Learn, do, repeat: Three steps to better writing
When a shampoo manufacturer directs you to “Lather, rinse, repeat” they’re just trying to sell you more product. Repetition may not be essential for clean hair, but it is essential for clean prose. You want to write better? Learn, do, repeat.
Unless you’re taking a writing class—actually, even if you are taking a writing class—reading what others have written remains one of the best ways of learning to write. Assuming that the “others” you read have more skill than you.
I had a friend who often told me she wished she were a better writer. But her skill level didn’t surprise me; she only read poorly written books from a certain genre of fiction. She needed to broaden her reading—include nonfiction, journalism, other kinds of fiction. And she needed to read better writers. As they say in the tech world, “Garbage in; garbage out.” Stock your brain regularly with great writing and it can’t help but thank you by making your own writing better.
I’ll tell you a secret. I used to hate to write—because I hated being imperfect. And Lord knows writers have to churn out a lot of “imperfect” before we get to “halfway decent.”
What changed? I bought a computer. I no longer worked with a sea of crumpled paper lapping at my ankles. My “imperfect” writing never had to leave my hard drive if I didn’t want it to. I could even vanish it completely if I liked. Note to the tech-savvy: Yes, I know nothing ever gets erased completely—I watch Law & Order. But it turned out that all my brain needed was the illusion that no one would see my false starts. So I started writing.
And I kept writing.
And today, more than 25 years after someone first paid me to write for a living, I still feel like I get a little better every day. As the folks at Nike say, “Just do it.”
Now, writing in a vacuum won’t help you improve. You need to get your work off the hard drive and out into the world. Join a writer’s group. Find a great teacher to help give you perspective about what you’re writing—and what you’re reading.