"Gosh, I wish I could write. I'm a horrible writer."
"You're so good with words."
"I was a good writer in school....I just never write anymore."
When I share what I do for a living, I usually hear something similar to the statements above. Everyone wants to improve their writing skills. Some just want to write better emails, others want to write novels. No matter what you want out of writing, chances are your life would be better, richer, and clearer with improved writing skills. Your emails would elicit desired responses. Your website would bring in dream clients. Your article would go viral, or your "thank you" card would heal an old wound. I'm going to show my nerd here and quote Professor Dumbledore from Harry Potter, who said “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic."
That being said, I know writing is fucking hard. I write anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 words a day. Some of what I write is magic, a lot of it is shit, and a good portion is somewhere in-between. You become a better writer by writing, of course, but that takes time and tears and the occasional bottle of wine. We don't always have time for that. Luckily, you can become a better writer by engaging in activities that have nothing to do with putting pen to paper, or pounding relentlessly on a keyboard.
Below are some of my favorite ways to become a better writer (without actually writing).
1. Read Fiction
Entrepreneurs and small business owners love reading self-help books. Some of us only read self-help or business-related non-fiction material. While learning how to improve your coding skills or personal brand is great, exclusively consuming this type of stuff is killing your writing. Why? Well, for starters the writers of these books aren't writers by trade or training. They're venture capitalists or world champion boxers or yogis or nutritionists. They wrote a book, yes, but with the massive help of editors and content coaches. Typically, they aren't master storytellers by nature. So, a lot of what you're reading is helpful but it isn't exactly moving prose. As Michael Pollan once said, fiction writers are better writers. So if you want to become a better writer, in all facets of writing, then read all facets of writing. If you want to write better, then read better. Read challenging fiction, or corny cult fiction. Read poetry. Study how iconic writers fashioned their own sense of style, or how they structured a sentence. Learn what shitty writing is, and what makes it so. Because while it's much easier to become a published writer today than ever before, writing well is not a given, and we need to know what true prose looks, sounds, and feels like before we can create it ourselves. You can only write as well as you read.
2. Take A Music Lesson
The second best thing I ever did for my writing was learning to read and play music. Good writing operates on rhythm, and mimics the visceral rhythms of our bodies, like our breaths and heartbeats. Michael Pollan once said that "writing is music." I believe it. We often hear how musical poetry is, and how the greats mimicked the music of their time in their own writings. Langston Hughes infused jazz into his poetry. But we don't often hear is how that same principle applies to prose. Learning music can teach you how to build anticipation and action not just through words, but through rhythm. You'll learn how to pack a punch with a staccato sentence. You'll learn how to send messages through your sentence structures, because it's there that really evokes reactions in your readers. You'll learn how rhythms piece together to create what feels like an effortless flow to the listener (and reader). Create depth and dimension in your writing by blending musical truths into gorgeous prose, and that can start with a simple music lesson. (Shh...I want to take violin lessons in 2016.)
3. Practice Public Speaking
In high school, I was a state champion prepared public speaker. Competitive public speaking was like Dance Moms but for speakers — adults coached us for months, allegiances were formed to knock out competitors, and judges were influenced to stack points in favor of high profile schools. Highly competitive arenas make me salivate with excitement and adrenaline, so I threw myself into making the top three in my division — public policy. Specifically, my subject was agricultural public policy. I was competing with hot topics like GMO foods, organic vs. conventional agriculture, and animal welfare vs. animal rights. Winning an audience (and judges) over required a unique blend of science, passion, perception, and pure performance. We had to stand and deliver.
I wrote my own speech (unheard of, adults usually did the writing) and delivered it from memory, TED-talk style. No matter how many times I delivered in front of legislators or business leaders, my stomach still turned in knots, my hands shook and my heart raced. I would eat an entire box of Pepto-Bismol chewables before going on stage. Once, I threw up while waiting on deck. It was exhilarating and life-altering, and it was by far one of the greatest things I've ever done for my own writing.
See, it's one thing to write; it's another thing to stand and deliver on those words. Speaking is a magnifying glass on your sentence structure, cadence, style, conviction and passion. What is weak on the page will absolutely fall apart in spoken delivery.
I think writing without ever speaking is like reading music without ever hearing it played aloud — you can pull it off, but you're really missing the magic. You're also missing the mastery. When you write, stand, and deliver, you deepen your understanding of words and their ability to impact a crowd or a single person.
To practice publicly speaking your written words, try writing out a response to a common question you receive. It can be anything from "How are you liking your new job?" to "Where did you find that?" Whatever. Choose a common and simple question, write out and memorize your answer. Learn it by heart, and deliver it when the moment arises. Listen to yourself, study the reactions. Were your words believable? Did they fall apart when said aloud, leaving you stumbling over the sentence? Study, write, speak, rewrite. Do this over and over until the written words sound so believable, it's as if you spoke them casually for the first time in a conversation.
I do all of these things, and often. Still, sometimes my writing is clunky or my sentences fall flat. It's a process. But I do know that the good has been made great thanks to the things I learned through reading poetry, playing music, and delivering speeches.
Now go out there and read some fiction! And tell me, what are you struggling most with in your own writing? Organization was my longtime enemy. What is your writing enemy?