I’m no doctor, but I’m determined to combat an unfortunate, self-perpetuating ailment I encounter every day.
I call it “I’m-no-writer syndrome.” And though, at some level, the condition’s prevalence has kept me employed, I believe that every person can become a better writer.
So I’m here to prescribe a course of treatment. And before you ask — I can hear the groans now — my regimen does not require the generic “set aside 30 minutes each day to write” recommendation.
“But why do I need to become a better writer, Bob?” my patients often ask. “I don’t tell stories for a living, and my boss doesn’t care about misplaced modifiers or comma splices.”
When you email Jim from accounting about a weekend barbecue, you tell him a story: You describe the event, of course, after which you deliver the who, what, where, when, and why of the situation. Then you elaborate: Should Jim bring the watermelon? Is Jim’s boss, Jane, invited? Can she please not bring that awful fruitcake again?
And no matter what you might think, mechanics don’t actually make or break writing. All too often, people tell me they’re nervous to write because they’ll make mistakes. They don’t know how to use a semicolon. Or they’re unsure about which modifiers to hyphenate. Or they’re self-conscious about syntax.
I won’t tell you grammar and mechanics don’t matter. But, speaking as an editor, I’ve known plenty of great storytellers whose occasional grammatical oversight would probably make their English teachers shake their heads.
The point is: Don’t let fear prevent you from building an essential life skill — one that can boost your career, clear your mind, and even improve your physical health.
Like those “miracle” fat loss pills, my solution requires almost no effort. Unlike fat-burning drugs, though, it actually works — and it even has some pleasant side effects.
No matter what type of writer you are, follow my five-part, no-work-required prescription to become a better one:
I know this sounds crazy, but self-talk isn’t a sign that something is wrong with you. In fact, when researchers at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill studied the self-talk habits of 189 senior executive managers, they found managers who spoke to themselves constructively displayed stronger leadership abilities, increased creativity, and reduced job strain.
I’m no business executive, but I employ self-talk to write more creatively. By vocalizing words — or, sometimes, utter nonsense — without feeling judged, I test the fit and interplay of various phonemes and sentence structures. Wordplay is a major tool to elevate writing, and if you don’t play with words in your free time, then you’ll never come up with clever combinations under pressure.
If you’re still uneasy about talking to yourself, try talking to a pet or a family photograph. My cat has endured hours of babbling — yours can, too.
Many of my hobbies don’t work indoors — good luck cycling in the house — and nothing beats a breath of fresh air. But I’ve also discovered that being outside improves my writing.
Why does the great outdoors make for great writing? A 2008 University of Michigan study found exposure to nature improves mental health. After a brief walk outside, study participants expressed more positive outlooks on life and exhibited significantly lower rates of stress and depression.
A stress-free, positive mindset breeds creativity and strong writing. My first published short story, in fact, came to me after a walk in the snow. I didn’t set out intending to write a story, but the tranquil setting cleared my mind, allowing plot points to emerge. Energized, I returned home and put pen to paper, producing an initial draft in less than an hour.
Just 8 percent of Americans meditate, so if you’re part of the other 92 percent, then I highly encourage you to try it. The practice confers a host of writer-friendly health benefits: It improves cognition, attention, and emotional regulation, all while decreasing stress. Meditation takes some practice, but there’s absolutely no magic behind it.
I can’t tie any of my writings specifically to meditation, but I find clearing my mind helps words flow more freely, lowers my stress levels, and makes me feel more creative. What writer wouldn’t trade 15 minutes per day for those perks?
To be fair, this tip involves reading, which has been repeatedly shown to improve writing. In addition to reading’s impact on writing ability, though, the act of internal disagreement will make you a better writer.
For example, I’m a political junkie, so I read Real Clear Politics’ daily list of national op-eds. The site’s editors do a good job of representing multiple ideological perspectives, mixing in content from sites like The Washington Times and Fox News that I wouldn’t otherwise read.
Does it frustrate me to read opinions I disagree with? Of course! That’s the point. By deliberately consuming such content, I naturally formulate counterpoints and question sources. Any writer must be able to find logical flaws, vet sources, and craft counterarguments.
During a nonfiction workshop in college, I read William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction.” One line from the book particularly stuck with me: “As a writer you must keep a tight rein on your subjective self — the traveler touched by new sights and sounds and smells — and keep an objective eye on the reader.”
Strong writing, as Zinsser knew, requires fresh experiences. Routine dulls both my urge and my ability to write. So when I studied abroad the summer after my nonfiction course, I impulsively bought a ticket across the English Channel to Paris. A chance encounter with a homeless woman inspired me to write “L’espirit de L’escalier,” a short nonfiction piece about my experience.
Get out of your rut. Take a week, book a trip, and bask in the newness of it all. When you’re finished, you might be surprised by how much you want to write about it.
As you leave the doctor’s office, prescription in hand, let me be clear that great writing takes practice. It’s not all traveling, talking to your cat, and being outdoors. But if you really don’t want to practice writing — if you’re so frustrated by it that you write only when absolutely necessary — then forcing it won’t help you.
These tips are meant to help you improve your everyday writing — Slacks, emails, and the like — to the point that you enjoy doing it. And only when you enjoy writing will you want to practice it regularly.
That, dear patient, is how you cure I’m-no-writer syndrome.
I love artful and accurate prose, traveling, and great food. My favorite days are those I spend with words, nature, and my family.