Let’s get the bad news over with first: no matter how much you write, it will probably never become the kind of mindlessly automatic task for which you’re fully free to zone out.
In other words, writing steadily for an afternoon will never be as meditative as a long drive down an empty highway. You have to keep filling the progress bar yourself. Seated at the keyboard, every moment a writer spends mentally compiling a grocery list or critiquing the coffee shop’s playlist is a moment that zero writing is done. It’s difficult.
That said, the upsides are many. If you’re the type for whom writing is mandatory—you don’t feel normal if you’re not stringing words together in your mind—then this list is for you. Here, we appreciate not just the handy tips that guide us to write better, but the accompanying lessons that have enhanced our very lives.
1 Know how to open and expand your case
Thoughtful prioritization is essential not just to writing well, but to many aspects of effective communication. A good storyteller’s entry point is deliberate. From there, you have to recognize the difference between a telling nuance and a meaningless detail; pruning your sentences accordingly leads to a tight, muscular draft.
But this proclivity to discard extraneous asides has applications beyond the realm of word economy, or writing altogether: knowing how to decide your point and establish it forcefully can help in all manner of real-life interactions.
Whether you’re trying to win over a hiring committee or vying for the attention of a harried doctor, being able to succinctly and understandably summarize complex matters is an invaluable skill.
2 You can’t win ’em all, but you can up your odds
There’s no on switch for creativity. Some days, it may take just a few short hours for a thousand pristine words to come pouring out of your fingertips like they’ve been waiting for someone to open the spigot. But other days, dragging even a few hundred words out of your mind and onto the page can be a bruising struggle.
Seasoned writers sometimes look at this the way a veteran poker player thinks about luck. You’d be a fool to presume you can control such variance, but with diligence, you can situate yourself to reap the maximum benefit while surviving the attendant rough patches. As a writer, if you find peace with this, the other vicissitudes of life will be that much less tilting.
3 Hone not just presence of mind, but also endurance
There are a million jobs where the first thing you do after showing up is put your brain in a drawer and forget everything until it’s time to clock out. For better and for worse, writing isn’t one of them.
Writers in dynamic environments like agile startups and fast-paced newsrooms have to quickly grow their capacity to stay engaged—you’re constantly processing new information, communicating your appraisal of it, refining your decisions and explaining why. Practicing doing all this with grace and spirit is by turns taxing and rewarding. Some even say it’s a bit like a game.
4 Plumb new and multifarious opportunities to learn
As writers, some of the lessons we glean are subtle: we notice some prose that overworks a distracting adjective like zestful, and like a young Stephen King, vow to never touch such a silly word again. The world is full of instructive examples of how not to write, if we look carefully.
Other times, the key takeaways beat you over the head, like an editor who insists you recast every sentence you hand in that contains the passive voice, or the one who long ago decided the only good adverb is a deleted adverb.
Taking edits, particularly from brusque managers on deadline, can sting the ego in a way that makes helpful writerly pointers hard to internalize.
Developing the fortitude to respond to feedback with buoyancy—to keep asking questions and suggesting fixes rather than retreat inward like a wounded animal into a cave—is a life lesson unto itself. The ability to handle it will continue to serve you two jobs later, when another editor remarks “Sorry to make your life’s work out of these revisions,” and you can truthfully reply, “I’ve had worse.”
5 Empathize with your audience—and everyone else
“Pity the poor reader,” a wise editor once said. As a writer, you’re constantly putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. That’s not just the case for fiction authors imagining gritty lives as pioneers and space pirates, either.
Good writers frequently ask themselves, “What’s my audience going to think as they read this? Is this part too long? Could this section be clearer?” Reapproaching one’s draft with fresh eyes means constantly considering a stranger’s perspective.
This is a worthy exercise not just for the sake of clear writing but also patience with the world around us. People who can seem strange and frustrating to deal with are more easily understood and forgiven when we’re practiced at considering their point of view.
6 Take care of yourself as only a writer can
Because writing is an exhausting discipline, those who keep at it learn ways to look after themselves. For Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, a big factor is going to bed early. Murakami is also an advocate for running, as is Joyce Carol Oates. Heavy metal music is integral to the creative process, at least for King.
Plus, if you routinely write in a distracting environment like an office with an open floor plan, you’ve probably had to devise a few strategies for surmounting the ambient vexations and quieting the mind enough to, you know, get some work done.
The writerly muscle known as the brain is prone to spasms; any knowledge worker versed in basic care for such situations is bound to be happier for it.
7 Know when you’re done
You start by pondering. Then, if things go well, you plan, write, edit, revise, and polish. Somewhere along the way, if you’re not mindful, you end up fiddling, reordering things in ways you’re not sure matter, tweaking tenses, debating the inclusion of a stray but endearing adjective, and generally failing the final, vital step of mashing Send.
At least, that’s how it goes until you’ve been through it a few times.
Getting writing done resembles packing for a camping trip. You want to be thoroughly prepared, but not overloaded—to trim unneeded bulk, but not at the expense of something you might need. (Wait, what am I forgetting?) At some point, you have to stop agonizing over your inventory and just go.
The result, once you get there, might even be worth writing about.