New Series: Become a Better Writer + Write Better

In her short story ironically entitled “How to Become a Writer” from her debut Self-Help, Lorrie Moore advises those who wish to become a writer to:

“First, try to be something, anything else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie star/ missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserably. It is best if you fail at an early age – say, 14. Early, critical disillusionment is necessary so that at 15 you can write long haiku sequences about thwarted desire.”

If you’d like to become a writer, “quit classes” and “quit jobs,” she suggests, and:

“…cash in old savings bonds.

Now you have time like warts on your hands. Slowly copy all of your friends’ addresses into a new address book.

Vacuum. Chew cough drops. Keep a folder full of fragments.

An eyelid darkening sideways.

World as conspiracy.

Possible plot? A woman gets on a bus.

Suppose you threw a love affair and nobody came.

At home drink a lot of coffee. At Howard Johnson’s order the cole slaw. Consider how it looks like the soggy confetti of a map: where you’ve been, where you’re going – ”You Are Here,” says the red star on the back of the menu.

Occasionally a date with a face blank as a sheet of paper asks you whether writers often become discouraged. Say that sometimes they do and sometimes they do. Say it’s a lot like having polio.

“A Writer’s Routine” by Grant Snider–painfully and gleefully accurate.

“How to Become a Writer” is humorous, sardonic, and there’s certainly an element of truth in it.

Writing is an arduous process; it can be emotionally and mentally consuming to create–to give birth to your ideas. Once you do, it is often awfully satisfying, but still you may think you could’ve done a better job. So you—

Edit. Delete. Clean the house. Revise. Send the draft to a friend. Nap. Rewrite. Drink coffee. Edit. Drink more coffee. Write a few more sentences and call it a day.

As an academic writer who sometimes writes creatively, I’ve had so many days that looked like this. As I made progress in my career, however, I realized that my writing routine changed and evolved, and sometimes it was messy. It doesn’t matter if I’m writing a short story, a blog post, or a journal article, I’ve learnt to trust the process.

I know some days can be harder and what we often label as “less productive,” but I also remind myself that the article or the story or the book review or the report shall be written. It always has been.

When I was writing my doctoral dissertation last year, I was also working on an academic article for Routledge.

To some academics, juggling a dissertation project, journal articles, engaging in committee work, teaching, along with other responsibilities (like living a life?), can be an easy task.

For me, the pressure for perfection was real and mentally consuming.

But I love writing. (Let me correct that) I love the writing process.

I often spend as much time on planning and preparing as on typing. By experimenting with different strategies and techniques, I finished my dissertation on time, wrote book reviews, started this blog, completed my manuscript, and I was actually able to enjoy the process of engaging in all that work.

This brings me to why I wanted to launch “Become a Better Writer” series on Reading Under the Olive Tree: to start a conversation about writing as a process.

As an instructor of writing and literature and a writing center tutor, I have seen that it’s not only professional writers struggling with the act of writing. I’ve worked with many students from a wide range of backgrounds who wanted to become a better writer but didn’t know how. There’s always been more than one student in my composition classes who wrote about how they’ve always hated and despised writing in their literacy narratives (a topic focus that I support wholeheartedly, by the way; it’s all about exploration). And they’ve almost always have changed their perspective on writing by the end of the course.

So, as part of this new series, every month I’ll be compiling and posting about the techniques and strategies that I incorporate into my teaching and that I myself use as a writer. Of course, we need to acknowledge the fact that better here is an ambiguous adjective; what does it mean to be a better writer?

To me, it means progress. It means being aware of the rhetorical choices you make as you write. It means improvement. And more.

As Lorrie Moore suggests in “How to Become a Writer,” a how-to post or two won’t turn you into a better writer, but it can lead you in the right direction. Reading about writing can motivate you to sit at your desk and start the writing process–as it has for me several times.

After all, “there’s no golden recipe,” as Moore writes elsewhere, “Most things literary are stubborn as colds; they resist all formulas—a chemist’s, a wet nurse’s, a magician’s. There is no formula outside the sick devotion to the work.”

I’m quite excited about “Become a Better Writer Series”; if you have any ideas or suggestions that would make this series more interesting and useful for you, please let me know!

In the meantime, what does it mean for you to be a better writer and to write better? How do you measure improvement?

13 thoughts on “New Series: Become a Better Writer + Write Better

  1. What a great idea for a series. I’m a professional writer and I certainly find the act of writing difficult – quite a lot of the time, in fact! I’ll be interested to read these because it’s always fascinating to see other writers’ processes, and how they navigate those common pitfalls – self-doubt, lack of motivation, etc.

    I’d be very curious to hear of any favorite books ‘on writing’ that you have encountered, especially any that are more off the beaten path. x

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love that you are doing this! (Reading about writing is my favorite type of writing procrastination 😁) And, personally, what really helps me see that I have improved is going back to read some of my old stuff. Things I used to be quite proud of now make cringe like anything, so I guess that means I’ve been making progress!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m definitely excited about this series! I wholeheartedly agree that reading about writing can be incredibly inspiring – it often makes me sit down at my desk. And I love the notion of reminding yourself that whatever you have to write will eventually get written, because it always has done before. That alone is vastly encouraging. A great idea for a series and I’m looking forward to reading your techniques.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks, Eleanor! I’m excited to see what comes out as a result of this series. I’m also thinking about talking to other writers about their techniques so I can create a sort of an archive 🙂


  4. Excited, to me writing is just the medium of something greater, storytelling. Fiction and non-fiction included, all ideas are converted to stories by the limitations of language, pure thought, and experience distilled into an imperfect medium of words and painted upon the canvas of pixels or paper, loosing a little in translation, but gaining a little as well. Writing is about “story,” and story is about life, “but within that gray area…. is art.” – Dr. Wu 🎨

    Liked by 1 person

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