One of my main goals throughout all of 2014 is to improve my writing. I started back in 2011 as an outlet to share some fitness ideas and knowledge that I was attaining through my own research and working with clients. Eventually, it spawned into something bigger, allowing me to freelance quite a bit in 2012-2013. Despite writing a few hundred words on most days for other publications during those years, the amount that I write has tailed off quite a bit recently. As a result, I feel rusty.
I recently stumbled across my notes from Talent is Overrated, wherein Geoffrey Colvin covers five key elements that define deliberate practice. I started thinking about how I could apply those elements to my writing habit to improve on a daily basis. Here are my thoughts so far and how I’m planning on integrating the key elements into my writing routine:
Designed Specifically to Improve Performance
This was perhaps the hardest element to address within my writing habit. One of the main reasons I enjoy writing and blogging is that I find it fun and enjoyable. As a result, much of my writing is off the cuff, particularly on this blog. That’s not really going to change as I view this blog as a personal outlet, not a professional piece of work that I want to scrutinize over. However, I am taking a new approach to my freelance writing.
Previously, much of my freelance pieces started off the cuff as well. I would have a topic in mind and a rough idea of how I wanted to structure the piece. Then, I’d sit down and start writing. Initially, the piece would be terrible. But, over time, it would shape into something that was suitable for public consumption. However, recently, I’ve begun to put a lot more effort into the planning stages. Stealing some of Austin Kleon’s advice for creative professionals, I’ve begun to start each piece in a notebook. I take 30-40 minutes to write down every piece of information I want to convey in the article. I draw, annotate, scratch out, and scribble my thoughts as fast as possible. I make a point during this phase not to touch my computer. I don’t want to take any time to look anything up online. This serves mainly as a brain dump to get everything on paper. Then, I take that paper and rearrange the topics into a semi-coherent format. That’s allowed me to jump into writing with a better idea of what I want to say.
Another way I’m attempting to improve is by reading the work of others. This is a pretty obvious technique – read the work of writers you enjoy to hopefully adopt some pearls of genius from their words. Lately, I’ve been taking it a step further, stealing an approach from Ben Franklin. In order to improve his writing, Franklin famously would rewrite essays from writers he enjoyed. Then, he would cut out the sentences and scramble them up. After a little while, he would attempt to rearrange the slips of paper back into the “correct” order. In doing this, he hoped to learn how to structure sentences and thoughts in the best way possible.
I’m not going that far, but I have made it a point to slow down when I’m reading and take a deeper look at the intricacies of a post/article (sentence structure, organization, etc) rather than just getting a sense of the general idea.
It can be repeated a lot
I’m a firm believer in the idea that writing and creative adventures are like a muscle; they respond and improve after being worked. As a result, I’ve been making a point to use them as much as possible. This includes writing on a daily basis (goal is 500 words) and flexing my idea muscles as much as possible.
Lately, I’ve been carrying around a small pocket journal and making myself write down as many ideas as I can come up with on a daily basis. This includes pitches for freelance articles, blog posts, and the occasional business idea. To quote James Altucher:
Every day I wake up and write down ten ideas. I’m a firm believe the only way to have good ideas is to every day exercise the idea muscle.
Feedback on results is continuously available
Feedback for blog posts is available in the form of shares, views, and comments. However, I don’t think those elements really reflect accurate and thoughtful feedback. As a result, I’m starting to ask specific individuals that I look up to writing-wise for specific feedback on a piece. Rather than just passing off the article and asking for overall thoughts, I accompany the piece with specific directions. “Do you think I communicated XYZ clearly enough?” “Does the ordering make sense or could it be improved?” This type of direct feedback on specific elements helps to get another opinion on my writing.
It’s highly demanding mentally AND it isn’t much fun
I wrapped these two elements into one as I think they are similar in practice. The truth is writing can really suck at certain times. While I do enjoy it, some days at the computer are an absolute drag. It seems like I’ll never be able to put together a coherent sentence that anyone else would want to read. This type of day exists in any profession or hobby. I remember when I was racing competitively, there would be days where I would go out on a run and feel absolutely terrible. My legs would feel like jello, and I would feel like I had absolutely no energy in my body. Those days were the worst. I have days exactly like that in front of the computer screen.
There isn’t a magical solution or strategy that will make writing fun and productive at any and all points. The key is to push through the terrible days so that you can enjoy the good days. So, I don’t have a strategy here other than just writing on a daily basis.