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Becoming a Better Writer: A Worthy Goal for All of Us Shitty Hacks

Posted by on Apr 23, 2012 | 12 Comments

I needed something new to fill my spare time.  I’m not much for “traditional” hobbies like sewing or cheese-making, so I decided to learn a new skill.  After searching for something interesting, I decided on… writing.

But wait… aren’t I already sort of a writer?

Well, I do a lot of writing here at BRU.  I wrote a book.  I’ve written a few magazine articles.  But I never really considered myself a “writer.”  Pretty much all of my mild success is the result of being in the right place at the right time, having a ton of support from friends, and sheer luck.  If my writing were beer, I wouldn’t have the technical but somewhat bland expertise of the macro-brewed giants like Budweiser and Coors.  My writing wouldn’t be like the finely-crafted microbrews that win fancy awards at even fancier beer festivals.

No… my writing would be more like the homebrewed shit your neighbor brews in his basement.  And we’re not talking about the wonderfully eclectic homebrews that are too edgy for even limited commercial release.  We’re talking about the hillbilly neighbor that uses goat feed for grain and brews the beer in discarded Tide detergent bottles and filters it through dirty gym socks.  It’ll get you drunk, but it’s not going to impress anyone.

There’s A LOT of room for improvement.

Essentially my goal is to become slightly less incompetent.

In reality, I want to do something to thwart the sense of incompetency I feel toward my writing skills.  Late last year, my friend Pete Kemme (of Kemme Fitness fame) tried convincing me to begin writing fiction.  When he’s not designing crazy workouts, Pete is also a talented artist and writer.  While his goading subtle persuasion was enticing, I knew I didn’t have the writing chops to tackle fiction.  For whatever reason, I’ve managed to muster the motivation to seriously work to improve my skills.  Ultimately it comes down to a feeling that I no longer have the skill set to accurately communicate my thoughts and feelings.  I feel limited by my own ineptitude.

I don’t like that feeling.

Internet = Wild West of Writing

We’re smack-dab in the middle of the golden age of the Internet.  There’s virtually no regulation.  No rules.  No cost of entry.  It’s a world were anyone, regardless of skill, can get their ideas published.

This is a great thing because it gives humanity an opportunity that’s never existed.  You don’t need any credentials to become a writer.  No degrees.  No internships.  No resumes.  No skills.

Of course, if there’s nobody guarding the gate, anyone can get in.  And everyone does… the good, the mediocre, and me.

That’s where I developed the vast majority of my writing skills… on the front lines of this strange borderless virtual world.  It’s been an awesome journey, but I’m becoming increasingly aware of my own limitations.  My self-learning will only take me so far… and the bus is nearing the end of the route.

My Writing Pedigree

The self-learning gig has been good to me.  I’ve managed to accomplish quite a bit from virtually nothing.  To illustrate just how little writing skills I have, here’s a run-down of my own writing credentials:

  • High School: I took one writing class in high school.  The rest of my classes were composed of woodshop and physical education.  That singular writing class taught me two things: I could get good grades by using an occasional unorthodox Yoda-like sentence structure, and a thesaurus made the teacher think I was intelligent.  I didn’t make sense most of the time, but it sounded more sophisticated than my fellow classmates.  Adept at the manipulation of idioms I became.
  • College: I barely passed my freshman composition classes.  The graduate assistant teaching the class was decidedly less impressed with my weird-ass writing style.  I managed to avoid learning actual writing skills by testing out of all writing classes by befriending a dude that graded the competency tests a few semesters earlier.  Eventually I stumbled into the social sciences, where I learned valuable advice like “Always write in the third person”, “Writing should be done in the passive voice”, and the always-invaluable “Never discuss your own thoughts or opinions, focus on the subject.”  My writing was so exciting, I was once sued for patent infringement by the makers of Valium.
  • Internet-learnin’: Once I started blogging, I more or less made up my own rules based on trial and error.  I learned what rules I could break and which rules I could maintain most readers.  I learned what content “hit” and what “missed.”  I learned to emulate those that were successful.  I learned the most valuable lesson of the ‘Web: Content is king.  Actual writing syntax, grammar, and style only has to be good enough to not annoy your readers.

