25 Ways To Become A Better Writer

Time again for another list of 25 — this time, a long hard look at the many ways to press hot irons to the feet of your writing and make it beg to get better. Flip through them, and then should you find you’ve got your own to add, well, hot dang, you know what the comments section is for. Time to measure up, penmonkeys.

1. Practice Makes Perfect, Little Princess

The easiest and most forthright way to become a better writer is, duh, to write. Write, write, write. Write regularly. Get on a schedule, whether it’s 100, 1000, or 10000 words a day. Writing is a muscle, like your biceps, your heart, or your private parts. Don’t use ‘em, you lose ‘em. And then they fall to the ground and rot like oxidizing apples and are in turn eaten by hungry gophers. Om nom nom.

2. Time To Eye-Fuck Some Books

The world is home to — *does some quick math on fingers, toes, testicles, nipples, and teeth* — 45 smajillion books. Each of them often containing somewhere north of 50,000 words. And new books hit the atmosphere every day. You do not need to read all of these books. But you should act as if that is indeed your task, carving your way through the world’s cumulative body of the written word one tome at a time. If you want to write, you’re coming in at the ground level of these 45 smajillion books written by 33 fnuhzillion different writers. You are a but a mote in the reader’s eye. You want to compete? Read. Learn what other writers are doing. Absorb it with that schnapps-laden sponge you call a brain.

3. Read Widely, Weirdly, Wisely

Here then is the prison that writers build for themselves: it becomes harder and harder to read purely for pleasure. Reading for pleasure often means sticking to a few genres, with a few authors — “Oh, I like fantasy, so I only read fantasy fiction,” or, “I love the Detective Cashew Pepper series by K. J. Staplebottom, and I’ve read up to #47 in the series.” That privilege has been revoked. You now must read widely, weirdly, wisely. Read everything. Move outside your desired library. Read obscure British literature. Read poetry. Read non-fiction. Read science-fiction even though you hate science-fiction. If you want to do what everybody else is doing, fine, read only in your pre-existing sphere of influences. But this is about improving your work, not treading water like a poodle who fell off a boat.

4. Don’t Be A Book Racist

Those who write books are occasionally “book racists.” They pump their fists and espouse Book Power while denigrating other forms of the written word. “TV will rot your brain,” they might say. As if the Snooki book will somehow do laps around an episode of THE WIRE. Books are not the only form of the written word. You may not even want to write books. Branch out. Watch television. Watch film. Read scripts. Visit great blogs. Play games. Don’t be a book racist. The storytelling cults can learn much from one another.

5. Whittle Your Mind Into A Straight Razor, ‘Cause It’s Time To Cut A Motherfucker

Another instance where improving your writing skill may come at the slow erosion of your pleasure. Read and watch stories with a deeply critical eye. Not to be a dick, but to instead ask: “What would I do differently? Why would I do it that way? Could I do this better? How would I write it to improve upon it?”

6. Unclog Those Ears, Wax Boy

Listen. Seriously, get your pinky into that ear, unplug it of all the wax and hair and sadness that’s built up in there and just… listen. We read with our ears as much as with your eyes and so it’s critical you know what sounds good as well as what reads well. Sit down at a bar, listen to a conversation. Turn on an audio book or a radio show. Listen to a stand-up comedian deliver jokes and stories. Write it down if you must — see how it lays on the page. It should lay there like Burt Reynolds with a snake draped delicately across his man-parts. In other news, I bet his man-parts have their very own mustache.

7. Go Forth And Do Shit, My Son

Write what you know means what it says but doesn’t say what it means. You know more than you know. Fuck fact. Embrace authenticity. Writers do not gain a sense of authenticity by sitting at the computer all day jizzing out word-babies. Have something to write about. To do that, you must go out. Into the world. Take a trip. Get in a bar fight. Hunt a white whale. Metaphorically. Please don’t kill whales. They are our benevolent alien masters and one day they’re going to get really pissed and call in an airstrike.

8. Learn What Words Mean And Where Punctuation Goes

Storytelling may be an art, but writing is a craft, and that means learning where commas go, how to spell words (like “clitoral” or “sesquicentennial”), and in general how to put together a fucking sentence. Read yourself some Strunk and White. Flip through a dictionary now and again. Scope out some Grammar Girl. Hear a word you don’t know? Go look it up. Improve your technical skills. It is the bedrock of your penmonkeying and without it, you’re just a punk-ass who won’t eat his vegetables.

