Happy New Year! Okay, I know it’s a bit late, but I missed last week due to illness and I didn’t want to miss spreading the cheer. Did you make resolutions? Have you broken them yet?
I don’t believe in new year’s resolutions. I prefer to consider establishing new habits. That way I’m looking at ways I can improve by adding things to my life rather than focusing on negatives that I want to remove. Sort of a “glass is half full” way of improving myself.
Anyway, last July I quit smoking so I figure my big resolution was already taken care of for 2008. That gives me the chance to incorporate a whole bunch of “baby steps” in my schedule for the new year. Which brings me to this big old list I have been putting together to help myself improve as a blogger. What better way to kick off the new year than that? I have discussed some of these tactics in the past, but they are timeless methods that bear repeating. Here are 27 ways to be a smarter writer in 2008.
- Try New Things. Sometimes breaking out of your routine is all it takes to get original ideas flowing. Spend a weekend with friends or family, go skiing, read a book about something about which you know nothing. Just pick anything you wouldn’t usually do and do it.
- Get Moving. If you are feeling restless and unable to concentrate, then stop trying. You will do more good spending 15 minutes puttering around the house and 45 minutes writing than you will spending 60 minutes staring at a blank document and stressing out. Sometimes you just need to get the blood flowing and your ideas will follow suit.
- Switch Mediums. If the paper and pen (or monitor and keyboard) aren’t doing it for you, try another creative activity like painting or playing a musical instrument. Believe me, I am no Van Gogh, but I love to sit down with my pastels or watercolors for an afternoon and work out the visually creative parts of my brain. This isn’t about the product, it is just about the process.
- Shut Down Your PC. The act of putting pen to paper can actually help get your creative juices flowing. So if that empty document seems to be giving you the stink-eye, turn off your monitor and pull out a pen or pencil. I’m a sucker for a cool writing utensil. My friends and family know this and I am often given unique (or more of my favorite) pens and pencils as gifts – they are always appreciated.
- Phone a Friend. It may be that your brain needs something before it will give up the goods. Social interaction is integral to emotional and mental health. If you work at home (and especially if you live alone), then you run the risk of ignoring your brain’s need to socialize. Chat with a friend on the phone or make a coffee date for idle chitchat.
- Shift Gears. You are sitting there, staring into space, telling yourself: “Write, write, write…” But, for some reason, you aren’t writing. While focus and follow-through are important, this might be a good time to move to another project for awhile. And I know that as a blogger you have more than one (or ten!) things to work on.
- Practice Every Day. As a writer, there really is no substitute for just jumping in and doing it. Make the committment to spend at least an hour each day writing. Nearly all types of writing will help you hone your craft, so you need not specify what you will be writing during this time.
- Go On Location. If you do all of your writing in one place, you could find yourself in a bit of a rut. Take your writing tools of choice, bag them up and go somewhere else. Coffee shops, parks (weather-permitting, of course) and beaches are all wonderful places to spark inspiration and find a new groove.
- Read, Read, Read. Besides writing, the best way to become a better writer is by reading. If you love writing, chances are you were one of those kids (like me) who read voraciously through anything you could get your hands on. Perhaps as an adult you’ve lost that curiosity and thirst for knowledge. Try to put yourself back in your smaller shoes and rekindle that joy you found when you learned something – anything – new.
- Start a Group. Maybe you don’t have any friends who want to listen to you talk about your newest post for your knitting blog. But that doesn’t mean there is no one out there who does. There are groups (online and offline) for everything imaginable and writing is no exception. One of the greatest type of groups (and highly underrated these days) is a book club. Use a service like Meet Up to find people in your area interested in reading or writing together.
- Don’t Be Lazy. Use your tools. Get a good thesaurus and dictionary, pick up a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and if you aren’t sure if something is correct, look it up. It only takes a few minutes and, not only will you learn from it, you won’t get caught making avoidable mistakes.
- Designate Space. Virginia Woolf famously wrote about having a room of one’s own. Most writers find it very useful to have a space of their own in which to work their craft. Don’t underestimate the power of a designated writing space. Even if it is just a particular corner in the living room, make it official that when you need to write that will be where you go. You don’t always have to write there, but it will always be available if you need it.
- Practice Headlines. Bloggers must be great headline writers. If you can’t write a killer headline, it will be very difficult to pull readers in. Brian Clark has a great article about why you should always write your headline first. If you can’t seem to come up with content, try a list of headlines to get the ball rolling.
- Write Out Loud. Never hit the publish button until you read your article out loud. Even if it’s just to your cats, reading out loud can help you learn and establish your rhythm, clean up awkward phrasing and get a feel for how smooth (or rough) an article sounds. And if you find yourself zoning out while you are reading your article aloud, then you know it’s most likely time for a serious rewrite.
- Get your Writer and Editor a Divorce. If you can keep your writer side and your editor side separate during the writing process, your writing can improve exponentially. The reason for this is twofold.
First, the writer in you is creative and the editor is logical. If you allow them to fight over every sentence, your creative flow is broken and at least some of the magic that comes when you allow your brain to wander is lost.
Secondly, if you bring your editor in after your writer has done the work, then it can often be like bringing in a second pair of eyes. It isn’t exactly the same, but the distance can really give you fresh look at your work. If you do not work with an outside editor this is the best way to ensure that you catch any weird sentences or errors.
