One of the Simplest Ways to Become a Better Writer Is Right at Your Fingertips
And no, it doesn’t involve giving your email to a dubious ‘expert’
Hi. I’m a former editor who now spends most of her time freelance writing. I would like to humbly offer a suggestion for becoming a better writer and getting more work. It is alarmingly simple, but not to be discounted: Re-read your own work.
I’m not talking about proofreading a piece before posting it or sending it to a publication—that’s a given. I’m talking about looking up articles you have previously published and re-reading them. I would go so far as to suggest you do this every two months, especially if you write and publish frequently. Consider it an important part of your writing process.
Before we go any further: No, re-reading your own posts doesn’t make you a narcissist, not even a little bit.
In the best-case scenario, it’ll make you a better writer. In the better best-case scenario, it’ll make you a better writer and a better human. It turns you into your own writing coach. Let’s examine.
Recently, I saw a post on an industry Facebook group looking for people to write “some really fun gallery articles.” I’m no stranger to the so-called fun gallery article and I enjoy writing them, so I began looking up some of my old stories to send as clips.
Most of my clips in this style were about three or four years old, and I’d forgotten about a good number of them. But a funny thing happened as I re-read the articles deciding which links to send—I found out that I actually liked a bunch of them. As in, I admired the sharper turns of phrase and the clever ideas. I even laughed out loud at a few of the jokes—my jokes.
Conceited? Sure, maybe a bit. But also, if it seems that way to you, it’s possible you haven’t been a professional writer for very long. It’s also possible that you possess envy-stoking stores of confidence most of us keyboard pounders would kill for.
Because the truth is, being a professional writer is hard. When I saw this call for writers, I was having one of those down days (/weeks/months) where you feel like you’re just no good at the writing game and you should give up.
But when I revisited some of my former work that day and thought, Hey! This isn’t so bad!, it gave me a feel-good jolt. It provided a reason to keep going when so many things in the professional writing world seem designed to get you to stop.
While that’s worth it on its own, revisiting your body of work from time to time—and noting its evolution—can also help you piece together your own writing narrative: your personal brand story, if you will.
No matter what your trip down verbal memory lane does for your state of mind, as long as you know what to look for, the practice can help you become a better writer. As you keep re-reading, you’ll develop your own points to look out for. For now, here’s a short checklist to help you start off:
Identify the things that you did well—because those are the things that you *do* well
When you’re a freelance writer, many times you serve as both writer and editor of your work. Going back to an article after time has passed helps you put on a more objective editor cap than you can wear at the time of writing.
In my capacity as a magazine editor, the first thing I do when I read a piece is look for what is working well in that piece, and I share that with the writer. Many editors are the opposite; they relish the idea of telling their writers all the things that are wrong in the article. First off, that makes my skin crawl in a human sense. Second, I find it a foolish strategy. If a writer and editor want the piece to be as good as that particular piece can be, you want to build on a piece’s unique strengths, not point out the ways in which it doesn’t measure up to another piece.
We all have unique strengths as writers. When you revisit an old article and find it strong, ask yourself, specifically, what it is that’s working. Is it humor? Is it cadence? Is it the reporting? Is it your transition sentences? Once you determine what’s working, consider it one of your tools—something to bring out of the ol’ proverbial toolbox whenever you need it. It’s a unique skill that you can build upon in your future work, making your own personal brand and style of writing even stronger.
Look for the things you can improve
Whether you like the piece or not, there’s probably something that you see now that you wish you hadn’t done then (or maybe there’s something that you wish you had done at the time that you didn’t).
Once you identify that thing or things, resist the temptation to simply move on. Really think about that thing. If you’re a person who likes exercises: Rewrite a sticky sentence; move a paragraph up or down; try a different lede or kicker (I have a theory that nearly every mediocre article can be saved with an excellent kicker). Doing this will strengthen a muscle that was perhaps a bit weak, and your future pieces will be all the better for it.
Build off of the post’s original idea
If the premise worked then and you still like it now, well, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel! Why not figure out a way to update the content or come up with the next logical extension for the topic that works today? Seriously, it will save you some brain power articles and help you develop what’s essentially your individual calling card.
Recall who you wrote the piece for, then contact them
One of the biggest secrets to success in the freelance world is not just developing contacts, but keeping up your contacts.
The first time I went freelance over a decade ago, a successful writing acquaintance (who’s even more successful now than she was then) gave me her best trick for scaring up work. Simply send a bcc’ed email to your professional contacts with a roundup of the things you’ve been up to in your work life: an announcement, some clips, a publishing victory, a new research project, whatever. I was shocked by how well it worked the first time I tried it.
Instagram Stories, Facebook posts, Mailchimp newsletters, etc. work in much the same way as this simple group email. Being top-of-mind leads to assignments. You want to be top-of-mind.
In the meantime, you are now your own writing instructor! Put yourself in, Coach.