Monday, January 19, 2015

Ways to Improve Your Writing Without Writing

Image courtesy of Surachai at
If you play a musical instrument, or know anybody who plays a musical instrument, you probably know that the single most important thing to do is to practice. If you do not practice, you’ll never get anywhere.  Practice ‘til your fingers/lips/tongue (depending on the instrument you play, this might be all three) fall off.  There’s a reason that trumpet players tend to use a lot of lip balm. 

On the other hand, there are ways to improve your instrumental skills without playing your instrument. You can, for example, listen to music, which improves your sense of pitch. You can watch experts play their instruments, which helps give you an idea for how to implement technique. You will have to apply all of things in order to master them, but just by watching and listening, you can improve your skills. In fact, if you just practice without observing others – stumbling around in the dark, so to speak – you might be holding yourself back as a musician.

Likewise, one of the best ways to improve your writing is to write.  Just write.  And write.  And write.  But, there are ways to improve your writing that don’t involve writing at all. 

OMG, right? (I should probably stop trying to sound like I'm even the tiniest bit cool.)

Read, read, read

Just like listening to music and observing technique can help improve your skills as a musician, reading will improve your skills as a writer. It improves your sense of what makes for good writing, and it gives you an idea for implementing technique. So read.  Read good books. A lot of them. Read the classic books, read modern books, and especially read books in the genre you’re writing in.

Also read bad stories. Really bad ones. You know how when you were being taught bike safety, the instructors would smash a melon on the ground to demonstrate what happens without a helmet? That’s what reading bad stories is like. They show you just how bad things get when plotting is loose, when characters are unbelievable, when grammar is atrocious. They are cautionary tales. Take heed.

Work to understand the difference between the two.  If you have well-developed sense of pitch, listening to an orchestra where even one instrument is out of tune is excruciating. If you’re still developing it, you might realize that something isn’t right, but you might not be affected by the discordance as strongly. The more critically you approach performances (remember that ‘criticism’ means ‘systematic evaluation’ and not ‘being mean’), the more you can differentiate between a good performance and a bad one.  Likewise, approaching all books with a critical eye will help you differentiate between good and bad.

Really stop to evaluate every book after you’ve read it.  What did you like and why? What didn’t you like and why? How did the author build suspense? If the book was non-fiction, was the information presented cleanly and in logical order? Think about the writing itself. Was it clear and concise? Was it garbled? If something felt 'off' about the book, but you’re not sure what, apply yourself to figuring out what made it feel not quite right.

Read books about writing.  Take note: books about writing should be approached with a very open mind, understanding that for every writer out there, there is a different opinion on what constitutes good writing.  A lot of books, and especially articles on writing, tend to present things as “THE ONLY WAY TO WRITE.” You should not ignore the advice in these books, but neither should you swallow it like it’s pure doctrine handed down by God himself. Rather, use them to help you define your own path.

Whatever you do, don’t exclusively read books about writing. By reading a lot of other stories/non-fiction you’ll learn way more about what good writing looks like, and you’ll see that good writing takes hundreds of different forms.  You’ll also start to see styles you like and styles you don’t like, which will help you define your own unique style even better than books about writing will. Don’t get me wrong, books about how to write are useful, but they shouldn’t be all that you read.

If you’re in college or highschool, you have an extra advantage: teachers who will help you with this kind of thing.  Ask your teachers questions, and get their opinions on this type of thing. It really makes a difference.

Watch television

Another thing that can help you improve your writing is to watch movies and TV shows.  Yes, believe it or not, this will help you improve your writing, as sacrilegious as that sounds.  After all, the visual arts are still a form of storytelling, and if you want to become a good storyteller, it’s good to pay attention. (If you want to write non-fiction, documentaries are useful.) Pay attention to the characters and how they are developed.  Do they behave consistently? What about pacing and plot? Do the writers of the show do a good job? Also, if the acting is good quality, you can develop a feel for what people do with their bodies while they speak.  One of the most neglected parts of dialogue is body language. 

You’ll quickly discover both good and bad TV shows. Identify why the good ones are good and the bad ones are bad. Be prepared to defend your analysis, as others might disagree with you. (This also goes for reading books.) This will help cement what you like in storytelling. (If you don’t like the story you’re writing, why would anyone else?) You shouldn’t ignore the professional criticisms you hear about a show, but you don’t have to buy them hook, line, and sinker.

Listen and look

Listen to actual people speaking.  Don’t exclusively rely on television for this.  Listen to their inflections and word choice.  Notice how different people speak differently. Develop a feel for what sounds natural.  A lot of time, dialogue is poorly written because it doesn’t sound like stuff any people anywhere would actually say.  To get a feel for speech of different time periods…that’s right, hit the books again. Again, don’t rely on TV for this, because unfortunately, a lot of period dialogue in many shows sounds like it was written by a hack. (Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Reading can help you determine the difference.) Really paying attention to the way people actually speak will give you a better sense of how to write dialogue.

