I could tell you that you shouldn’t take writing advice from me. Or I could say that I am barely a writer myself, having published only two short stories. My pup’s biography and the #NaNoWriMo novel I am attempting on my blog do not count. I feel hugely ill equipped and embarrassed offering advice on how to write better when I have to look up whether to use ‘advice’ or ‘advise’ in this sentence. And that’s my first tip for writing better—show, don’t tell.
Exercise your skill
Ever since I was a child, I have been told that my talent lies in writing. Naturally, I grew up thinking that it was a gene-encoded skill. Until 2017, I never thought it necessary to practice writing. I was of the opinion that I would sit down at a desk when I was ready and a bestseller would pour out of me with urgency like a dam in breach. Then I took a year off work to write 10 short stories—putting my theory to the test. On day one, I sat down and nothing materialised. But since I had nothing better to do, I sat down every day writing whatever came to mind. Writing consistently, I found that I was able to articulate thoughts with unprecedented clarity. What I mean by this is the ability to turn a muddle of thoughts in my head into words on paper that capture the thought precisely.
If you ask me today, I would say that writing may be a skill but it is definitely a muscle. It gets better only with practice. And I lost that clarity I had gained through constant use when I went back to work and writing took a back seat once again.
Write free, write better
For the longest time, I used to diss free writing as a waste of time. Free writing is penning your thoughts down without stopping to correct, judge or refine them. It’s putting into words, your stream of consciousness, if you like. It could be in any language with mixed up tenses, wrong spellings and incomplete sentences jumping across thoughts. The purpose is to write freely.
Socioculturally, we are so conditioned to censoring our thoughts that free writing is not as easy as it sounds. Let’s say I am free writing about ‘women’. It could bring up deep set ideas of patriarchy and inferiority from within both of which are uncomfortable to admit to my feminist self. But with practice, this technique can bring out some of your truest writing too.
Editing while you write
Writing and editing are like those two roads that diverge in the woods. They never meet. And you can’t walk them both at the same time. Writing is best done in the moment. Don’t look back when you’re writing. When you are writing, just write. You can always edit it later. As I see it, there are two problems with editing while writing. One is that you slow down your writing process. Anyone who has written knows that it can be a frustrating process without you adding to it. Secondly, what you are writing today is not set in stone. A chapter could get deleted for continuity, a paragraph could get chopped for brevity, a portion could be realigned for better narrative arc. And just like that all the work you put in to make it just perfect goes to waste.
Note the point
The act of writing might be in the moment but the process of writing happens round the clock. When you read a book or wash dishes or go over a presentation or wind down for the night, you are constantly thinking of what you write. Consciously or otherwise, you are constantly honing your idea. Make it a habit to use an app or a physical notebook to jot down ideas before they vanish into the recesses of your brain. You could add structure to it as daily reflections if you like or you could just make random notes on an app as simple as Google Keep. Only thing to remember here is to make sure you know how to recall these cues a month or a year later. Otherwise, it could have been the best idea in the world but you won’t know what a note on ‘purple flying dogs’ refers to.
Thank you for reading this because my last tip is to read more. The more you read, the more nuanced your world view becomes and the better you will write.
Written by: Anjana Balakrishnan is an online communication and community specialist. Over the past 11 years she has led projects in content management and community engagement. She is also a published author, a dramaturg, and a grantee at Gender Bender 2019. She’s currently writing her first novel, Every Thing We Are, as a series on her blog fictionhead.in.
Ranjani’s note: Anjana is my best friend in the whole wide world. She is the person who reads all the work that I’m nervous about. (I read a lot of her work too, by the way.) She writes such intricate and imaginative fiction on her blog, please go read, subscribe and support her.