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How do I become a better writer? 

Maybe you write for your job. Maybe you contribute to tenders for your organisation. Maybe you write match reports for your kids’ sport. Maybe you just write long emails for family and friends overseas. Or maybe you fancy yourself an author.  

Whatever the case, you are likely wondering how to become a better writer. 

The answer is simple… Read more. 

Read newspapers and magazines. Read journal and technical articles related to your work. Read your kids’ textbooks. Read the great authors and the great books. And most importantly, read that pile of books sitting beside your bed. 

You don’t always need to be interested in the subject matter – although that will help – but reading widely across many topics and genres will expose you to all types of writing. It will allow you to better identify good and bad writing, how arguments are made, how structure can be used as a writing technique, and how to tell a compelling and interesting story. It will also broaden your vocabulary without you even realising it. 

I read, a lot. I prefer real books to e-books or audiobooks, and read one to two books each week. I read online news every day, including the ABC, The Sydney Morning Herald, The New York Times and The Washington Post. But I buy the Saturday issues of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian for the arts pages and the magazines. I’ve subscribed to Vanity Fair for years, and look forward to the monthly magazine. I also read other news and long form journalism which I encounter or is recommended to me^. 

If you’re wondering how I find the time to read, well the answer is I prioritise it, I prefer reading to watching television, and I put down my phone. (Note, scrolling through social media is not reading). 

We have a decent book collection at home – since our earliest days together, my husband and I have always bought books for each other, for birthdays, Christmas and anniversaries, and encouraged the other to read our favourites* – and I have a well-used library card. 

Last week at the library, I noticed the memoir by Huma Abedin, the long-time Hillary Clinton aide, whose private life has had some public moments. It’s a fascinating read, and in many ways is an unexpected biography of Hillary Clinton too. I’m glad I picked it up. 

Sometimes, I won’t finish a book, and really this is not a crime. Two books I chose not to finish, The Golden House by Salman Rushdie, and Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen. Both are well regarded, but I just didn’t care enough about the characters or the stories to continue. I instead moved to other books, which I did care about, without torturing myself to finish a book, just for the sake of reading it. 

I re-read books too, and I have a few in this roster: Hell’s Angels by Hunter S Thompson, Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and all the books by Maggie Alderson, but especially Cents and Sensibility.  

I buy books as gifts, and my nieces and nephews have received “a book and something else” for birthdays and Christmas since they were born. For overseas friends, Leviathan by John Birmingham and Eucalyptus by Murray Bail are the goods.  

And I always suggest books I believe others should read. The current list of suggestions includes The Overstory by Richard Powers (it’s a big sweeping epic deserving of its many prizes), Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (it’s about a pandemic although it was written in 2014), Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus (it’s a delight), and anything by Curtis Sittenfeld, Dave Eggers or Louise Penny. Let me add, anything by Emily St John Mandel is also worth your reading time. 

Anyway, before I get too engrossed in documenting my reading history, let’s get back to the topic at hand… how to be a better writer. The answer is: 

  • Read more, anything and everything you can get your hands on 
  • Spend more time writing; every day if you can 
  • Plan (or don’t) your writing  
  • Experiment with different writing styles and tones  
  • Jot down ideas; all your ideas  
  • Avoid cliches and technical and business jargon 
  • Re-read and edit your work  
  • Be concise; longer is not necessarily better  
  • Know who your audience is, and write for them  
  • Use verbs properly, and use the right verbs. You didn’t go to the park, you walked to the park. You didn’t have dinner, you ate dinner. See what I mean? Be specific 
  • Eliminate distractions: put your phone out of reach, turn off email and/or the internet. Even if you find you need to look something up, don’t, just make a note and continue writing 
  • Share your writing with a trusted friend or colleague  
  • Take a class.  

Want more? Read On writing by Stephen King, considered the best book about writing.  

^ This article about anchovies came via my husband, from a watch website he regularly reads. And whether you care or not about anchovies, you now know a bit more about them. 

* One common favourite book was Hell’s Angels by Hunter S Thompson. I’ve read his favourite book, Dune by Frank Herbert (and I slept through the movie), but I’m still waiting for him to read Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.  

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