How do I Become a Better Writer?

Image courtesy of Sias van Schalkwyk via stock.xchng

That wasn’t exactly the question she asked me.

More it was, “He was awesome. How did that happen?!”

I didn’t really have time to research an answer, and part of me felt, Hey, I‘m not a teacher, how do I know?

But thankfully I was stopped by a phrase that popped instantly into my head.


Or should that be two words?

Tongue Polished.

The designation refers to old, old stories that are elegant in their simplicity, and may even contain absurdities that are so entrenched that that they are simply accepted without any attempt at explanation.

Folktales. My little corner of enjoyment in the esoteric.

Image courtesy of Ove Tøpfer via stock.xchng

In our own, more prosaic, lives, we still experience the tongue-polished story.  These are the stories that make up the Family Lexicon.

A Lexicon is like a dictionary (a collection of words), but more specialized. Linguistically it’s a catalog of a given language’s words. The way I use it here is just to give a name to that collection every family grows as it creates its own culture with specialized language, stories and lessons learned.

The longer a story’s been around, the longer it’s been told and re-told, the more streamlined it gets. Often it loses some of the random, irrelevant facts. Frequently the teller is no longer recalling the event itself, but rather the best words with which to describe it.

But that’s not the case, at first.

Something happens (Baby born before we get to the hospital!) and you talk about it because it’s extraordinary, an adventure. But what do you tell? what part did you play in the story? What words you use are not usually the main thing you’re focused on. In those first days, you’re only remembering.

It’s at this point you may begin to see there’s more to storytelling– and, therefore, writing– than most of us think about at first.

There are four levels of work involved in writing, and this, I believe, is part of what complicates the process of learning how to write. It’s this 4-step process, unidentified, that I think gets people in trouble.

  1. Image courtesy of D. Sharon Pruitt via stock.xchng

    Idea generation. You have to come up with something to write ABOUT.

  2. Translation from idea into language.
  3. Translation from head-language to language-on-the-page (this essentially means holding onto the words you’ve come up with long enough to get them onto the page).
  4. The physical act of recording the words.

Some people get stuck at step-1, and that has almost the easiest solution. Even if you never know what to write about, you might be awesome once you get started.

If this is you, there are all sorts of books for sale and even free options on the internet to get you started: just Google writing prompts.

For step-2 (image into language), assume that time will be involved. Give yourself permission to make a few running jumps.  Throw some words at the idea (like spaghetti at a wall) and see what sticks. If you’re a natural talker, use that facility with language that you already have. Talk to a friend, talk to yourself or your pet. Talk into a recorder of some kind, and see if you like what it sounds like later.

This is what you do in that early stage of storytelling. You say what you remember. Other people remember it differently, or your listener has a question. The next time you tell the story you shape the transmission differently, based on what you learned from your earlier audiences.

You’re half-way through the process, and it’s something you’ve done all your life!

What is good to get into your mind from the start is that this is all part of the grand process I call writing.

Writing is like Growing. There’s not a meaningful before-and-after separate from existence.

In step-2, and sliding into step-3, you take your impressions, thoughts, intuitions, hopes, fears, dreams and delights and try to put them all, like fireflies, into a jar of language that won’t suffocate them.

Image courtesy of Horton Group via stock.xchng

Some people can’t do that. It feels wrong. It makes them sick to their stomach.

The act of capturing is inherently cruel and deadly, and even hearing me urge it leaves you feeling threatened.

Something I’m learning: Not everyone needs to write.

Some famous so’n’so once said,

“If you can keep yourself from writing, Please do.”

The point being that everyone is already wading through more information than any of us can adequately process. He’s saying Please don’t add to the noise.

But if you have to keep writing, DO.

We’ll keep working on the getting-better part. (Humility can be a great asset in this process.)

Why write if there’s already a gobzillion people out there writing, and a lot of them doing it better than you can?

I wish I could tell you the first place I saw this, but I’ve latched onto it, and it continues to provide meaning for my work.

People are still hurting.

That’s a real and legitimate reason to write.

