Wanna be a better writer? Don’t write.
Originally published on October 27, 2016
I’ve been in writing/editing roles for my entire career, and I’ve been a professional copywriter since 2011.
As any experienced copywriter knows, the actual writing* represents only a small portion of our day. In fact, writing might very well be the thing I do least in my job.
The rest of my day is spent unpacking creative briefs, brainstorming with stakeholders, interviewing subject matter experts, reading up on best practices, researching new topics, and the countless administrative tasks that must be done before we get to stare at a blank sheet of paper.
Although I don’t spend all day writing, I’m constantly looking for ways to improve my craft. Google “how to be a better writer” and you’ll find thousands of blogs, articles, training courses, and pricey university degrees all promising to tell you the secret.
So let me save you a lot of time and money. The most frequent advice you’re going to hear is this: To be a better writer, you have to write.
Write a lot. Like, every day. A hundred words. A thousand. A novice copywriter might assume that the only way to improve is to produce millions of words over the next few years.
Now, getting into a disciplined daily practice is absolutely a smart way to improve. But I’d like to propose another path. One to complement, not contradict, the masses:
To be a better writer, don’t write.
Throughout my writing career I’ve had profound experiences in non-writing fields that have improved my craft immensely — and none of them required knowing the definition of absquatulate**.
Here are a few suggestions, based on personal experience, of unconventional ways to improve your writing:
#1: Take acting classes.
I confess: I was a theater geek. Long before I stumbled into professional writing, I had dreams of being an actor. What I learned through hundreds of hours of rehearsals and performances was how to experience the world through another person’s perspective.
Acting forces you to consider how people think, what they feel, how they speak, what motivates them, what keeps them up at night.
For a copywriter especially, this ability is way more valuable than a large vocabulary or a Literature degree. Learning to empathize with other people makes you a powerful marketer — and it makes your writing more electric, more unexpected, more honest.
Reading the dialogue of master playwrights can be an extremely helpful practice for improving your own writing. There’s also an element of risk in acting, especially improv. The more comfortable you are with risks — whether it’s testing an out-of-left-field subject line, defending your idea in front of a client, or simply letting more of your own personality sink into your work — the better writer you’ll become.
#2: Run a marathon.
Running is hard. Running a marathon is difficult, squared. You’re battling physical weakness as well as mental weakness and you’ve got to stay committed through months of early morning runs, constantly monitor what you’re eating, decline social invitations from friends and family, and just generally be a miserable, tired, unavailable wet blanket for an entire season.
But at the end of all of that — when you’ve crossed the finished line, donned the medal, and flooded your bladder with six gallons of Gatorade — you get something pretty special. The feeling of accomplishing something really, really hard that was months in the making.
Not all of us are meant to write novels. However, there are plenty of writing assignments that require grit, commitment, and perseverance. Writing an important grant for a non-profit close to your heart. Compiling months of interviews into a B2B case study that will knock the silk socks off even the most skeptical CFO. Even something as personal as a memoir can occupy years of a person’s life.
Commit to accomplishing something difficult, and your writing practice will level up as well.
#3: Get married and have kids***.
I know, I know. Famous and prolific authors don’t typically win Parent/Spouse of the Year.
There’s a damaging myth in our culture about the solitary artist. The one who shirks all responsibility and commitments, leaving a bodycount of brokenhearted lovers and children in the wake of his/her life’s work.
But not all of us were meant to be Hemingways and Fitzgeralds. Someone of us actually enjoy the company of those who share our last name.
Sharing a life with people who care about you (and your writing, hopefully) has a few advantages. For one, you have access to a core group of editors and proofreaders who are never off the clock. Even the best writers benefit from fresh set of eyes and a gentle dose of constructive criticism.
Secondly, by living through the extremes of a relationship, you have more insight into the human condition. Any teenager can write about a freewheelin’ train hopper who can’t be tied down. But a writer who’s been in the trenches of a relationship — the fights, the celebrations, the tranquil silent evenings, the big milestones and the everyday rhythms — can write characters that are nuanced and three-dimensional.
The time pressures of family life also force you to make a do-or-die decision about your writing: Is writing something you were meant to do, or is it fulfilling hobby that’s just one part of your life? Everyone will have a different answer, but you’ll figure out yours very quickly when the luxury of postponing and procrastinating is no longer an option.
Finally, kids really do say the dardnest things. They are basically miniature drunk people with no inhibition, whose brains haven’t been molded to be concerned with things like “Political Correctness” and “Appropriate Dinner Table Conversation.” Keeping a notebook of crazy sh*t your kid says can give you totally unexpected ways of thinking about the world.
These are just a few of the major examples from my own life. In truth, every experience I’ve ever had has contributed to my writing skills. The important thing to remember is to put down the pen and paper every now and then, and forget about meeting your daily word count or catching up on your favorite writing podcast.
Go outside. Talk to a stranger. Roam the city sidewalks, taking note of the overlapping conversations. Get involved in life — deeply, irrevocably, recklessly involved — and your writing will improve.
The work will always be here for you when you return.
*That is, putting words on paper, then immediately deleting them because you’re positive they’re the worst words ever written. (Yes, all writers go through this.)
**Absquatulate (verb): To leave somewhere abruptly.
***A nuclear family is just one of many valid lifestyle choices we can choose for ourselves. Do what works for you.