How do I become a better writer?

Alternate Title: Why have I started this blog?

Writing is an easy thing. It’s merely arranging letters and words on a blank piece of paper so that they make sense.

But what does “sense” mean? And to whom are the words meant to make sense? The difficulties of writing lie in the answers to these two questions.

In an online course I once took, the lecturer said that there were two things to consider when writing – audience and purpose.

A letter would have a different tone compared to a speech. An article about how to become a better writer would have a different structure than a short piece of fiction.

But none of this really answers today’s main question: How do I become a better writer?

After more than 10 years of writing articles (for blogs, magazines, newspapers), fiction, annual reports (and whatever else you can think of that requires writing), I am still learning. There’s always room to grow in writing, better ways to achieve results.

Writing – the act of putting words on paper – may be easy, but writing well is a whole other ball game1.

After all these years, the only thing I can think of to improve one’s writing is a combination of these: Read, Write, Share, Listen.

1/ Read

Some blogs with advice about writing say “read great writers”. Others share practical tips from great writers and depending on which writers are quoted, you may find yourself with opposing pieces of advice that seem to work perfectly for that specific writer.

One piece I keep coming back to, however, is Stephen King’s “prime rule” of writing. “Read a lot and write a lot,” he says in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

Which is why I say, instead of just reading great writers, read all writers. Even the unknown ones faithfully publishing fan fiction on the Internet. Decide for yourself what you like or don’t like. Figure out why a piece works for you and uncover the faults in a piece that doesn’t.

Confucius said, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.”

By identifying and verbalising your issues with a particular text, you are able to understand the mechanics behind creating a good piece of writing.

I personally derive value from books about writing, but what I’ve come to realise is that all of the value gained is theoretical at best.

The only way to become a better writer, is to write. Write. Keep writing.

2/ Write

This is one of the reasons I’ve started this blog. It’s a way for me to explore a new aspect to my writing, a way for me to work on pieces that tickle my fancy.

In 2009, when I wanted to improve my writing of dialogue in fiction, I started a blog called The Man Beside Me. After a few months and several pieces, I noticed that dialogue in my other writing began to improve as well.

I suppose this is a sort of deliberate practice. At the same time, it’s something that I’m doing for myself. There’s no need to satisfy a board of directors or convince a potential customer.

But there is a need to be critical about my own writing. And there is a need for feedback. I’m hoping that’s where you’ll come in.

3/ Share

I could write all of this info down in a private journal, but what sort of feedback would that get me? Nada, zilch, zero.

By sharing my writing, I’ll learn more about how to present ideas, how to dress my stories up and strip complex ideas down.

Perhaps I’ll chance upon other experienced writers who can provide some insights into how else to present content, how I could make my sentences tighter, how to drive a point home.

Which brings us to…

4/ Listen

I am ready for criticism. Not everyone is going to like everything I write. And sometimes, those with the most hatred can provide extremely astute feedback.

I don’t always follow all the advice given, but I listen and I consider the points. Sometimes I may follow the advice but even if I don’t, this helps me identify the “faults” in my writing and rationalise why I’ve done things a certain way.

So to answer both title questions…

I’ve started this blog with a dual purpose.

One, to practice writing without external restrictions on content and style. It’s not enough to be good; I want to keep becoming a better writer.

Two, to document explorations initiated by intellectual curiosity. Let’s see where this rabbit hole leads!

  1. The usage of the phrase “a whole other ball game” here is an example of lazy writing, which results in a clumsy sentence. 

Stoicism as a solution for anxiety

My heart was pounding. There had been a severe mistake in one of our large shipments and the client was furious. He was out for blood. We were going to lose a generally easy to handle, recurring customer. He was going to sue us. We would have to suit up for war.

As you can see, my mind makes huge leaps towards worst-case scenarios. And once, I might have given in to the crippling physiological sensations that come with anxiety.

But I’ve found something that work better than medication – stoicism. It’s not as easy a fix as popping a pill but its effects are longer lasting.

“Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.”
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

I came across stoicism last year after reading about it in one of Ryan Holiday’s newsletters and seeing that it was something that could co-exist with my current beliefs, I thought I would explore it further.

Stoicism may be a philosophy but it differs from the other schools in that it emphasises application and practice. While other schools of philosophy may appeal to the more academic – those concerned with theories and ideas – stoicism is for everyone.

It is the understanding that your education, breeding, wealth or beauty doesn’t matter. The only thing you have any real control over is yourself.

Being stoic when you’ve made a mistake

So a mistake had been made and a client was raging. There was a problem to solve and being anxious contributed nada to the solution.

I have no control over another person’s emotions or actions. The physiological aspects of my emotions may not be within my total control. But I have control over my own actions.

First, I understood that a mistake had been made and that if there were negative consequences, I would have to face them. Being anxious would not change that fact.

Second, I understood that if I were in my client’s shoes, I would be enraged as well. And that even though we were in a bad situation, things could have been worse.

Third, although I didn’t know exactly how the client wanted me to fix the situation, I proposed a few things that were within my control and finally found something that he could agree with. It involved some losses but I knew that it was my responsibility to fix the problem.

Fast-forward to today, this same client that I thought would hunt us down and kill us (yes, my brain exaggerates) is still sending us messages asking whether we have more products to recommend for his purchase.

Take a stoic pill

I’ve been told lately that I’m “too chill”. And my response is always “why stress”?

These days, when I come face-to-face with a situation that’s stressful, I ask myself, “Can I do something about this?”

If I can’t, it doesn’t make sense to get stressed out. If I can, then I just do what needs to be done. It’s as simple as that.

While it may be simple, it isn’t always easy. However, practising stoicism has helped to stabilize my life in a way that I didn’t think was possible.

There’s so much about stoicism that’s still new to me but it’s definitely something that I want to dive deeper into. It’s something that I want to keep practising.

I started this blog as a way for me to explore topics that I’m curious about, to contemplate questions that I have no answers to, and to document my learnings.

If you’re reading, I hope you’ll provide feedback or perhaps be interested in having a discussion. I love hearing new thoughts and ideas, even if they are completely different to mine.