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What is the secret to improving your writing?

I sought this secret for over 15 years. Maybe if I found the right journal I’d write more, I thought. Maybe if I had the right pen.

But the secret is staring us all in the face. It took me 15 years to learn, but I wanted to save you the time. Here’s the secret:

WORK!

Stephen King says it best in his book On Writing:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

There’s no holy grail. There’s no skeleton key. There’s no magic bullet.

You just need to put in the work.

How to start a writing habit and improve your writing

If you still need a little convincing, I’m going to walk you through four elements to rapidly and consistently improve your writing. They all require work from you, and you need to do them. You can’t just sit around and hope they happen. Otherwise, you’ll wait 15+ years and have nothing to show for it.

#1: Read a lot

Stephen King reads about 70 to 80 books a year. I’m not saying that should be your goal, but if you don’t read a lot, you will miss out on a vast hoard of writing wealth. You can learn more from reading than many hours in college classes.

Are you an avid video game player? Cut out some video game time and read instead. Listen to audio books. Read during lunch. Make reading a priority, and you will see a marked improvement in your vocabulary and your writing skills.

#2: Write a lot

If you are serious about improving your writing, you should set a daily word count, set a consistent time to write, and—guess what—do it! I set myself the goal to write 2,000 words a day. I don’t care how many words you end up choosing, but you should make it consistent, and you should stick with it.

Don’t know what to write about?

Here are some suggestions to get you out of writer’s block and help you write every day:

#3: Don’t judge your ideas

“When are you going to finish your book?” my brother asked me.

I had been writing a science fiction adventure story and letting my brother read it in installments. I stopped writing because I felt like my ideas weren’t very good. I told him I would finish the book when I improved my ideas.

If you’re waiting for the perfect idea to strike, stop. Sometimes ideas just strike you, but you will never make progress as a writer if you are always waiting to write your book. You need to just write it. Some of my best ideas come from actually sitting down and putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.

Get in your chair. Get out your story. And write.

But do it without judging your ideas until you are done with your first draft. Stephen King suggests you first “write with the door closed.” This means writing for yourself because you want to, without judging your work or showing it to anyone. Then—when you are done with the first draft—you can open the door and let others in.

#4: Find an audience

The most successful times in my writing life were times when I shared my work with others (during the “open door” phase as talked about above).

I’m sitting in a coffee shop in 2009, watching my friend Chris draw in his sketchbook. I’m wishing I could draw like he does. He’s a professional cartoonist, and he teaches art at a local high school.

“Do you actually draw anything?” Chris asks me.

“Huh?” I say. “Oh. I mean I’ve done a couple of sharpie drawings. I guess I could bring those next time we meet.”

Next time I see him I’ve got my drawings.  “Not bad,” he says, “I was beginning to wonder if you were really an artist.”

What happened next floored me.

I started drawing again. I’d draw in my sketchbook and show Chris the results. He would give me feedback, and I’d incorporate his suggestions the next time I went to my sketchbook. I started showing my sketchbook to more friends and family, getting more feedback. Then drawing and writing started pouring out of me. I couldn’t stop it. It was like an unstoppable flood of inspiration.

And then I paused to reflect after two years and noticed something funny—yet obvious.

I actually improved. Here’s a video of my work on one character over the course of two years:

Did Chris do my work for me?

Nope.

But he kept me accountable, and he gave me feedback that I could immediately apply to my drawings.

Now get out there and write!