How To Improve Your Writing (By Not Writing)

improve your writing

Sometimes the solution to a problem requires you to stop and think. As an author, that means you need to step away from the keyboard to improve your writing and get your book finished.

Most articles on writing are about how you need to show up every day and write. The going advice is that more writing is better, whether in practice or in anger.

Such advice is good to heed, but sometimes the opposite is what’s needed to force true progress. Sometimes it’s best to step away from the computer. This doesn’t mean picking up a pen, either. It means not writing.

Great writers don’t just write at the keyboard. Super authors write in their heads much of the time, and the body can be on an adventure or just going through the motions of daily life when this happens.

Here are three reasons why calling a moratorium on writing can be just what your book project needs

1. Writing is about thoughts. This perhaps the most important reason to step away from your desk. It’s about building the substance of your book. This is when you need to think. Go for a walk and ponder your ideas. Sit quietly somewhere and rehearse your plot in your head. You could be at the beach while you do this! Print out a copy and go over it, seeing where you can cut chaff and add substance. This is the hardest part of writing – thinking. It can also be the most fun.

Writing is far less about words and much more about thoughts. An intense message is the foundation of good writing. We can spin our wheels forever trying to write something when we have no message – or when it lacks weight.

Many of us mistake writing for what it really is: brainstorming. Brainstorming takes time, iteration, mistakes, trashing drafts, and starting all over. It makes working in fits and starts totally understandable (and acceptable!) once you realize what is going on.

This is when getting a solid draft takes forever.

The curse of the blank page is most often the lack of a guiding idea, not the words to type. Think of the balled up pages of typewriter paper spilling out of the waste basket and onto the floor in old movies. Forcing inspiration to strike just takes time. You could be out walking in the woods and enjoying yourself immeasurably more during this phase – step away from the keys.

Thinking takes time, and this is where working far from your desk (or coffee house table) can pay off the most. Our ideas are inspired by things we encounter in daily life. Additional facts are culled as we mull things over. We look for connections. We weave our webs. Our logic improves and our perspectives naturally expand. If you were made to think of all the colors your know in five seconds, you may only get a handful. If you are given one hour, you will surely make an exhaustive list.

Use time to your best advantage. When you think before writing, time is your ally.

Ideally, you will think a long time about your book in advance of sitting down to write. They say J.K. Rowling thought about the world of Harry Potter for five years before starting to write. It is not uncommon to hear famous authors say they dwelled on a book for a decade before it was published.

Waiting to write is actually a huge time-saving trick in the end. Spending proportionally more time thinking and less time writing is of huge value. Yes, you can think at your leisure for weeks, months, or even years before you put pen to paper. It will surprise you how the words fly when you do.

The reason thinking before writing saves so much time is that it takes time to fix a broken draft. Writing about a subject you only cursorily thought about is far less useful than writing a solid draft about a topic you understand inside and out (and are passionate about).

After a long think, you will just be doing the physical act of putting gelled thoughts into words. Sure, there will still be work to do, but it will be proportionally less the more you’ve thought.

So, what about those writers who physically need to write to think? This is where we see the difference between plotters and pantsers. Pantsers really think best while writing. To pantsers, writing is the wellspring of ideas that stokes the inner fires of creativity.

If this is true for you, great. Write, but just know you are in the brainstorming phase. You still need time to think (unless you know your subject inside and out and then you are way ahead of the game) and this will likely mean more drafts. You’ll probably need to throw away more of them to get to the finish line.

2. You need experiences to draw on. A second reason to call a halt on actually generating words is to accumulate the experience you need to write your book. Many books are based on research or personal experiences. Go to that library archive. Take that trip. Revisit places you lived in your life while you write your memoir. Gain the experience you need to understand what it feels like to do X, Y, Z that your main character will do in your book. Think how fun it would be to hang out with firefighters for a day.

If you write without authority, you’ll work extremely hard to get nowhere – or even go backwards by losing valuable time. When your head is full of ideas, the words simply flow faster, the connections are tighter, and there is a much better likelihood readers will follow your trail of breadcrumbs.

3. Ideas need to simmer. The final reason to step away is to let your work simmer. Simmering allows the flavors to fully develop.

Even when you think you are done, there are things that will occur to you afterwards. Waiting a bit allows these to get into a final draft. When done writing, put your work to the back of your mind for as long as you have time. When you feel inspiration hit, pull it out again. This is when you can add the sparkle, clean up the final bits of logic, weed the flower beds of the extraneous, and expel the last typos.

We look at drafts differently if we haven’t seen them for a while. We see them more as readers will. Budgeting time for this simmering phase will pay off in the quality of your writing and the benefit is that you can be doing other things during this time – like putting good thought into the plot of your next book!


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Make Peace With Your Inner Plotter And Pantser
“Method Writing” Can Help You Create Believable Characters and Write What You Don’t Know
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  1. This has been very true for me. I have spent a collective time of about two years thinking of my book. I only began to write last month and my thoughts are really flowing.

  2. Thank you for all this advice
    I am a self publisher being vibrated by a publishing house and your advice and suggestions are very much appreciated and welcome
    Thank you from my heart


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