How to be a better writer

I don’t claim to be a good writer, although I plan to be one day, but I’m sure I’m a better writer than I used to be. Looking back at old work is both deflating (did I really write this badly?) and uplifiting (look how far I’ve come) at the same time. So, while I’m not going to tell anyone how to be a good writer, here’s the things I think have me a better one:

1. Write

Writers write. Writing makes you a writer. Writing makes you a better writer. Practice is the only way to get better at anything. Some say you need to do at least ten thousand hours to master a skill. But whatever the number you won’t improve without putting the hours in.

The way to get those hours is to write regularly. Every day if you can. Even one hour a day will add up over time. During the week I spend an hour a day stuck on a train. That gives me a clear hour to write in. Find the dead time in your day and see if you can make it writing time.

2. Get feedback

If you want to get better you also have to know how you’ve done. This isn’t simple with a piece of writing. Everyone will have a different opinion. And if you are writing for performance it’s not always clear if some good writing has been ruined by a terrible performance or if some poor writing has been made to shine by a brilliant actor.

You have to trust your own instincts but if you can find people whose opinion you respect and who understand writing (whether they are writers, performers, producers or um, people) their feedback is invaluable. They can help you find holes that need fixing, see when lines need to be clearer or spark ideas for new angles on your work.

3. Rewrite

First drafts suck. Maybe some people are so brilliant their first drafts are great. But even those people could almost certainly make their stuff better with a second or third pass. And for the rest of us, first drafts suck.

But that’s OK. Because you’re allowed to rewrite it until it doesn’t suck. Until it has chance of being good or even great. Don’t give up on an idea you like until you’ve given at least two chances. Rewrite it till it works.

4. Read/watch other people’s work.

Be inspired by the brilliant stuff to do something just as good. Be inspired by the terrible stuff to do something much better.

All of it will teach you something, but sometimes I find it’s the less good stuff, the ones where you can see the metaphorical hand working the puppet, that teach you more about writing that the good stuff that blows you away. You can see the workings and that makes the techniques more obvious than the excellent writers who are able to hide their tricks away. And it can show you plenty of things to avoid in your own writing.

5. Get together with other writers

For moral support if nothing else. You can also pick up tips on technique and find out about opportunities.

And if you want to get anywhere in this business you have to network. (Don’t look at me like that, I know I’m terrible at it. It’s a dreadful irony that comedy writing which attracts the socially inept like myself also requires a great deal of social skills in order to make any progress at it. Yet another reason for the bitterness of so many comedy writers.)

Not that meeting other writers will get you work directly – you need get on to more important people like producers for that. But it gets you out there and it’s much easier to talk to a producer or agent if you have mutual friend they are already working with.

6. Relax

Getting wound up about trying to make my work perfect or worrying that a piece will get rejected doesn’t make me write better. It makes me not write at all.

I’m learning not to worry. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter. At least you found out what doesn’t work. Go write another draft that does work. And if that doesn’t work, etc…

Not everything you do has to be brilliant. You only need to write some good stuff, be able to recognise when it’s good and learn how to make it better. Even Shakespeare had his off days. And he rewrote whole chunks of his plays. And if it’s good enough for Will, it’s good enough for me.

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2 Comments on "How to be a better writer"

  1. Vivienne Riddoch
    31/08/2013 at 8:34 pm Permalink

    Hi, David

    With the next series of Newsjack just announced, this is very timely advice! Thanks for your encouragement; I’m hoping this will be the series when I can get beyond my ‘recorded-but-not-broadcast’ status. Hope you have a good series, too.



  2. david
    07/09/2013 at 7:55 pm Permalink

    Thanks Vivienne.

    The hard part isn’t knowing all this stuff. It’s doing it. All the best for the next series of Newsjack.

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