5 Things I Use To Help Improve My Writing
I usually don’t write about writing, but I’ve been examining my process and thought I’d share these ideas & tools
Straight up, no lead-in, here are my five;
- Other People’s Work
- Thesaurus & Dictionary
- My Own stuff
Let’s get this bit out of the way first; a universal route to writing success doesn’t exist. A universal path to anything doesn’t exist. You could try something that didn’t work for me, and it might work for you — or vice versa. The route to, and how you define success are subjective phenomena.
The truth of the matter is that all the clever marketing stuff you’ve read, all those promises of achieving superstardom with minimal work, or through a particular system, it’s all BS.
You know that already, right?
Of course, you do.
Although if you’re like me, you may have fallen foul to their crap at times. Perhaps during those moments of creative weakness, silence and tumbleweed, you tended to believe the hype.
The truth is, it’s more likely you, and I will have to work long and hard in obscurity with little recognition, applause or money to get where we want to go. We must serve our apprenticeship.
It seems to have been this way for Steven Pressfield, Ray Bradbury, and hundreds of other renowned writers whose heights we aspire to reach. So I reckon we have little choice but to dig in and get comfortable being uncomfortable for a while, at least until the universe relents.
In the meantime, we have some work to do.
So there are a few things that I have found helpful to me that I want to share. In doing so, I have nothing to sell, no motivation to hook you as a subscriber, no course on writing to flog; these are simply some ideas that help me in my research, study and writing.
I could add many more than the below such as my iMac, my Moleskine journal and planner, Google Keep, and others. But we’ll keep it tight.
These are the five writing and research go-to’s that help me most to improve my writing.
1. Other People’s Work
It all starts with inspiration and other people’s work. This is the source of many creative ideas for artists and academics. We don’t live in a vacuum; therefore, other people’s work is essential.
We have our personal experience of course, but usually, we learn through other people’s work, how to put it on the page and communicate it.
In pursuit of that inspiration, I have turned into a compulsive buyer of books. Every week I’m adding to my collection.
(Is this how women feel about shoes?… Ladies? 🤔)
There are a few topics that influence my writing, including;
- Books on the Art of Writing
- Society & Culture
That kind of covers it. Although I have a couple of books on Irish mythology and a couple of poetry collections. I have little or no fiction on my shelf.
The point is, I like to read, and what I read, whether I realise it or not, influences how I think.
I doubt there is an account of the art of writing that doesn’t suggest that to be a good writer we’ve got to read.
So I read.
If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut
— Stephen King
How I Read A Book
Last summer I took an evening writing course in the Irish Writer’s Centre. It was there I learned the difference between reading a book, and forensically reading a book.
Just reading a book from front to back might give us a broad understanding of the story, one that we can recount to friends later. But to absorb the content, there’s got to be a more in-depth examination.
So I read with a pen and something to make underlines — a bank card or a child’s school ruler. The ruler fits nicely in the book and also doubles as a bookmark.
- I underline sentences
- I box off sections
- I asterisk things I think are important
- I make notes in the margins
I’m a slow reader anyway, but to forensically read a book slows me down to a crawl.
I often read the same chapter 3 or 4 times.
You see, I’m looking for something in the sentences and paragraphs when I read them.
I’m looking for a hook to hang my coat on.
I’m looking for several hooks actually, ones that I can build a story around and to which maybe I can connect my own experience and deliver something worth reading to someone.
I should add that I read online material too, which can be both a good and bad thing because we tend to expose ourselves to the same type of online content too much.
We can get caught in an echo chamber of the same type of headlines and the same vacuous content. Our work begins to reflect that.
So, read broadly!
I had a conversation the other day with a former managing editor of a major news outlet here in Dublin. We recently crossed paths in other respects, and I decided to land a few questions on him about writing.
We had a brief conversation in which his first question to me was;
Do you use a spelling and grammar checker?
I was glad to reply in the affirmative. “I use Grammarly”, I said.
