Writing is a craft! Like any other craft, we can train it. Most teachers and professional writers will tell you to write as much as possible, to become a better writer. And yes, practice makes perfect. But, how and what we practice makes a huge difference. A structured approach can improve our writing skills in no time.
I write StoicTriumph articles since 2013. I love to give advice and help people. I feel great when I hear that my advice was helpful. Helping people is my passion. I created the blog to help and reach more people. But, I was never a good writer. I thought that “follow your passion” was good advice. I thought I would become a better writer along the way. I was wrong!
Cal Newport argues in his great book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” that the Passion Hypothesis flawed:
“The Passion Hypothesis
The key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches this passion.
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There is, however, a problem lurking here: When you look past the feel-good slogans and go deeper into the details of how passionate people like Steve Jobs really got started, or ask scientists about what actually predicts workplace happiness, the issue becomes much more complicated. You begin to find threads of nuance that, once pulled, unravel the tight certainty of the passion hypothesis, eventually leading to an unsettling recognition: “Follow your passion” might just be terrible advice.
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If a young Steve Jobs had taken his own advice and decided to only pursue work he loved, we would probably find him today as one of the Los Altos Zen Center’s most popular teachers.
Conclusion #1: Career Passions Are Rare“
Instead, he argues we should adopt craftsman mindset to create work we love:
“ . . . the craftsman mindset, a focus on what value you’re producing in your job,
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Be so good they can’t ignore you
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If you’re not focusing on becoming so good they can’t ignore you, you’re going to be left behind
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Irrespective of what type of work you do, the craftsman mindset is crucial for building a career you love.
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regardless of how you feel about your job right now, adopting the craftsman mindset will be the foundation on which you’ll build a compelling career.”
The book opened my eyes. I adopted the craftsman mindset. I needed to change my method and find ways to improve. As always I looked how my role models do it.
Stephen King thinks that writing is a craft. In his book “On writing” he gives advice how to become better:
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
He also thinks that a writer should have a toolbox, like carpenter or a craftsman:
“I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.
Fazza’s toolbox had three levels. I think that yours should have at least four. You could have five or six, I suppose, but there comes a point where a toolbox becomes too large to be portable and thus loses its chief virtue. You’ll also want all those little drawers for your screws and nuts and bolts, but
where you put those drawers and what you put in them . . . well, that’s your little red wagon, isn’t it? You’ll find you have most of the tools you need already, but I advise you to look at each one again as you load it into your box
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Common tools go on top. The commonest of all, the bread of writing, is vocabulary. In this case, you can happily pack what you have without the slightest bit of guilt and inferiority. As the whore said to the bashful sailor, “It ain’t how much you’ve got, honey, it’s how you use it.”
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You’ll also want grammar on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t annoy me with your moans of exasperation or your cries that you don’t understand grammar, you never did understand grammar, you flunked that whole semester in Sophomore English, writing is fun but grammar sucks the big one.
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On the layer beneath go those elements of style upon which I’ve already touched.“
I adopted this toolbox idea. It breaks writing into smaller manageable parts. Now I can ask specific questions about the parts, like: How can I improve my vocabulary? How can I improve my grammar?
Stephen Kings: On Writing is a great book with solid advice about writing. But it doesn’t explain how to train writing.
Daniel Coyle wrote a book with “52 TIPS FOR IMPROVING YOUR SKILLS”. I reread “The Little book Of Talent” with writing in my mind. I could apply every tip to writing. But, I find following three especially helpful:
“TIP #1 STARE AT WHO YOU WANT TO BECOME
If you were to visit a dozen talent hotbeds tomorrow, you would be struck by how much time the learners spend observing top performers. When I say “observing,” I’m not talking about passively watching. I’m talking about staring—the kind of raw, unblinking, intensely absorbed gazes you see in hungry cats or newborn babies.
We each live with a “windshield” of people in front of us; one of the keys to igniting your motivation is to fill your windshield with vivid images of your future self, and to stare at them every day. Studies show that even a brief connection with a role model can vastly increase unconscious motivation.
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TIP #2 SPEND FIFTEEN MINUTES A DAY ENGRAVING THE SKILL ON YOUR BRAIN
What’s the best way to begin to learn a new skill? Is it by listening to a teacher’s explanation? Reading an instructional book? Just leaping in and trying it out? Many hotbeds use an approach I call the engraving method. Basically, they watch the skill being performed, closely and with great intensity, over and over, until they build a high-definition mental blueprint.
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The key to effective engraving is to create an intense connection: to watch and listen so closely that you can imagine the feeling of performing the skill. For physical skills, project yourself inside the performer’s body. Become aware of the movement, the rhythm; try to feel the interior shape of the moves. For mental skills, simulate the skill by re-creating the expert’s decision patterns. Chess players achieve this by replaying classic games, move by move; public speakers do it by regiving great speeches complete with original inflections; musicians cover their favorite songs; some writers I know achieve this effect by retyping passages verbatim from great works. (It sounds kind of Zen, but it works.)
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TIP #25 SHRINK THE SPACE
Smaller practice spaces can deepen practice when they are used to increase the number and intensity of the reps and clarify the goal. A good example is used by FC Barcelona, widely considered the world’s best soccer team. The method is simple: one room slightly bigger than a bathroom, two players, and one ball—whoever can keep the ball from the other player longest wins. This little game isolates and compresses a vital skill—ball control—by creating a series of urgent, struggle-filled crises to which the players respond and thus improve
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This tip does not apply to just physical space. Poets and writers shrink the field by using restrictive meters to force themselves into a small creative form—such as with haiku and micro-writing exercises. Comedy writers use the 140-character arena of Twitter as a space to hone their skills.
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Ask yourself: What’s the minimum space needed to make these reaches and reps? Where is extra space hindering fast and easy communication?”
How to train writing
After reading, I realized that each part of my toolbox needs its own method for learning it.
English is not my mother language. I learned it in school. A native speaker won’t need to train vocabulary. But I do. I train with Anki. It is an easy to use flash cards application. And it is available on all platforms.
I started with learning the 100 most used words in English. Afterwards, I learned the 1000 most used words and now I learn the 5000 most used words. Anki has a library with such flash cards.
I also created my own card stack. I often find words I don’t know while reading books. I look up their meaning and add a card to my stack. I recommend this practice also to native speakers.
I hate learning grammar. Everybody, I know, hates learning grammar. But, I is important! I bought an English grammar book. Each week I learn one chapter from the book.
I don’t learn everything. But rather I use the 80/20 rule. I learn the 20% of grammar that bring 80% of the results. I learn the most commonly used parts and avoid the specializations.
I recommend self-study grammar books. Other books are written for English classes. They assume that a teacher will explain gaps in knowledge. Self-study books assume you will learn alone.
I began learning style with E.B. White’s The Elements of Style. It is very short and contains the fundamentals.
To train style, I challenge myself to a micro-writing exercise every week. A task in my to-do list could look like this: Write 200 words about a topic of my choice.
Each exercise I focus on a specific element of style.
Some successful writers ignore certain elements. They are still successful and I love reading their books. They borrowed and combined styles from other writers to create their own unique style. They found their own style.
To find my own style, I copy from my favorite authors and books. When I read something I like, I mark the text. Later I copy it word for word. This exercise helps me to better understand other writers and what makes their work so compelling.
Every day I train my vocabulary for 5 minutes and I copy a text for 5 minutes. Each week I learn a new grammar lesson and do a micro-writing exercise.
I improved my writing skills. But more important, I start to feel confident about my writing skills. I feel less anxiety when I start with a new text.