So this could be a long list of tips that I’ve gleaned from years of studying the masters. I could analyze the tests of the greats and give you suggestions for how to be more like them. I could pull out all the writing textbooks in my house and produce a copious assortment of directives and advice. But I’m not going to do that, not because those things might not be helpful but because becoming a better writer is, fundamentally, about two things. Writing and reading.
In order to get better at anything, you have to practice it. Hence, writers need to write. That’s true for creative writers, for technical writers, for academic writers, and for those of us who should work to bring letter writing (on paper, not through binary code) back to the mainstream. To write better, we need to practice.
But to be honest, I think there’s something even more important than writing involved in making us better writers – we have to read. We have to read a lot. Nothing – and I do mean nothing – helps us write more effectively than reading.
Reading teaches us grammar and vocabulary in context. Reading gives us ideas about plot and character. Reading pushes the walls of our minds open. These are all things we need as writers. We can learn these things through classes (and yes, I must say this since teaching is a big part of my income :)), but we learn them better by reading.
When people ask me how I learned to write, I often try to think of my great teachers – and I had lots of them – that introduced me to the techniques of writing that helped me be better at my craft, and yet, even when I think of these people, I know that what taught me to write more than anything else, including these great teachers, was reading. I know how to write a sentence because I have read millions of them. I know how to craft an interesting arc of action because I have read thousands of great plots. I know multiple synonyms for words because I have read billions of words.
The best way to become a better writer is to read. That’s it. Pretty simple. So go read a book. If you have kids, read to them and make them read. Buy people books. Buy yourself books. Put an audio book on in the car. Pick up a magazine for the train ride. Turn off the TV and spend a few minutes with a chapter or article.
Do these things even if you’re not a writer because the things that make good writers make good people. And if you want to write better papers, craft more effective reports, write the great novel of the 21st century, well, then, you know what to read.