Two things I’ve learned over the years that I feel have made me a better writer are to write every day and to read every day.
It’s like a constant training program. Writers can’t be complacent. We’re like athletes, just a little less sweaty and with fewer steroids.
Kidding aside, it’s not like a writer gets to a certain level of skill and plateaus. No, we have to constantly hone our skills, practice, try new things, experiment. I believe that if we don’t write something every day, we get complacent and lazy. Like exercise, if you don’t do your stretches and push-ups every day, you’re not going to see a change to those muscles.
And I’m not saying you have to write a thousand or two thousand words a day. You don’t even have to write the same amount every day. The point is to write something every day. Fifty words. Five hundred. Five thousand. Whatever you have time for, whatever you can squeeze into your schedule for that day. That’s all it takes. The only caveat is that I suggest you try to write at the same time every day. The brain can be trained so if you get up every morning and write at five a.m., then over time your brain is going to get used to that morning routine and will be prepared for it.
This isn’t to say you can’t write at any time. I always have a spiral notebook with me in my backpack with a pen clipped to the cover…just in case. If need be, I’ll write in an email on my phone and either save it as a draft or send it to myself. Any chance I get, I try to get some words on a page.
The other part of the Writing Training Program is to read every day. There are several reasons for this. First, it’s another form of mental exercise. You’re exposing yourself to new words, new ideas, new ways to describe things. Also, you learn what does and doesn’t work when telling a story. I’m sure you know what I mean. You’ve read a story at some point where you came across a line or a paragraph that was so well written that you had to re-read it a couple of times. You probably thought to yourself, “Damn, I want to write like that.”
On the flip side, you’ve also seen those lines or paragraphs (or entire stories) that were painful to get through. Purple prose, fragmented ideas, bad word choice…things that I like to call speed bumps for readers. It’s like when you’re driving down a nice, smooth piece of road lost in thought and suddenly hit that speed bump (or pot hole) and it knocks you out of the zone and back to harsh reality. Bad writing can be like that. You’re lost in the narrative, following the protagonist on their journey, then you hit a badly written sentence or the character does something ridiculous and you frown, your brows furrow, and the immersion is gone.
Regular reading has been shown to be good for the brain. Keeps you sharp, helps the memory, and helps you to think critically. All good stuff. For a writer, it has the added benefits of acting as a textbook. Not only do you see the good and bad (as mentioned above), but it can help spark new ideas. There have been many occasions when I was reading a book or a short story and read something that triggered an “ah-ha!” moment. Or have you ever read a story and thought that you could do it better? There’s nothing wrong in that. In my view, every story that can be told has been told over the course of human history. We just have to figure out how to tell them in a new way. Boy meets girl has been done millions of times, but yet we still tell that story because we find another way to do it.
Which brings me back to the daily writing. I fluctuate between working on stories, writing in my journal, blogging, and writing scripts for videos I want to record. I don’t necessarily stick with one thing for more than a day or two, then I switch to another project for a couple of days. I find it keeps me from getting bored or burned out on any given thing. But I also like to experiment, and that’s something I’d like you to think about. The next time you’re between projects, or simply taking a break from your usual routine, try some experimental writing. Try free writing, or look up some prompts online. Flip to a random page in a random book in your house, randomly point to a sentence, then write something with that sentence as the prompt.
Taking it further, try to write a non-rhyming poem, or maybe try writing a paragraph without using the word “and”. Challenge yourself to do something weird or unusual in your prose. Do you always write romance? Historical fiction? They write something scary. Always writing sci-fi or fantasy? Then write a romance story. Mix things up and get out of your comfort zone. Why? Because it challenges you and makes your brain think differently for a bit. Also, you may find that you have a talent for a genre you hadn’t considered trying. You might be surprised!
Writers are usually pigeon-holed into the stereotype of sitting in front of a laptop or at a desk all day typing away. If we’re lucky, then sure, but most of us don’t have that luxury. We are the ones that have to get that bit of exercise in every day. We have to keep pushing our creativity, flexing those muscles in our brains, in order to stay viable as writers and to constantly hone our skills. Any writer who says they don’t need to do this are fools. No writer who is worth a damn will ever stop trying to tell a better story. The only way to do that is to read and write every chance we get. Otherwise, what’s the point of being a writer?