The 2 Best Ways to Improve Your Writing Skills (with a little backup from Anne Lamott)

I’m going to offer some advice today that seems simplistic, so basic as to be ridiculous. Yet recently, I’ve experienced people who have neglected these 2 important strategies that are pretty much guaranteed to improve their writing abilities. So here I am repeating them.

Almost every book about writing offers the following advice. (The wording might vary according to the delicacy of the audience, but the meaning is the same.)

relaxing in a chair

Okay, so you might need more than a chair. This guy isn’t going to get much writing done if he doesn’t pick up a pen!

1) PUT YOUR TUSH IN THE CHAIR.

By this, of course, we learn that if you tell us you want to write, well that’s a nice sentiment. But we know that you mean it if you sit at a desk, pick up a pen (or keyboard) and actually practice writing. Certainly weekly, and preferably daily, you need to write. A human being is only a writer if s/he is a person who writes. 

The writing doesn’t need to be good. It doesn’t need to reach a final draft in a timely fashion. You don’t have to sell one piece of it. But you do need to write regularly in order to grow in the medium.

2) Join a writing group.

Some writing groups meet every two weeks. Mine meets about once a month. But meeting with other practitioners of the craft on a regular basis has helped me not only improve the pieces I share with them, but in my writing as a whole.

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what Anne Lamott thinks they offer (I’m summarizing from Bird by Bird):

  • a learning opportunity
  • feedback
  • a chance to give/get empathy (because you’re not the only person who gets rejection letters)
  • the pleasure of the written word
  • & and what she calls “benevolent pressure.” Not nagging, but firm encouragement.

The ladies of my writing group have helped me improve pieces ’til they were salable, pushed me to submit to new markets, and helped me grow in more ways than I can count. When I don’t feel like writing, the need to share at our next meeting has forced me to do it. It’s been such a blessing.

While writing classes and workshops can be very, very helpful, they have a couple drawbacks: 1) They cost money, and 2) you have no control over who is in the class.

When you attend a writing class, there are frequently mean people in them. Mean, competitive, envious people. Of course, if you listen to someone’s work, you need to respond. But there are ways to respond, and ways. I love this quote from Anne Lamott: “You don’t always have to chop [someone to bits] with the sword of truth. You can point with it, also.” If you make your own writing group, you can select gentle-hearted people who will be honest without being nasty.

Some people have told me that they’ve tried to assemble a writing group and failed. Let’s see if one of these strategies can help:

  • Go to a writing class/workshop/event and find like-minded people.
  • Hang out with your local librarian or bookstore manager.
  • Have writing friends in another city? Maybe you can Skype!
  • Use online writing forums to locate other writers whom you feel comfortable with. If worse comes to worse, you can always do a round robin email thing, or make a private blog. Everyone could post something once a month, then the others would post comments at the end.

I’ve been in the same writing group now for over two and a half years. We kicked off with a workshop by Sarah Shapiro (who was visiting at the time), and have continued independent of her ever since. Sarah’s visiting again this week, and I’m looking forward to another chance to learn with her. But even more so, I’m looking forward to enjoying it with the ladies from my writing group.

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