My Rules for Blogger Awesomeness

I’ve managed to thrive with a set of silly rules that guide my decisions.  Here’s a run-down of the important rules:

  1. Don’t write something people wouldn’t want to read.  If I don’t have a specific group in mind, or at least a specific person, I don’t write it.  I expand on this idea here.
  2. Emotion is good.  Emotion makes writing more approachable.  It builds empathy.  Or anger.  Either way, it adds interest.
  3. Controversy is a good thing.  Impartiality is overrated. Agreeableness is boring. Save that for the journalists.  Have an opinion.  Pick fights.
  4. Swearing is okayCursing is fun.  More importantly, it filters your audience.  If someone is overly prudish, they’d likely be offended by many of my posts.  A well-placed “Go fuck yourself” assures my audience isn’t easily offended.
  5. Simple is almost always better.  I have to actively suppress my high school writing habits and keep my writing as simple as possible.  Since m goal is almost always to teach, the wider the audience the better.  I don’t want to alienate someone because my language is fluffed up to make me sound intelligent.  Besides, enough people have met me now.  That “he must be really smart” ship has sailed.
  6. People read stuff because it’s educational, entertaining, or inspirational.  This is sort of a take on rule #1, but more specific.  If my writing doesn’t serve one of these purposes, I don’t write it.
  7. Understand the difference between useful criticism and “grammar Nazi” bitching.  One is useful.  The other is just being anal.  Some feedback can be used to legitimately improve your writing skills.  Other feedback is simply complaints about rules you purposely break.  Irregardless, develop the ability to discriminate your critics.
  8. The more you reference, the more boring your writing becomes.  In my early days, I tried to channel my academic/science writing in blog posts.  I frequently cited studies.  I backed up every argument with supporting evidence.  I made reference lists in APA format.  And three people read the posts.  The problem is simple- the only people that read academic writing are the small group of people that have a passion fro your VERY specific topic.  The rest of the world doesn’t give a damn.
  9. Style guides are recommendations.  It’s helpful to be aware of various styles.  It’s more helpful to develop the ability to throw them out the window if they don’t suit your needs.  I’ve developed my own style.  Not only is it a freedom afforded by the Internet, it’s almost a requirement to stand out from the crowd.
  10. Don’t complain.  I’m not immune to the occasional rant, but I’m acutely aware of the “complainer trap.”  Complaints can be funny if they’re humorous, especially if it’s self-depreciating.  Otherwise, the world doesn’t care about my problems.  Why would I write about them?

What I Need to Do to Improve

While we’re never fully aware of our limitations, sometimes we get a few hints.  Honest friends help, too.  Here are some things I am going to work on in my “become a better writer” quest (in no particular order):

  1. I need to limit weird sentence structures.  Some variety is interesting.  The amount of variety I use is annoying.
  2. I need to brush up on grammar.  I violate grammar rules because I didn’t pay attention to my English teachers.  Language arts were as boring as algebra.  I didn’t care about the difference between a preposition and an adverb.  Conjugating a verb?  I have no idea what that means.  I know the basics, like the proper use of their, they’re, and there and the proper use of semicolons… but there’s a lot of work to do.
  3. I have a lot of scattered ideas.  My writing is a lot like my teaching… lots of tangents.  This problem could be solved if I…
  4. Edit more.  I do not like editing… mostly because I’m lazy.  I could write five blog posts in the time it takes me to edit one.  In the blogger world, this is forgivable.  Well, it’s forgivable in MY blogger world.  My non-blogger writing could use a healthy dose of editing.
  5. I rarely plan… anything.  My writing process consists of brainstorming an idea,  followed by writing a rough draft, then immediately publishing the draft.  It’s not a model that promotes high quality prose.
  6. I frequently change from present to past tense and back.  Again, editing would solve this problem.  So would planning.  Or self-awareness.
  7. I’m not a very good story-teller; I rely on adventures to make a story compelling.  Real life is the crutch I use to prop up my writing.  The formula is simple- awesome people + interesting situations + accurate reporting of hijinks = entertaining stories.  I really need to actually learn some creative writing skills.

This list of improvements could be longer, but I’ve found many lessons beget other lessons.  Focusing on these seven should bring a flood of additional insights that will eventually help me transcend “hack writer” status to “good enough to write for USA Today” status.  We’ll see how it turns out.

Resources

I have some good free resources lined up and enough free time to give them a legitimate effort.

What about you?  What self-improvement goals do you set?  Give the rest of us some examples in the comments!

