So a reader sent me a flattering Fan Mail recently, asking me for tips on how to improve writing skills “because you’re good at writing”. As I dashed off what was to be a “quick” private reply, that reply morphed into a longer beast than I expected — and so I figured I’d post it here too.
(While this blog isn’t really about Writing, it does certainly contain a lot of it — so I hope you’ll enjoy, or at least forgive, this non-medical post exploring a bit about why I, a doctor who likes to write about doctor stuff, write the way I do):
- Seems really simplistic/obvious, but is often overlooked: WRITE A LOT. It doesn’t matter what you write (even emails, Facebook statuses, and original Tweets can help hone your skills, I would say!), but you need to use words in written forms often. Writing a blog is one of the best ways to do this, IMO, because it also forces you to put your words out into the sunlight — just write stuff, and don’t give a flying flip about what the general public says about your writing or whether anybody “likes/reblogs” it. Just write it down. If you’re too shy/uncertain about your adequacy as a writer, write in a journal (paper, or a private one online), write yourself emails, whatever. But WRITE!
- Corollary to #1 — READ a lot. Don’t worry that your writing style will probably take on the flavors/styles of the authors you read, at least for a while after reading a particularly unique or memorable authro — read anyways, soak up all the various ways in which people use words, learn the tricks, try them out for yourself in your own writing. And test out various genres while you’re at it — you might find a whole new area of books that you never knew you LOVED, and that might even suit you well for writing in/about!
- Find a helpful audience for whom to write. For me, my most helpful audience is Mrs. Cranquis, my wife. Almost anything I write of substance/length beyond just a quick blog post, I let her read first. She is my Ideal Reader (a term I’ve stolen from Stephen King — who, by the way, wrote one of the BEST books about writing, titled [appropriately enough] "On Writing" — READ THAT BOOK), because she enjoys my writing when I do it well, and gives me honest caring useful feedback/criticism when I do it poorly.
- It doesn’t hurt to have a job that involves helping OTHERS with writing — I worked in Writing/English tutoring centers in colleges for 6+ years, and that greatly improved my own writing skills. When you have to help other people understand why their essay/poem/book report/whatever is “not great”, you have to explain it in concrete understandable ways — which in turn enlighten YOU about how to write better too.
- Try writing in various styles, even styles which you might not really enjoy reading, or styles which you don’t think you’re “good” at. This exercises your brain’s writing muscles, forcing you to (temporarily, or maybe permanently) change the way you approach writing. [Try writing poetry, skits/drama, limericks, essays, instruction manuals… and so on.]
- When you get a “light-bulb moment” idea for a good story/essay/poem/whatever, WRITE THE IDEA DOWN — and write it down someplace that you can find again in the future. Obviously, if you have the time, you should write the entire story/etc right away as inspiration hits (even if that first draft later requires major gutting and remodeling to actually sound GOOD) — but if you don’t have that kind of time, write down the basics of the idea. When doing that, I find it helpful to include a couple lines about “where I was and what I was feeling at the time”, to help me recapture the essence of the idea later when I actually decide to write it out into full form.