carry some of their own motivation into your own motivation to make the project excellent. Of course, if you’re working on your own passion project — such as a novel or short story — you can apply this same tactic to the minds of your future readers. What will they be feeling when they pick up your book? Do they want an escape, or to uncover new truths about humanity? What do your future fans daydream about, and how does your writing cater to their emotions?
Although this exercise may seem a little hippie-dippie, the purpose is very practical (and very rooted in the science of human behavior). Motivation is key to productivity and creativity, and ultimately, to a project’s success or failure. Anything you can do to increase your own motivation to write will contribute positively to the quality of your work.
2. Don’t take your first draft too seriously.
Anyone who has ever written anything can attest to this fact: a blank page might be the most intimidating thing in the history of the universe.
Sometimes, when you start a writing project, you have some lofty, yet vague, mental picture of your end result. Other times, you have no idea how your piece will turn out, or if you even want to start writing it at all. Then you remember it’s an assignment, and you’re in a contract, so you’re obligated to do it whether you’re inspired or not. That’s when the real panic sets in.
It took me years of writing to have the following breakthrough: the blank page isn’t your enemy. It’s your freebie. I don’t know why I used to resist the notion of the messy first draft; perhaps I thought I was saving myself a ton of time by trying to craft something beautiful from the getgo. But doing this is like trying to paint a masterpiece using only a base coat substance. You don’t need a masterpiece in this phase; you need only a base coat.
When you approach your first draft as nothing more than a base coat, the world opens up. You can do whatever you want and it won’t count against you, because you have a pact with yourself to make your writing beautiful during revision. This plays into the very natural compulsion we humans have to procrastinate.
Yes! I am giving you official permission to procrastinate. Your good writing will come later. Right now, all you need to do is write something.
There’s nothing threatening about the blank page if you look at it this way. You can write a decent intro paragraph, followed by ten rows of nothing but “SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT,” followed by a spontaneous poem, concluded with a verbatim transcription of the conversation happening next to you.
You can write whatever you want in round one, because you are absolutely going to kill it in round two.
And you know what? Since I adopted this practice in my work and my passion projects, not only has my productivity improved, but my craft has improved, too. I recommend you try it. Take your next project and just write whatever brain babble nonsense offloads itself into your fingertips and onto your screen. Be literally drunk while you compose it, or stoned, if that’s legal where you live, or hopped up on caffeine to where you’re seeing sounds and hearing colors.You can write whatever you want in round one, because you are absolutely going to kill it in round two. Click To Tweet
3. Become an editor.
Before turning in a big project, get a good night’s sleep. The next day, open up your document. Read the whole thing for clarity and make big developmental notes before you get into the nitty-gritty of word choice.
Then, once the structure is sound, comb through each sentence with that artful, practical, editorial eye you’re working to develop. Substitute one word for another. Cozy up to it. Criticize your work with the tough love of a stable caregiver or instructor.
4. Treat it like your own, and set it free.
This mirrors the first step, and it’s an important one to end on, as well.
I saw a significant change in my client work when I started asking myself the question: “is this something I’d be proud to publish on my own website, or in my own book?” The reality is, you’ll probably never be wholeheartedly excited about every client project you take on. You are fortunate if you’re enthusiastic about most of them.
But if you finish up your draft with an empathetic eye, you’ll feel a greater sense of pride and completion upon turning it in. This pride will carry over into your next project, and it’ll become the foundation you build your career on.