We’re close enough to New Year’s Day that most of us have not yet abandoned our ambitious resolutions, if we made one at all. I do a lot of writing for The Leonardo — for our exhibits and programs — so I’ve been asked to jot down a few things that’ve helped me improve my own writing over the years. Maybe you’ll find these useful, on the chance that your resolution had something to do with writing, or if you’re still in the market for one!
- Write and Read Often
I know, obvious. But things of immeasurable practical value are usually obvious — the difficulty of the thing lies in actually doing it day in, day out. Read and write as often as you can. There is no better way to improve your writing, because (and this is important) there is no such thing as a science of writing. The human activity called “writing” can be studied scientifically and science itself calls for some writing skills. But there is no formula for perfect or even ‘good’ writing. To that end, the only way to learn is look at what other people have done and evaluate their work for yourself. That’s the way it was done in Leonardo da Vinci’s era, and that’s the way it’s done in the new millenia.
- Compare Yourself to Your Idols
You don’t have to imagine a new vision of literature from whole cloth. In fact, you can’t. The open secret of the literary adventure is that every single writer begins by emulating their writerly heroes and heroines. The literary theorist Harold Bloom famously argued that no writer is truly unique, and that their work is a covert attempt to hide their influences from readers. Go ahead, compare a paragraph of your own with one of your idols, side by side. Whether hiding your influences or charting new territory, you’ll need something to compare to, some backboard, some foil, some ground, to push off of.
- Decide What You Believe Writing Is For
While developing as a writer, you’re going to get both good and terrible advice about your writing, and you’ll encounter both excellent and miserable examples (at least from your perspective.) The way to distinguish between the useful and the useless is to come up with an idea of what you think writing is for. You could be trying to express some hard-to-describe feeling or complex idea. You could be trying communicate with a huge and diverse audience. You could be trying to inform and educate the reader, or even change their mind. You could be trying to demonstrate what a particular experience feels like. It is truly up to you. Be open to the reality that no one person has the exact same idea of writing, but also don’t be afraid to pipe up and defend your own.
- Look Up Words
The year is 2017 and it has never been easier to consult a thesaurus or dictionary. When you see a word that’s a total mystery, look it up. When you see a familiar word that’s been used in an unfamiliar way — look it up. A word in another language, like French or Latin — look it up. Scientific jargon or legalese — look it up. A word you think was improperly used or for which there’s a better alternative — look it up! Depending on how you count them, there are roughly 200,000 words in the English language. And that is very cool, if only because it gives the writer an enormous palette to show exactly what he or she means.
- Write Down All of Your Ideas
People get great ideas at extremely inconvenient or weird times. Embrace this fact, because you never know what idea will grow into something truly compelling — and it will feel like a shame when you let it go. So don’t. I have literally run home to jot down an idea I couldn’t let go (I’ve also looked somewhat insane muttering the same idea repeatedly to keep in it memory, as I carried bags of groceries from the market.) Invest in a notebook, use sticky notes, or do what I do and send yourself emails. However you do it, establish the practice of capturing your ideas, no matter if they seem bizarre or lackluster — you can make that judgement later. Besides, you’d be surprised what ideas turn out to be rewarding.