Watch people while they talk. Notice their mannerisms. Do they look you in the eye? Stare at the ground? Look up when they’re trying to remember something? Do they fold their arms, get fidgety, etc.? This actually improves your interpersonal skills too, so it’s a step worth taking.  You just might discover that people are sending you subtle hints through their body language, and you can seem friendlier by adjusting your own.

Pay attention to yourself.  It’s a little hard to do this without altering your natural state, but with a little practice, you can do it.  How do you speak? How does your inner dialogue relate to your outer dialogue? What do you do with your body when you speak – when you like somebody, when you like like somebody, when you dislike somebody, and when you flat out hate somebody? How do you move when you’re excited? The list goes on and on. It’s important to write from life. I’m not saying your characters should be clones of you, but if you know what it’s like to be in somebody’s head (your own) you can imagine and translate that kind of thing into somebody else’s head (your character’s).

I cannot stress enough how useful this activity is, both for your life and for writing.  Dialogue is the place where most screw-ups in writing take place, and this will help you avoid that. This also allows you to show your audience your character’s mood or ‘tude instead of telling them. Instead of saying, “He was getting bored with the conversation,” you can write, “He glanced at his watch and crossed his arms over his chest, resisting the urge to tap his toes.” The second one is better, because everybody knows how it feels to be in that position.  We’ve all done it.  A good story will make the reader forget that they are reading, and studying and then writing natural behaviors will help you achieve that goal.

Get psyched out

If you’re in high school or college, don’t snooze through your psychology class. (If you happen to be an older writer, and you did snooze through your psychology class, do some research.) This class will do more for your writing abilities than you realize.  It will help you write believable characters, and it also helps you understand how not everyone’s thought processes are the same. If you have a chance to take the official Meyers-Briggs Personality Inventory, take it. Research what your personality type is and what all of the other ones are, too.  When you’re creating characters, trying to assign them one of these types will really help you make them seem real. There are a lot of websites with info on these, but nothing beats the original, official stuff.

Act just a little bit crazy

Okay. This one is from personal experience, so your mileage may vary.  I also know for a fact that at least one other person on the planet does this. I can definitively say that this simply won’t work for some people, while for others it might be the writing miracle you’ve been waiting for.

Walk around in circles and talk to yourself.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds, I promise! It’s so much more than that.  What I personally do is to walk laps around my basement or room, and I talk to myself about my story. I act out some of the motions, speak the dialogue that I’ve imagined, and try to actually feel what the characters feel. I probably look like an asylum escapee, walking around, muttering, and sometimes crying.  But really – it’s less walking around and talking to oneself than it is acting, like you’re on a stage and you’re the only viewer.  I’ve done drama in the past, and it’s not all that different from exercises to get into character. So, if drama is something you really like, this might be an immensely useful activity for you.

This isn’t just for fiction – I’ve done this for essays, blogging, and poetry, too, all with great success. (Guess what I did to help me write today’s post?)
What this does for me is twofold: it can take the place of prewriting (taking notes or a quick outline of the scene), and it cements what I want to wind up on paper. It also really, really helps with dialogue, because I can actually say what I want the characters to say, and see if it sounds natural.

So…I guess we’re up to three folds now, unless you include dialogue under the ‘what I want on paper’ fold.  

If this sounds totally ridiculous to you, go ahead and give it a try anyway.  You will either totally love it or totally hate it. If you hate it, you’ll never have to do it again. I will warn you: you will feel pretty ridiculous the whole time.  I still do, and I’ve done this for well over a decade.  I absolutely cannot do this if I know that anybody can see me or is within earshot. And, if you’re still not convinced that this isn’t total malarkey, remember that scientific studies have shown that physical movement does increase creativity and productivity.  In fact, some companies have wised up to this and are actually promoting “standing desks” so that people can do desk work while standing. So if the whole talking thing freaks you out, take a walk or get on some exercise equipment and just think about your story instead.

Take care of yourself

Here is a final thought: if something is good for your body, it’s good for your mind, which means it’s good for your writing. Eat nutritiously, sleep well, exercise, and practice good hygiene. (…she wrote, as she glanced at the half pan of brownies on her countertop.)

None of these activities should take the place of writing (well, you might want to prioritize your health at least a little), but they will make your writing more effective. Even if you only implement a few of them, you will benefit a lot.

What are your thoughts on some of these techniques? Are there things that you like to do to help improve your writing? Share any thoughts, questions, or opinions about how crazy I am in the comments.

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