Understanding how to become a better writer

Have you ever wanted to become a writer or improve your writing? As I was reading Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, she discusses how writing is a skill you can develop and that anyone can become a better writer. She talks about common pitfalls and how to overcome them, along with many practical tips on how to continue practicing writing.

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Main impacts

These are the key points that stood out to me:

  1. Writing is a skill you can develop.
  2. Don’t be afraid of failure, just keep practicing.
  3. Edit by re-envisioning.

Keep reading to find out more about each one.

Writing is a skill you can develop

I think the biggest message in this book was that writing is a skill. It requires time and practice to improve. Sure, some people are talented and writing well comes naturally to them, but anyone can improve their writing through practice. You don’t need amazing natural talent to write well.

Don’t worry about your talent or capability: that will grow as you practice.

Natalie Goldberg

I love when writing books have the message of writing as a skill, as it dispels the myth or idea that writing is pretentious or only done by “elite intellectuals.” Most of the greats got to their level of greatness by the effort they put in, not just having talent.

It’s pretty nice to be talented. If you are, enjoy, but it won’t take you that far. Work takes you a lot further.

Natalie Goldberg

Reframing writing as a skill that can be learned and developed opens the door to everyone. It also changes the expectation from receiving divine inspiration into putting in the time and effort to improve your writing. Just like any other skill, you can learn the basics from others, but the real growth comes from practicing.

Tips to improve

Natalie has worked with so many writers in her time that she understands the common struggles writers face. Throughout the book she discusses ways to practice your writing, through different prompts or ways to spark inspiration, along with different practices or tips you can use when writing.

She discusses common pitfalls, such as getting stuck or writing simply to put words on the paper without expressing something. She says that sometimes you need to take a break or you need to switch things up to find what works for you, but don’t expect it to be easy. Sometimes you have to write a lot of subpar things to get to the good stuff.

Don’t be afraid of failure, just keep practicing

In line with the first point is that you need to keep practicing (it is a skill, remember). But a key part of that practice is that you can’t be afraid of failing. If you play it safe or hide parts of yourself, you limit what you can achieve.

You will succeed if you are fearless of failure.

Natalie Goldberg

Natalie herself puts a goal to fill one notebook of writing every month. She doesn’t aim for good writing, no high expectations of quality, but simply to continuously practice her writing. I love this idea. It seems like such a great way to get ideas flowing and to ensure you’re always showing up to write. You never know when you’re going to write something great.

We learn writing by doing it. That simple.

Natalie Goldberg

It’s not always easy to get started writing, so you need to figure out what works for you. Some people need to have some words on the paper so it doesn’t look so blank. One of her friends would spend a few minutes writing about how bad of a writer she is, to ease the pressure on herself and get her ready to write. Natalie uses different tricks, such as setting a time limit on when she needs to stop or start writing, using cookies as positive reinforcement, or scheduling time with a writing friend to have that social accountability.

Writing can feel so overwhelming at times, but the key to steadily improving and making progress is to be fearless of failure and starting small. You shouldn’t immediately set out to write “the next great American novel”, those stakes are too high. You’re putting too much pressure on yourself. The pressure can be paralyzing and then there’s no room for failure. Start small, write poems or short stories or essays. Give yourself room to fail, so that you’re okay to keep writing even when it’s not great. Sometimes you have to get the bad writing out of your system to get to the good stuff.

If every time you sat down, you expected something great, writing would always be a great disappointment.

Natalie Goldberg

Whatever you need to do, make sure you keep practicing. But she does warn of the “goody two-shoes nature” where you dutiful show up just to put in the time. Such as someone who writes an hour everyday but doesn’t improve, because they are only being dutiful and following the rules without putting in any heart. You need to be writing to express something, and be constantly practicing. The practicing method may vary and change, that’s okay, just keep showing up with your whole heart.

Edit by re-envisioning

Natalie suggests, instead of reworking and rewriting something you’ve already written, just sit down and do a similar writing prompt a few more times. Then you can take the best parts of each and put it together. She calls it “envisioning again.” I thought this trick was genius!

See revision as “envisioning again.” If there are areas in your work where there is a blur or vagueness, you can simply see the picture again and add the details that will bring your work closer to your mind’s picture. You can sit down and time yourself and add to the original work that second, third, or fourth time you wrote on something. For instance, you are writing about pastrami. Your first timed writing is good, but you know you have a lot more to say about the subject. Over a day, two days, a week’s time, do several more timed writings on pastrami. Don’t worry that you might repeat yourself. Reread them all and take the good parts of each one and combine them. It is like a cut-and-paste job, where you cut out the strong writings of each timed writing and paste them together.

Natalie Goldberg

We all know that you rarely get a complete draft in the first go, so you need to do some editing. Editing can be incredibly valuable but you run the risk of re-working parts and making them worse. Instead of the typical editing process, you can re-envision that section, chapter, or idea. I love this idea! This way you get fresh material with those first thoughts to add to what you already have. Sure there may be some re-working once you’re putting it all together, but what a great way to work on a piece.

Also, she said that it’s best to take time before reviewing what you’ve written. You don’t want to jump right into assessing your writing. Sometimes it’s best to set it aside for a month or so and then come back with fresh eyes and a different perspective. If you’re writing in journals every month like Natalie, you might stumble upon something fantastic when you go back and review it that you might’ve missed otherwise.

Final thoughts

I found this book to be very practical (lots of writing tips, prompts, and suggestions), inspiring/encouraging, and hopeful (anyone can become a better writer). For anyone who is working to become a better writer or who is interested in writing, I would recommend this book. You can tell that Natalie has years of experience both as a writer and as someone who teaches and guides other writers.

Writing, like any other skill, is not easy. It takes time and lots of effort to improve. But, like any other skill, there is always room for improvement and anyone can improve their skill level. Natural talent may help, but it isn’t everything. I love the sense of encouragement and hope that this book provides, if you want to become a better writer, you can.

Personally, I really enjoyed this book. I don’t really think of myself as a writer, but I guess now as a blogger, I kind of am one. I’ve always kept some kind of journal growing up, and love expressing my thoughts through writing. Reading books about writing makes me want to do more writing and more creative ways of expressing myself, if anything it might make these blogs more enjoyable to read.

Have you read this book or anything else by Natalie Goldberg? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below


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