He, of course, reckoned that a spelling and grammar checker was an essential piece of kit for a writer. He noted how constantly amazed he was by the poor quality submitted to his office during his career.
So I’m on a winner!
Anyway, I find the service excellent, albeit a little intrusive while I’m trying to form a particular string of thoughts into something coherent on the page (screen).
There is a Chrome browser plugin that corrects my spelling and grammar in the likes of Medium, WordPress, Google Docs and most writing applications online, even social media editors.
Although, I find the interruptions a little irritating.
It picks up all of my errors, although it doesn’t always give me the best advice and I need to overwrite its correction.
By and large, it’s an excellent tool, and I couldn’t do without it. And even though it won’t turn me into an Ernest, I am getting better.
My Top 3 Mistakes
Of all the errors I make, these three consistently come up and to be honest; I’m not too worried about them. I run the checker after I’ve finished writing and correct them all then.
- Missing comma in a compound sentence
- Missing comma after an introductory clause
- Comma splice
Generally speaking, my writing is ok — middle of the road in my opinion. Grammarly helps me make it better. After corrections, if I get a score of 98 or 99 them I’m good to go.
3. Thesaurus & Dictionary
Aside from Grammary, Thesaurus is the writing tool I probably use most. I find it invaluable. Article and essay paragraphs can become very repetitive and monotonous if I’m not watching my adjectives. Writing tone becomes dull and predictive.
Thesaurus helps solve that problem by adding depth and colour to my work (I hope) and grow my vocab too.
I also use the web version and the iPhone app version to give me the right word when I need it.
And my vocabulary is growing.
Well, at least according to Grammary.
4. I Read Back Over My Own Articles
It happens every time.
I read my own article 4 or 5 times before hitting publish, and I still miss silly errors and poor structure.
So after I publish, I’ll open the newly published article in a new window, and I’ll read it through again — a couple of times.
I always find ways to make it better.
Then afterwards, say when I have gone to bed, I’ll open it again on my mobile and read it one last time.
Again I’ll usually find a problem with how a sentence or paragraph is put together or maybe a spelling mistake.
The following day, or maybe after a couple of days, is a good time to reread an article for edits. There is something about sleeping on a topic that helps refine it for the better.
I’m probably pointing out the obvious here, and I may not have the best process, but it does help me improve my writing.
Ten years later I’m still here.
I started writing on my first WordPress site in 2009, and even though my consistency over time has not been where I would like it, I’m still writing. There is something about writing that keeps bringing me back.
For my degree, I have had to read and write a lot. So the practice I have been engaged in for the last ten years, although not academically focused, has stood to me.
Currently, I make a minimal amount from writing, so it’s certainly not the money that makes me return.
I don’t know what it is; I am, for some reason, compelled to write.
So I will.
And maybe people will like what I have to say, or perhaps they won’t. Either way, I’m engaged and enjoying it.
In all fairness, there’s little better reason to do anything, in my humble opinion, than for the fulfilment we gain from it. Making money from the work we do should be a natural consequence, especially if we are competitively minded. However, currently, I have other income streams that allow me to write without the self-imposed pressure to perform.
What happens next week or next year is anyone’s guess, but as sure as a bear shits in the woods, any work we sustain for long periods, the associated skills are bound to improve.
I feel full of ideas these days, and I want to share them. And so I have come back (for the time being at least) to a daily writing and publishing practice here on Medium where I’m sharing thoughts on creativity, life and work.
Some of it will be relevant to many people, some of it will be relevant to no one at all. Most of what I write will be somewhere in between I guess.
But I’ll do it anyway, see if I can sustain.
After all, if it’s good enough for Ray, it’s good enough for me.
“If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life.” — Ray Bradbury
Thanks for taking the time to read my stuff. Every morning you’ll find me sharing a new thought on life, art, work, creativity, the self and the nature of reality on The Reflectionist. I write about the psychology of creativity on The Creative Mind. If you like what I’m creating, join my email list to receive the weekly Sunday Letters