How Do You Keep Your Writing Skills Sharp?

When Rachel and I interview people for the Business of Writing podcast, we have the main conversation, and then have a set of ‘rapid fire’ questions to hear the guest be a bit more spontaneous.

We used to ask how the guest keeps their writing skills sharp…

But the answer was always the same:

I write. And I read.

It might not sound like particularly insightful advice, but really, this is the key to becoming an excellent writer.

There’s not much else to it.

Yes, there’s a lot of benefit in going to events and meeting other writers, joining training and accountability programs, listening to podcasts and reading books about it…

But all that is for nothing if you don’t actually sit down and do the damn thing.

It’s about practicing, a lot, and honing your work by deconstructing how other people do theirs.

It’s about producing a volume of work that’s significant enough that you can chart your progress as a writer — looking back at work you did a year ago should make you cringe a bit, because you can see now what you didn’t know then.

Occasionally someone will tell me that the problem is that they don’t know what to write about, and I get that.

Finding ideas that seem important enough to write about can feel futile… after all, what’s important enough?

I used to get stuck on this a LOT… but I realised eventually that not every piece of writing has to be important.

The thing that’s important is to hone your skills, so that when that big, important idea does come along, you have the ability to write about it like you want to.

But that still leaves us with the question of what to write about in order to get that practice.

Today I’ve got 3 suggestions for you.

The first is to look around your current physical environment.

Really look — what’s going on around you? Are there trees in bloom out the window? Is there a storm gestating on the horizon? Is your cat plotting a blitzkrieg on your freshly folded laundry?

Pick a detail and write as much as you can about it. Anything that’s novel, that seems out of place, or that holds your attention will work, even if you just write a few paragraphs.

Do this as often as you can, every time you have the impulse to write, and it will build your ability to capture detail and build interesting scenes, which will flow over into everything else you write.

The second is to use events or conversations you’ve recently experienced to get yourself moving.

You’ll notice that many email marketers do this — they’ll share some vignette from their life and use it as the foundation for their message. They start with the story, then create a segue that relates that story to the point they want to make.

This is powerful for two reasons: first, it helps the reader feel like they know you. It helps you seem like a real person, rather than some email-generating entity out there in the ether. Second, it provides a lot of interest and entertainment for the reader, and it provides you with an almost endless supply of material.

Mining your own life is one of the easiest ways to write a lot.

Now, don’t @ me with any of that “my life is boring” stuff.

It’s not. There are stories happening around you all the frickin’ time!

You just have to know what to look for (and star copywriter Laura Belgray has compiled all that for you here).

Again, just pick something and write a few paragraphs about it. It doesn’t have to be the best thing you ever wrote; just try to make it better than the last thing you wrote.

The third is to write about what you know.

What are you really, really good at? What are you better at than 99% of other people? What’s the topic that you can answer questions about all day, and could help other people understand?

I don’t care if that’s crushing high scores on 90’s video games, raising miniature goats or trolling world leaders on Twitter — everyone has something they’re good at.

If you’re lucky, that thing also happens to be your work.

And if you want to write about your work, then every day should produce some idea that you could write about for a few paragraphs.

Do you run an Amazon storefront? Write about what’s happening with your ad accounts and what that means for you.

Do you offer design services? Write about design thinking, and the little-known quirks that can make or break a design.

Are you a financial advisor? Write about what the market is doing, and what you’re doing with your own finances to maximise your position.

You don’t have to be a professional writer to write professionally.

All you have to do is write, and try to make it a little bit better than the last thing you wrote.