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12 Comments

  1. Dave Goulette
    April 27, 2012

    Hey Jason, Random sort of related question to this post (intended to spark a conversation):

    Do you think there are too many minimalist running blogs? Is there room for another running hack like me to join the fray? Of course I can post anything I want but I mean, is it worth my time?

    Wondering what you think.

    David Goulette

  2. Glenn
    April 24, 2012

    Can we talk about the swearing for a moment? I agree with Jason, swearing is a good way to filter an audience. It seems that people that are hypersensitive to profanity are often not wiling to engage in discourse where their beliefs may be challenge. They often cite swearing as evidence of a limited vocabulary. Well, as Jason said, “Go fuck yourself.” I know a shit-ton of big words and I can use them ad nauseum. If you can’t look past a few obscenities I will assume you can’t have a reasonable debate about polarizing topics without shutting down like like child because you don’t like what the other person has to say?

    What do the rest of you think about swearing? Are you a frequent user? Only swear when you drink? How much is too much?

    • Glenn
      April 24, 2012

      Ad nauseam, sorry.

    • Brian G
      April 24, 2012

      Up through high school I spoke very nicely with very little cussing. Then I went into the Army (late ’80′s) and all hell broke loose.

      My girlfriend out of the Army (now wife) said my every 4th word was “fuck” or some conjugation thereof and she felt like washing her own mouth out with soap.

      My close friend’s kids hear me swear — as does everyone else — but their parents say “He was in the Army. So it’s OK.”

  3. Paul
    April 24, 2012

    Great post! I never thought of myself as a writer either, until I finally said “What the hell” I’ve written shit. I’m an actor who writes to do the film gigs I would never get otherwise.
    Now I write a blog and am working on my first book…well I’ve worked on others but I always found screenwriting easier so I turned my stories into scripts for film. This book though is a non-fiction and a little closer to my heart…so putting yourself out there to the world can be a little scary. I keep going back and forth on how much I should indulge of my life. But I’m going to go with spilling the beans and go all out. I’ll see where that gets me.
    Grammar and all that I’ll have someone edit my shit to make it read like English. I’m too lazy to do it myself. haha

  4. ramzev
    April 24, 2012

    I have my Comp 101 final tomorrow. I’ve been studying by printing out your blog posts and editing them, so I have a lot of practice finding errors. Thanks for the help (and the comma splices)

  5. Kevin Burns
    April 24, 2012

    Your writing informs the writer, and occassionally, the reader. Your grammar is highly offensive to my catholic school upbringing, but the Lord taught me to forgive, as well as to conjugate a verb. Your reporting of friends’ hijinks, or your wife’s field hygeine is acceptable and precariously informative. No one will accuse you of going on James Joyce literary tangents, but if you switch from Bohemian beer to scotch, your writing might spike considerably.

    I should make it a point to attend your next seminar in New York City, and trot around The Battery with today’s running hipsters.

    Thank you for challenging the orthodox and statis quo of running. kjb

  6. Richard
    April 23, 2012

    Editing is overrated, Jason. Except when I’m doing it, of course, then it rocks.

    My rough rule for writing blog posts is to leave them for at least a day, then come back, squirm, and edit them until they’re not quite as embarrassing.

  7. Jen
    April 23, 2012

    I was just thinking about this topic the other day. I’ve had a food blog for a long time and just started a running blog, and I noticed that my writing on the running blog was less formal and that I really like it better. It’s weird that I’m essentially the same writer with the same skill sets, but given a new forum, I write in a different style. Anyway, I’m with you — I need to work on editing and patience. I hardly ever write a draft, wait a day, then come back and edit. I think some (if not all) of my posts could definitely benefit from such a process. I also rely on parentheses WAY too much.

  8. Glenn
    April 23, 2012

    I think a pretty useful skill when trying to improve yourself is to tell other people about your goals. Think social support: Tell a friend, family member, lover. Post your plans on facebook, twitter, etc. This gives you some accountability for your progress. Keep it in check though, no one cares about minutia of your progress. Ex., I fully support your goal to get in shape, however, I could give two shits less about about what you ate for breakfast, or if its “bi’s and tri’s” day.

    • Bare Lee
      April 23, 2012

      Yah, don’t tell us how many semicolons you used today; we don’t care.

      • Jason
        April 23, 2012

        Ha, ha! Is there a grammatical equivalent to Daily Mile? I can see the Facebook update now:

        “Jason used the proper “its” today and felt great!”