9. Be Torn Asunder By Editorial Talons

It helps to submit to editors. Real editors. Tough love editors. Because sometimes your writing needs to get on its knees and have wax poured down its back while it receives a right-good nipple-caning from a whip-like willow branch. Your writing improves in the fiery gaze of a hellish editor. The flames will wick away the flopsweat and the amateurish urine stain. The barnacles will char and fall off. Submit to an editor.

10. Be Ripped Apart By Other Writers

Writers are not editors. (File under D for “duh.”) They have different priorities and different perspectives. (And they’re probably also raging drunkaholics. Editors are nice and drink wine. Writers will drink all the cough syrup at CVS if they can get their ink-stained fingers on it.) Whereas an editor will often highlight a problem, a writer will come up with a solution. That doesn’t mean it’s a solution you want, but it’s worth it to have that perspective just the same. Submit your work to other writers. Demand — with a gun in the small of their back if you must — that they not be kind. Mercy will not strengthen you.

11. Self-Flagellate

Pull up your pants, that’s not what I mean. I mean, you must smack your word count with the horse-whip of scrutiny! You must become your own cruelest editor, your jaw clenched tight with the meat of your own manuscript trapped between your teeth. This doesn’t need to be a consistent mode of operation, but once in a while it pays to take a page of your writing and go at it with a blowtorch, a car battery, and a starving honey badger. Cut your words. Make them bleed. Behold the healing power of bloodletting.

12. Throw Down Your Own Crazy-Ass Gauntlet, Then Run Through It Naked

Set challenges for yourself, then tackle them. Write a piece of flash fiction. Write poetry. Attempt to tell a story in a single tweet. Play with the second person perspective. Write a novel in sixty chapters, each only 1000 words. Treat it like a game where the rules are ever-changing.

13. Highway To The Danger Zone

Related, but different: write into your own discomfort. Escape your plexiglass enclosure and run toward peril, not away from it. Confront your many demons with your work and dissect them on the page. Write in genres with which you’re not at all comfortable. Know your limits, then take those limits, wrap them around a hand-grenade, and shove them up the ass of a velociraptor. Because, really, fuck limits. You wanna be a better writer, you’ll write outside your own proscribed margins.

14. Read Your Shit Aloud

I will pin your arms beneath my knees and scream into your face until I pass out from a rage aneurysm (an angeurysm?): read your work aloud. It will make you a better writer. I promise.

15. Embrace The Darwinism Of Writing Advice

Here’s what you do with writing advice (says the guy delivering a nigh-constant stream of dubious penmonkey wisdom): hunt it down, leash it, read it, absorb it, then let it go free once more. Let it compete with your other preconceived notions about writing. Sometimes the new writing advice will win and become a dominant meme inside your wordsmith’s brain. Other times your pre-existing beliefs will hold true — and will grow more tumescent, like a potent word-boner — through just such a test. You must take in writing advice and test it against your own notions. Tell all writing advice: “NOW YOU MUST FIGHT THE BEAR.”

16. Learn New Breakdancing Moves, Fool

You can’t be coming to the street with your stale-ass bullshit. The Worm? Really? The Robot? Classics, admittedly, but you’re going to get smoked by bigger and better b-boys, yo. So too it goes with writing. You must be willing to try new ideas. Not a plotter? Try plotting. Don’t like flashbacks? So write some motherfucking flashbacks. Make them your own. Try new tips, tricks, techniques. You should be able to say, “I wrote my last novel on the back of a dead hooker. With a Sharpie! Don’t worry, I outlined it first on the chest of my UPS man. He’s still upstairs in the tub! Hey, uh, know anyone who needs a couple kidneys?”

17. I Just Blogged A Little In My Mouth

You often hear, “writers should blog to build their platform,” to which I say, pants, poppycock, and pfeffernusse! (I know. Such a foul tongue!) I say: writers should blog because it keeps them writing, because it exposes their writing to the air of community, because it tests your skill in the open plains. Blogging is further a great place to play with language, to put words out there that aren’t headed to market, that aren’t forced to dance for their dinner. It allows you to use words like “poppycock” and “pfeffernusse.” True story.

18. Interface With Other Inkslingers

Sometimes you have to sit down over a pitcher of moonshine (or a hookah burning with the ash of an 1st edition Finnegan’s Wake) and confab the shit out of that palaver with other writers. Meaning: talk it out. Talk about careers. Techniques. Books you love. Writers you hate. Writer conventions and conferences are good places for this. Just remember: the writers are always at the bar. Like moths to a porchlight.

19. Wade Into The Mire Of Your Own Fetid Compositions

Time travel a little. Go back into your past and dredge up some writing from a year ago. From ten years ago. Read it. Learn from it. Also gauge how well you’ve grown. This can be instructive because sometimes you don’t know in what ways you’ve changed — further, you might identify darlings that repeatedly come up in your writing, darlings that deserve naught but the edge of your editorial chainsaw.

20. Do Not Defile The Penmonkey Temple

Your writing is the product of a machine, and that machine is your brain and body. The higher that machine functions, the better the writing that blubbers and spews from it. I’m not saying you need to treat your body like it’s a white tower of physical perfection — but we’re talking basic shit, here. Move around. Eat a good breakfast. Heroin is not a great snacktime treat. Fine, maybe you don’t need to treat your body like it’s a temple. Just don’t treat it like it’s the urinal in a Wendy’s bathroom.

21. Flex Your Other Artistic Muscles

Take photos. Paint a picture. Play the piano. Macrame a dildo cozy. Muscles work in muscle groups — your writing muscle is part of an overall creative cluster. You gotta work ‘em all.

22. Find Your Voice By Not Finding Your Voice

Sometimes improving your writing is about letting go of your writing. Some writers become so obsessed with their voice that they forget they already have it — your voice is who you are, your voice is your natural default way of communicating with the written word. To find your voice and improve your wordsmithy, sometimes it pays to just relinquish ego, relinquish control, and stop fucking worrying so much.

23. Embrace Your Inner Moonbat

All writers are a little bit batshit. We’ve all got some combo-pack of Charlie Manson, Renfield and Bender from Futurama running around in our skulls. Embrace it. We’ve all got a head full of ghosts and gods and it behooves us to listen to them, to let them out and play on the page, to use the madness granted to us rather than deny it and walk the safe and sane line.

24. Veer Drunkenly Toward Truth

Be real on the page. Be you. Know your experiences, know your heart and head and whatever squirting fluids pulse between your bile ducts and put it all on the page. Be honest. Be bold. Don’t fuck around. Only by bringing yourself to the work will you find that your writing truly improves. Let it all hang out. By saying what needs to be said, you will see your writing get better, unburdened as it is by pretense and artifice.

25. I Am Jack’s Desire To Be A More Awesomer Writer

An alcoholic (or any kind of -aholic) only gets better when he wants to, and so it is with writing. To be a better writer you must truly want to be. Open yourself. Test your work. Be willing to change.

Otherwise, what’s the point?

* * *

Want more of the booze-soaked, profanity-laden shotgun blast of dubious writing advice?

Try: CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY — $4.99 at Amazon (US), Amazon (UK), B&N, PDF

And: 250 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT WRITING — $0.99 at Amazon (US), Amazon (UK), B&N, PDF

49 comments

  • Set completion goals and meet them.

    I write short fiction. My story quality and acceptance rate has improved steadily since I committed to completing a story a week.

    This practice has worked better for me than setting daily word counts. When I focused on word count, I ended up with a computer-full of stories I never finished.

  • Bravo and spot on Chuck. In particular I like number 7 given that I occasionally have odd adventures. Really though these all seem to have at least some use. 22 I could use pounded into my head a few times with a mallet. I think worrying about that is what hamstrung my novel. Dude, your blog rocks.

  • Chuck . . . thanks for all of the great advice – really impressive stuff! I think I’m going to throw away my “Writing a Novel for Dummies” book! LOL Just trying to be humorous, but there’s probably one in print already, for all I know!

    Thank again for taking the time . . .

    Jackie

  • Dude, I checked. There is a Writing a Novel for Dummies in print! What will they fucking come up with next? Making a Million Dollars for Dummies would be nice . . .

    I printed out your list and will use it often. Thanks, Chuck!

    Jackie

  • As ever an amusing, ass-whipping post Chuck. I’ve been taking the writing seriously for nine months now, and like the birth of some deformed alien-esque tummy ripper, the side effects have started to show. I can no longer watch or read anything just for pleasure; I am constantly questioning the story, noticing the techniques used and wondering what I would have done differently. It’s really frickin’ annoying but it’s also teaching me more than I expected.

    Once I have the first draft of my novel finished I plan to find some scripts to read (which I’ve never done) so I can see how they’re put together. And flash fiction/short stories will be the only things I write until I come to the point of editing the tome of despair… I mean the novel I’ve been writing for months.

    Thanks for keeping the red hot poker against my back Chuck, it’s definitely helping me become a better writer (or at the least a more persistent one).

  • Wow. How do you do this? How can you come up with this amazing information, daily, and manage to leave our jaws hanging wide open?

    Um, thanks. That’s what I meant to say.

    You’re like some machine. A bio-machine. Like a living HR Giger rendering. Complete with copious hidden sex organs.

  • It makes me sad that I haven’t reached the legal drinking age. Bar fights, writers drunkenly talking about their shit and booze. The young penmonkeys miss all the fun. I’ll just be going back to my swing and slide now.

  • I went to a writing conference and they had a panel on publishing in the 21st century (this was around 2002) and a thirteen year old girl asked how can she get published. The moderator said thusly, “read until you reach drinking age, then read while your drinking, then start writing.”

  • As usual, my eye (and sphincter) twitched to see “Strunk & White” in No. 8 on this profane Hit Parade. I unlimber my traditional weapon and empty a counter-volley with both barrels into your bearded face: Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage, Third Edition. Usage is a style guide and a usage guide built into one large tome. It clarifies how many particular English phrases should be used and, of interest to any writer worth his ink, gives a lexicographical case for that choice. David Foster Wallace wrote a paean to this book and if that’s not good enough for you, then I don’t know what else I can do for you.

  • Chuck, Chuck, Chuck. (Shakes head slowly with sorrowful disbelief.) You think that was a compliment from Amber? Note she said the sex organs were HIDDEN. You wander around pantless, she sees you naked, she mentions that your sex organs are hidden. Do you need me to spell it out? She is telling the world that you are smaller than an underdeveloped newborn fieldmouse, man. Not nice, Amber. Not nice.

  • I love these. Even when you don’t put a list up, I read one from 250 Things every morning before getting to work. It’s such a motivation simply because it feels real, like this is the real deal.

    I am also in awe in how you can write such intelligent, creative and rich advice every freaking day. I must learn the secret!

  • Great list!

    Now I have to come up with a piece of writing advice on my own? Hmm . . I’ll just expand on your 8th way and say, “Continually expand your vocabulary.” Quiz yourself. Then file the new words in the back of your mind. Even if you don’t use the new words, they are there, fermenting and pickling and copulating . . OK I think I just channeled you there. Time to grab my knees and rock . .

  • Do you listen to the Mike O’Meara Show? That’s the second usage of “sesquicentennial” I’ve seen in the past week, after 28 years of never seeing or hearing it once!

  • I’d like to add to #2 (“read & learn what others are doing”).

    I follow a lot of writers on Twitter, from traditionally published ass-kickers to amateur self-published ones, and I’ve bought some of their stories from Smashwords and Amazon.

    Since anyone can upload anything to Smashwords and slap a price on it, there is a lot of garbage out there (*tough love*). READ THE GARBAGE. I’m not saying that my writing is stellar, but that’s not the point.

    I read these stories 1) for enjoyment and 2) as a critic. I learn A LOT from the mistakes (ex: “Oh, this sucks. Now I see why it’s important to show instead of tell;” “Wow, I finished the story, and I still don’t know what the character looks like”).

    I recommend buying some $.99 stuff from Smashwords or even reading some posted chapters of unpublished works at BookCountry.com for free.

    My next step is to walk the fine line of douchebaggery and write gut-honest reviews of these stories.