People still seek delight, and beauty and words to describe the world, whether they see a gracious, nurturing world, or a dangerous, cut-throat sorta place. There is a security we humans feel when we are reminded we’re not alone.

Image courtesy of PLRANG Images for design via stock.xchng

All art does this. Sometimes I think that is the core reason for art— to draw us out of our individual foci and our isolated experience of the world.

Writing is just one form of this shared experience.

No one expects everyone to become a painter in watercolors, or a sculptor, or a violinist, but the fact that we’re all exposed to writing at an early age makes us feel a sort of obligation.

I do think we all need a basic comfort-level with writing, because there is a sort of mass or momentum to it.

It is “the common tongue.”

Not everyone understands modern dance or acrylic abstracts. That’s not a reason to abandon those things any more than Swahili or Gaelic, but a lot of people study French or English primarily because of momentum: more people already understand those languages.

This is the way I see writing’s function in general-use.

~ ~ ~

If step-3 (translation from language-in-the-head to language-on-the-page) is your sticking place, it probably looks like a reverse of the 3 a.m. epiphany.

Instead of having your mind unflatteringly blank at just the wrong time, only to have the *perfect* zinger at 3 a.m., this challenge looks like the confidence of *just* the right words slipping from your mind’s grasp or memory before you can pin them to the page.

This, like step-4, is a bit of a mechanics thing, and may require a mechanical solution.

There are a couple different exercises you can try.

Image courtesy of linusb4 via stock.xchng

First, try copying a poem, quote, scripture, or paragraph you haven’t memorized. Read a set of words and try to hold them in your mind while you write the whole set without looking again.

When that feels comfortable, or you’re ready for a different challenge, ask someone to read you chunks of text, then wait while you write it down (this might be easier or harder than the last exercise, and you can do either first, depending on your preference.)

Once you’ve gotten used to holding words “in your ear,” while you write them in silence, practice taking notes while somebody is speaking. Pretend you’re a reporter, if that helps. Again, your goal is to capture an entire quote or thought, but if you find that’s currently out of reach, pick something more manageable.

If you do this with a movie or TiVo, you’ll have the bonus option of checking your work, and seeing how accurate your capturing skills are.

This also works for song lyrics off the radio.

The goal is to learn how to hang on to a complete thought even while more ideas are coming at you. Often when you are translating ideas into words this is what you experience in your own head: the need to continually capture, without the new information overriding the earlier stuff you also want.

The faster you write, the easier this can become (because fewer ideas overlap), and this leads us naturally into:

Step-4 (the physical act of recording words).

This was my bottle-neck growing up. The physical act of handwriting was very hard for me. My handwriting was either poor or laborious and always slow. There was no way I could keep up with my thoughts, so I rarely tried to write them down.

It was only with the introduction of typing, and more-specifically word-processing (so stuff could be saved and moved around painlessly) that I began to really see writing as something I could do, and eventually enjoy.

It was always a hoot in my (voluntary) writing classes at University when the teacher would go around and have each student self-introduce with writing background.  Invariably everyone before me talked about “writing as long as I can remember” and “loving” to write and so on. I would always kill the rush with my, “I hated it.”

But I like to think of that as a nice hope-card for other folks who aren’t dialed in yet.

My biggest trouble was Step-4. I told stories with countless My-Little-Ponies for YEARS before I voluntarily put a story on paper. Without knowing it I was practicing Steps 1-3 all my life.

When it comes to improving Step-4, I have to give the bad news: this is all rote.

Image courtesy of A. Laczek via stock.xchng

Maybe a studied teacher can offer you some other answer, but in my experience nothing makes up for the act of putting down words– with a pen, pencil or keyboard.

I am a firm believer in good pens and good keyboards, though.

Step-4 is infinitely easier with the right equipment. Go to an office supply or university bookstore sometime.  Both these places, in my experience, have little scratch pads in the pen isle. You can try out some of the pens and find out what works for you.

I can’t say fixing your problems with these four steps will make you a good writer.

I can say that finding the places you get stuck, and fixing those, will make writing much more comfortable, and we all are more likely to spend time where we’re comfortable.

It’s that time spent that will give you a chance to answer the question, a very important question, about whether you want to go farther.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *