If you’ve been writing a while, you’ll know by now the best way to improve your writing is to write. With that being said, our writing, like all creative skills, is supported by the habits we cultivate in other areas of our lives too.
Working on a meaty writing project is often compared to other tests of endurance, like running a marathon, and the analogy fits here too. Marathon runners don’t just train by running. To support their running, they also need to incorporate stretching, cross-training, getting enough sleep, eating well, and more. None of those things involve pounding the pavement, but they are all necessary to reach the finish line on race day in peak physical condition.
In this post, I want to borrow this idea and share a few non-writing activities that will improve your writing:
1. Get moving
Movement takes us out of our minds and back into our physical body, giving our brains a (often much-needed) rest. As I mentioned in this post, even going for a short walk can help us generate new creative ideas. Besides this, getting up and moving keeps us energised, improves our mood and staves off writing-related ailments like back issues, shoulder cramp and carpal tunnel.
2. Clear your environment
I’m not the tidiest person at the best of times, but I’ve learned the hard way that a cluttered room means a cluttered mind. It’s hard to focus on the words in front of you if you’re distracted by papers on your desk, that pile of ‘miscellaneous’ on your shelf, or the bits and bobs you keep shuffling around the different areas of your floor.
Sarah Von Bargen wrote about the power of making your bed in her post about an “every damn day” list, and the same principle applies here. If you want to produce your best work, make time today to clear up your writing space and set up any systems you need to create to keep it that way.
Second only to writing itself, reading is one of the best ways to improve your writing. Using a critical eye, you can learn straight from the people who do it best without having to step foot in a classroom or workshop. Reading widely—different authors from different periods in different genres—will not only help you figure out what makes for a compelling read, but it will help you improve your vocabulary and expose you to new ways of writing.
4. Listen to stories/podcasts
Like reading, listening to audiobooks and podcasts is a useful way to brush up on your writing skills. The next time you find yourself caught up in an episode of Serial or similar, ask: what is it that makes this story so compelling in the first place? How have the producers shaped this story to keep me engaged? Is there anything I’m looking for as a listener that’s missing here? Practice doing this exercise with different styles of stories and narratives and see what you learn.
5. Go on artist dates
Artist dates are a practice suggested by Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way. They are a fabulous way to indulge your curiosity and nurture your creativity. I wrote more about them here and shared 52 ideas for artist dates here (along with a free planner).
6. Get enough sleep
The next two suggestions are about our physical health. Bear with me because although it might sound boring, it is so important. There is a reason sleep deprivation is used as torture, because it has a profoundly negative physical effect, reduces our cognitive functioning and turns us into emotional wrecks. None of these things will improve your writing. Not sure if you’re getting enough sleep each night? At the next available opportunity, don’t set your alarm and see how long you sleep for. Do this for a few nights in a row so you can gauge how much sleep you really need. Then, make that your new normal.
7. Eat right
Just as our sleep quality can make or break our wellbeing, so can the fuel we put in our bodies. I have a sweet tooth so I’m not immune to sugar cravings (since living in Mexico, my husband and I have called these our “postre monsters”). But I also know that when I junk out, I feel like crap and my writing suffers too. Everything feels like more of a struggle, it stops being fun or flow-y and just feels like plain old hard work. Again, this isn’t particularly glamorous or exciting, but it’s an important foundation for doing our best work.
8. Practice observing
Go out and observe. People watch. Look at different situations and scenes. Practice describing them in your head, telling the story you imagine is unfolding. Even if you’re not a fiction writer, mentally describing what you see (or writing it down in your own words) is a useful exercise that will help develop your natural voice.
What non-writing activities do you use to improve your writing? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.