  • Thanks Chuck. This is a fantastic post. Most x number of ways to be a better writer give us fluff without substance. For instance, every one has the classic “Read more.” None of them tell us what to read or how to read. Without the how and why, advice lists are useless sound-bites.

  • ‘Advice to a 13-year old writer: “Read until you reach drinking age, then read while you’re drinking, then start writing.”‘ This just became my computer desktop.

    Chuck, your list is exactly what I needed. Thank you very much sir!

  • I found myself wading right into number 19 recently. Someone found one of my old, old epic length fanfictions on ff.net. Wanted to know if they could draw some of the original characters from it. I said yes, and found myself going through the old thing.

    It was not quite as an embaressingly humbling experience as I thought. The kid who wrote that? Showed promise. His flaws (which still exist) were a little more on display than they usually are, but that just reminded me of the areas which I have trouble in. It was actually kind of fun.

  • I have been struggling with a lot of these for the past few years, but I finally started blogging seriously to get the writing out. I also had a secret blog under a pen name where I was fully authentic with my views on religion after de-converting. While I no longer blog much over there anymore, it helped me discover how I feel about a lot of things and what I want to see myself become as a blogger and a writer.

    I finally started writing about books and my writing goals at my current blog. But even though this new blog isn’t really about religion, I feel fabulously more authentic than I did before. It’s been up less than two months and already I’m energized, motivated, and inspired to keep doing what I’m doing. I am writing a little bit each day. I know, over time, if I keep this up, I’m going somewhere with all of this.

    That said, I love this list, and will be retweeting it shortly.

  • Hey. You rule. Your writing rules. But please get a twitter button and email subscription so that I can buy things from you.

    First time on this blog. Love it.

  • “Because sometimes your writing needs to get on its knees and have wax poured down its back while it receives a right-good nipple-caning from a whip-like willow branch.”

    I think I just peed myself a little.

    BTFO.

  • I confess I took #3 to heart so seriously, I’ve had to make an effort to come back to reading the genre I write in. So do it, but mix it up.

    And a big “hell yeah!” to #4. When folks ask me how I write such awesome dialogue, I say “Well duh – I watch awesome TV”. And movies. Though we call them films over here. The downside is that once your ear is tuned in, cheesy dialogue becomes like a fingernail down a blackboard. But such is the lot of the serious writer.

  • Thank you very much for this. I took notes.

    I keep seeing some of the same advice on the internet about how to improve my writing, I just never act on it. It sounds… different. Not what I’m used to. Hard or just plain silly. But in the deep recesses of my mind, I know that it all makes sense. My goal today – besides all of my other normal goals – is to write a poem. I’m terrible at poems. I’m also going to read the chapter I’m editing aloud, just to see what happens. Thank you again.

  • Man. This was pretty phenomenal. And funny! in a “Hm, that’s really funny” sort of way not a lol sort of way. I likes it.

    #8: was that an exhaustive list?
    #10: why would anyone drink cough syrup if they weren’t sick?
    #21: I think I shall create an interpretive dance of this blog post.
    #22: really love this advice. Whenever I finish a book and think, “I want to write like that.” then my next writing time is crapped because I’m only thinking of writing like Chuck Wendig or Louisa May Alcott (authors with very similar writing styles, har har) instead of writing MY story.

  • So what do we do when we know someone who violates ALL these suggestions – doesn’t read, keeps no schedule, abhors criticism, never does rewrites or second drafts, etc. etc. – and writes a crappy, crappy book that someone paid for (not much, but that’s not the point) that will be on the shelves this fall?

    “Rule 26 – The world isn’t fair or even particularly nice. Fuckin’ learn to deal with it, penmonkeys! Don’t judge yourself by someone else. Just keep writing the best you can.” I don’t know, feel kinda hollow.

  • Thank you for this brilliant list. I adore how upfront and real you are (even if I don’t share your, eh-hem, vocabulary preferences), and I admire how well you write. Your work is very entertaining and attention-grabbing.

    If I may ask, how long have you been writing? I’d really like to know how long I need to wait until I can see such incredible skill in my own work…if I ever will. Thanks so much for the tips, I’ll be sure and add them into my writing after this.

    Have a great day and happy writing!

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