- Exercise. Writing exercises can be a huge help in honing your craft. Even if you are used to writing non-fiction articles for your blog, fictional writing exercises provide a way to take a break and improve your skills at the same time. There are many sites with free exercises available including Snapfiction, Wake up Writing and Meredith Sue Willis’ site.
- Take it with You. You have heard this a million times, but in 2008 you will start doing it: carry a notebook with you. When something strikes you as useful or interesting, write it down. I’m serious, you guys! Just try it. I rarely carry a purse so I know it can be a pain to carry a notebook in your pocket, but if you can turn it into a habit it’s really no big deal.
For years I tried to do this and it never quite stuck until about six months ago when I found a lovely little notepad from Wellspring’s Flip Notes line. It is small, light and sticks with me. There is something about the design that appeals to me. Almost every writer I have ever met is attracted to paper and pens, so you’ll be much more likely to actually use the notebook if it is aesthetically pleasing. At least I was.
- Keep a Journal. I hate this one. There is nothing more annoying to me than finding some lame journal I wrote in the 10th grade about some stupid fight I had with Amanda and Stephanie who are now married and I haven’t spoken to in years. But journals don’t have to be some useless outpouring of emotional vomit (no offense intended if that’s the kind of journal you write!). If you are stuck on the stereotype of a teenager girl burying her deepest secrets in the pages of a notebook, you need to get over it.
Journaling is a useful tool for all writers. Set a timer each day for 10-15 minutes and just write. Describe something you saw during the day or transcribe a conversation with your mom. You can literally write about anything. You never know what sort of ideas will come from just letting your brain (and your hand) go.
- Change your Subscriptions. Visit a store that carries magazines on many different subjects. Pick a few based on subjects about which you normally wouldn’t read. Try to find some with style and content that appeal to you and purchase them. Read them all carefully from cover to cover. Even if you could find the same information online, your relationship with the physical magazine can influence ideas and thoughts you have regarding the material. Never underestimate the power of a glossy magazine photo.
- Track Your Progress. Are you so busy churning out articles and networking that you don’t have time to review your accomplishments? Seeing the progress that you make is very important to productivity. Are you more motivated by a daily to-do list or a broad range of long-term goals. If you aren’t sure what works for you, try a few different methods until you find a way to benchmark that fits in with your working style. Having concrete tasks to check off a list can really help you stay on track, especially on those days when it seems you can’t accomplish anything.
- Don’t Get too Attached. That sentence reads like pure gold. It is the most beautiful grouping of words you have ever ever written. I am so happy to hear that. But what does it do for your article? If it doesn’t add necessary information or elements, then it has to be removed. As painful as this can be, it must be done. Most people reading blogs do not have time for pointless sentences, no matter how pretty they (the sentences, not the people) are. Chop off the fat. I promise the bleeding will stop shortly.
- Stop Being Passive. The passive voice is dull and boring. It often uses uneccesary words and nearly always digs potholes in your articles. My choices are:
The gift was delivered by my best friend.
My best friend delivered the gift.
I’m certainly choosing the second one. Why? It’s active. The second sentence describes a person doing something. The first one is nearly lifeless. It barely has a live subject at all, merely mentioning my best friend at the end. While it is good to vary your sentences, try to avoid passive voice whenever possible.
- Save the Best for Last. You are tired. You spent four hours on research, two hours writing and another hour with edits. Now all you need to do is write a quick conclusion and you can publish. Hold up. Make sure you leave energy to write a killer conclusion. The last few sentences you write will be the sentences your readers take with them. If you can skillfully summarize your article and give your readers something to think about, then your article is much more likely to become “sticky.”
- Don’t Lose the Plot. You might be writing an article about branding and come up with some brilliant points about search engine marketing. That’s great. But, if they are not directly related, please don’t add them to your current article. I know they are genius and they sort of relate, but I promise you they will not be appreciated in the confines of your current article. The moment you go tangental is the moment your readers go elsewhere. Make some notes about your brilliant idea and save it for tomorrow.
- Do the Legwork. Nothing will kill your credibility faster than talking out of your a$$. Seriously. If you aren’t sure about a fact or figure, look it up. For some blogs, this means you will spend a great deal of time researching. If you don’t like researching, then choose a niche that you know a lot about or write an opinion-based blog. If you guess or make up information someone will call you out eventually and then you are done.
- Remember Your Audience. If you have a loyal following of readers, do not suddenly change your style. If you are trying to establish a following, read popular blogs in the niche you have chosen and try to figure out why they succeed. When planning articles for your particular audience, you should consider not only the content itself, but also tone, word usage (should you avoid profanity?) and the length of the article. The more you write for that particular blog, the better you will be at stepping into the readers’ shoes.
- Use an Outline. I know, I mention this one a lot. But that is because I consider it one of the most important and useful tools at a writer’s disposal. Many bloggers find outlines boring or confining, but it is a proven way to keep your article on topic. It can also help you write faster because you have distilled all the points you’d like to make. Whether you use a basic list of topics you want to cover or a detailed breakdown (I, A, a, ii, etc.), you will be much less likely to lose your reader if you write using a map.
Though there is something to be said for talent, I firmly believe that anyone who is willing to put in the time can become a good writer. Not all tactics work for everyone, but the ones I’ve described above are almost universally helpful. What methods do you use to improve your skills? Do you think bloggers need to be good writers or just deliver interesting topics? What are you writing goals for 2008?