The Effective Writer: How to Write When You’re Not Writing

By Chad Burchett

The longest hours for a writer are those listless interludes between writing projects. Few enjoy the freedom to write whenever they wish, so the majority of us have to settle for a few scattered but cherished moments for writing throughout the day. This means that we expend most of our time away from our writing projects. How then can we efficiently maximize the time we spend away from our writing projects?

All writers have experienced a burning ache for efficiency. We all like to think of ourselves as characteristically efficient, but few of us have mastered the art. From my experience, an effective writer can do at least five things to develop his or her writing when not writing:

Read

Read and read voluminously. Read engagingly as if there were a seam of precious treasure laced on every page, waiting for you to mine it. This is the chief way you can redeem the time spent away from your writing project. The key is to ingest the content, structure, and style of the books you read and then assimilate your findings into your writing warehouse. This practice requires avid engagement. Critical readers are rare, but when you find one, you will likely find a proficient writer.

Learn to approach your reading in two distinct ways: for inspiration and for imitation. How can one read George Herbert and not marvel at his development of metaphors and intricate poetic structures? Or how can one read Shakespeare and not wonder at his skill in capturing human thought or experience? The answer is you can’t. Or at least you shouldn’t. The great beauty of reading is that it activates our creativity. Exploit this reality, and let literary masters inspire your development. Secondly, learn to read for imitation—not plagiarism. What’s the difference? Good readers and writers don’t learn to recast old expressions (plagiarism); instead, they learn the art or style of the masters and let that style shape what they write.

Dialogue

Writers should also be avid interlocutors. This is chiefly for two reasons. First, good listeners better understand audience—which is no small feature of skillful writing. Learn to enter different perspectives and be empathetic. Seek to apply the same skills of effective critical reading to your listening. It will pay manifold dividends when you return to your writing projects. Secondly, be a good speaker. If you can accurately and coherently express yourself in conversation, you should be able to translate this proficiency into your writing. Writers who are effective and frequent speakers have an advantage in writing because they can sharpen their thoughts orally before they reconstruct them on paper. The practice of discussing your thoughts before you write them will greatly enhance your writing.

Observe

Every other skill assumes this one; however, because of its importance it deserves a place of its own. Some among us are more natural observers, but every effective writer should learn to make concrete, precise, and memorable observations. Strive to actively remark and engage your surroundings. Note those things which are prominent and those that are more obscure yet still important. Observation is the pulley system upon which our communication hangs. If we refine our observations we will be able to manage much more unwieldy subjects.

Record Notes

Oftentimes our most creative thoughts develop in our heads when we aren’t writing. Because our lives are busy, it’s easy to relegate all these ideas to memory without even thinking to write or type them out. However, this practice is deadly for writers. In my experience, I end up remembering about half of my ideas or at least I cannot remember them with the same precision they once possessed. I have learned to always keep a pen or pencil handy—or even the notes app on my phone. These are the life-preservers of a writer’s creativity. In recent years, I have grown particularly fond of voice recordings which allow an optimal hands-free experience for logging creative ideas. Whatever method of recording you choose doesn’t matter as much as your commitment to record your thoughts. Indeed, scrawling lines of notes have a mysterious way of reappearing in later writing projects.

Revisit Prior Projects

Revisiting your old writing may seem like a dusty, unconstructive practice, but the practice is invaluable for developing writers. The primary objective is self-assessment since one rarely improves by ignoring the past. As a writer notes the shortcomings of his or her argumentative or descriptive style or simply notes several reoccurring mistakes, the writer can labor to amend his or her faults and create a better product. This practice fosters coherence in larger, staggered works and enables improvement in every writing project.

Seek to implement this five-fold list into your daily practices as a writer. You may be surprised how much of your writing you actually complete when you are not working on your current writing project. Though you will be tempted to, don’t let temporary absences from your writing steal the invaluable opportunities you have to develop your potential as a writer. Sooner or later, that hillock of notes, ideas, and observations will become your trusted foundation for future work.


Chad is a sophomore at The College at Southeastern who is majoring in English and theology and minoring in Christian studies. He hopes to employ his love for writing and his delight in theology to edify the church and evangelize the nations. Chad desires to magnify the beauty and supremacy of Christ through well-crafted art and vivid literature. He enjoys helping others develop their passions and skills with excellence so that the excellencies of Christ might be luminously displayed through them.

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