Photo by Green Chameleon
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut.”
Everybody writes--whether for school, in a personal journal, online, or for creative personal/side projects like memoirs, short stories, or novels. So, what are the absolute most important practices for writers? I polled writers of all skill levels and backgrounds to get the scoop.
Feedback, Practice, and Reading
Over 200 people wrote to tell me about their writing journeys. I was surprised to find that both professional and amateur writers had the same 3 points to make in regards to what is important in honing writing skills and keeping them sharp. In no particular order, the 3 most important writing practices are: feedback, practice, and reading.
Feedback is crucial at the beginning of a writer’s journey with respect to honing skills such as grammar, word choice, and style/phrasing. It is also important in learning how to be focused and clear.
Stacy Caprio, of Her.ceo, explained, “Pre-college and starting out in college, I would always write using passive tense, adding as many words as possible to make my writing longer--making it easier to meet length requirements. In college, I learned from my professor that I was simply adding unnecessary words, and my writing wasn't as clear as it could be. After that feedback, I saw my writing improve dramatically, and my grades started going up from high B's to A's in writing classes the rest of college.”
Author B. A. Mealer wrote that, “[In school] we got our compositions back all marked in red with grades that let us know if the sentence structure was all wrong, where the composition didn't make any sense, where we needed to add support for our premise, etc. From failure, we learned to write well.”
Yocheved Golani, a mental health columnist, told me, “I pored over school-required essays and usually paid attention when a teacher explained my errors and my improvements after announcing my grade for a written assignment. Sometimes I saved the remarks written atop my papers so that I could use the lessons on another class assignment. Red ink motivated me to improve so that I wouldn't see it on my work anymore.”
Seasoned writers later use feedback to drive their content strategies and develop writing styles for particular audiences.
For instance, Bruce Harpham wrote, “My first business report looked very much like a university essay. I received some feedback that an academic style was not suitable to a business audience. That led me to significantly revise the report.”
Dwight Norris, founder of Fishing at Work, told me this: “By writing blog posts on a consistent basis and publishing on YouTube, I was able to receive feedback from my audience and discover what they truly needed to know when it came to fishing.”
Practice is another element of honing writing skills cited by nearly everyone who wrote in. Here are what some accomplished writers had to say about the importance of the practice of practice:
Multimedia Storyteller Kimberly Ihekwoaba explains, “The best way to become an effective writer is to write. Make it a daily practice to write. It can range from writing a few journal entries to writing stories, essays and scripts. You want to start small and build your way up.”
One of my favorite responses came from Content Writer Snezhina Piskova, who said, “To be an effective writer, you need to have a certain level of self-discipline. Writing is a skill that you can train, so if you want to be better at it, you have to make sure to practice it regularly. Some days it might feel like the flow just doesn’t come to you, but don’t let that discourage you. Not all days can be great.”
Perfectionists--take note! Oh, wait, I’m talking directly to myself here…
Yet another great quote on practicing without caring about perfection came from Yocheved Golani, who instructed, “Have fun learning to write well. Laugh at your mistakes and make peace with your humanity. Practice makes perfect. Nobody gets things right the first time. That's why the phrase "rough drafts" exists.”
Lastly in our examination of the practice of practice, here is a quote from author A. M. Scott, which I found to be the most practical: “Practice really does make perfect. If you want to write, especially as a published author, write! Write a lot. Write whenever you can. Some people write on their phones during their commute, others during coffee breaks. Early on, I found the writing games on Twitter invaluable. Writing to a prompt with a word limit makes you a much better writer. Check out @thewriteprompt for all the hashtag games. There are also a lot of writing chats on Twitter--my favorite is #JustAddTea. I also found critique partners on Twitter. Some were great, some not so great, but I learned a lot from both. That's the key--practice and staying open to learning. Accept the harsh critiques and learn from them. Then, when you become a success, pass that knowledge on. Teaching is a great way to learn!”
Reading is another universal way that writers learn. This is a passive way of increasing skill level that pulls double-duty as a way of sourcing new knowledge and mentally logging different ways of presenting dialogue, information, character descriptions, style, language usage, and more.
Blogger Jon Matlock ranked reading first in his description of necessary practices for writers, saying, “The biggest thing that helped my writing was simply being an avid reader. The more you read, the more you catch on to various styles. You learn what works and what doesn't, what sounds engaging and what sounds bland, and so forth.”
Willie Greer, founder of The Product Analyst, wrote, “...believe me when I tell you [reading] is the most effective way to increase your vocabulary and know lots of writing styles and angles which might be useful to you in the future. The best writers are those avid readers. It's simply because reading a lot conditions your writing mind and boosts your creativity and confidence to write your own piece, whatever the genre.”
Lastly, Daniel Caughill of The Dog Tale explained, “...read voraciously and broadly. Read outside your genre to see what other types of writers do well. If more text books read like novels, and more novels were produced on the foundation of thorough research, we’d probably all be a little smarter.”
Looking for a curated list of good reads, specifically for writing? Check out our list of the The Best Books for Learning How to Write.
There we have it--feedback, practice, and reading were named by our sources as the top writing practices. If you’re a writer, what do you think? How would you order feedback, practice, and reading in terms of which is most important? Are your top 3 writing practices the same as ours? We would love to hear from you!