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 That privilege has been revoked.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.
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?
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Want more of the booze-soaked, profanity-laden shotgun blast of dubious writing advice?