I often get asked this question by non-writers. And, if solicited, I usually end up giving them a few common tips (like read every day and write every day) that I am sure anyone could give them. But ever since I moved to an editor role at work (since then I have jumped ship), I have been asking this question myself. How did I develop my writing?
In school and college, I used to struggle to speak in English and I still do today. I am not diagnosed with speech impairment but I do stutter, repeat words, and sometimes unintentionally mispronounce words while talking. But during those same years, I somehow involuntarily improved my English writing skills. I began writing for myself in 2010 (the blog was hosted on WordPress but is now lost) and thankfully, by the time I managed to make a living out of it, I was good enough.
Thinking back, this natural flair of writing came from three distinct things that I repeatedly did during my initial years as a freelance writer (between 2010 and 2015). At least that is what I believe. Here they are in no order of significance.
3 Ways I Improved My Writing
I would like to note that these are not actionable tips that will make you a better writer overnight, in a month, or even in a year. They are merely additional activities that you can engage yourself in in the hope of improving your vocabulary, finding inspiration, or gaining a unique writing style.
If you are looking to improve your writing, doing one or more of these three activities – along with what you are already doing – will help.
I Edited Wikipedia
Editing English Wikipedia articles helped me hone my web copyediting skills, along with a formal introduction into syntax, semantics, punctuation, and linguistics. It is where I first encountered the Oxford comma. My prolific contribution between 2015 and 2017 taught me brevity (an important skill for an editor), how to summarise large blocks of text, and fact-checking. Slowly I began learning the art of Wikipedia editing, reading tutorials and guides available within the open-source platform.
As I continued editing, my interactions with other editors helped me further. Between these interactions with editors living across the globe, I learned the distinct usage of sentence and title cases. Years later I would use that wisdom to create brand/content guidelines for an American multinational.
But more than writing and editing, Wikipedia editing taught me the arts of referencing and web research. In Wikipedia, I learned about good web references, how to find them, factors that influence them, and how to use them to improve a write-up. This is more than just differentiating between a personal website (like this website) and an authoritative international news resource like The New York Times, Reuters, or Snopes. In a world overwhelmed with fake news, this is a critical skill for writers and journalists.
I also learned about the shady PR and SEO practices employed by websites to push their content as authoritative and verifiable. I learned that The Indian Express is considered a reliable source but The Daily Mail is not. Although this slants to the neighbouring field of journalism, this knowledge definitely adds to the writing skills, especially when you are writing for the web. It taught me that Google does not index everything about a given topic, and for that reason, it is lazy and therefore careless to depend only on the monopolistic search engine when you are researching online.
I believe that a full read of the English Wikipedia’s Manual of Style will give you enough tips to improve your writing if you already are a decent writer. Now that may give you something overnight. Although the MoS is strictly a style guide used for Wikipedia articles, it will give you a lot of insights into how such style guides (AP Style, for example) actually work and why they matter. This is not something that you learn naturally or through a curriculum, at least in India. Think of it as the next step after reading Strunk and White.
Wikipedia also introduced me to the MediaWiki language, a part of the engine that Wikimedia projects are developed on. It’s an open-source wiki software that was created for Wikipedia, and then later got adopted by several other projects, including many of those by the Wikimedia Foundation. I like to see MediaWiki as a cross between a coding language and English writing. When you edit a Wikipedia article, you need to keep an eye on both the texts as well as the symbols. It is when they come together that you learn a thing or two more about online publishing.
Unfortunately, due to my association with my former agency, I got involved in some actions that are frowned upon on Wikipedia. Essentially using the platform for PR purposes on behalf of my clients. And by the time I realized it, it was too late. I completely stopped editing in May 2017.
How to Start with Wikipedia Editing?
Starting is easy, but it’s the staying that takes effort. My advice to you would be: go to Wikipedia and just start editing. Don’t worry about making mistakes and edit articles of topics that you have a fair idea about or are interested in. In any case, don’t go with the sole aim of improving your writing. Wikipedia editing should be seen as volunteer work, sort of like giving back to the world.
Also, just a word of caution: it gets addictive once you get a hang of it. It’s a rabbit hole.
I Play Video Games
When I was in school and mad about video games, a friend gave me his CD of a game called Prisoner of War. I was from a household where personal allowance and generosity didn’t go together, so the very little I received was spent on maintaining my bicycle. I don’t remember ever buying a video game; it was always borrowing from my wealthier (or street-smart) friends who knew a thing or two about piracy.
Handing me the CD, my friend told me that I should keep my speakers on, and if possible, on high volume. “The characters speak a lot and they speak softly,” he said. Eager to play the game (the eagerness was more because I wanted to see if my system could play it as mine was an entry-level desktop computer running Windows XP), I rushed back home and installed it. It would go on to become one of my favourite video games of all time.
Story-driven video games like Prisoner of War, the Hitman series, the Max Payne series, and the Grand Theft Auto series have influenced my writing in more than one way. If the conversations between Agent 47 (the titular character in the Hitman series) and his agent gave me new words to learn, it was the exposure to international languages and various dialects of English in the GTA series. For example, it was in GTA I first learned about the word ‘cojones’ (meaning a man’s testicles) and that it can also be used as a cuss word. Other notable games include Firewatch, Bully, and Counter-Strike.
Video games are also the reason why I am a big fan of idioms and comical phrases. Idioms like ‘missing the wood for the trees’, ‘does the Pope shit in the woods?’, and ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ were all learned from video games. I would then find these phrases in other pop culture avenues like books, movies, web and TV shows, and music videos, which made it easier for me to retain them and use in my own writing.
I have to admit that although I don’t regularly use a majority of my amassed vocabulary, the knowledge does help me make better sense of the world. I have benefited a lot from this in actual conversations I have had in my professional life.
I still play video games when I get time but not as often as I would want to. A lack of time and resources is the main reason, though I still find myself attracted to them. The last games I played were Among Us, Hitman Absolution, GTA IV, and Saints Row the Third.
How to Start with Video Games?
Choose a video game with a story. Any open-world game is a good bet because you can then expect a lot of dialogues and cut scenes. Opt for video games on a desktop machine or consoles like Xbox and PlayStation because a bigger screen will facilitate the learning better. Mobile games are not recommended.
Make sure you don’t skip the introduction, cut scenes, and subtitles. Reading the dialogues and the backstory is what really matters.
I Read Print Newspapers
This is more common than the above two influences among writers. But I added it anyway to stress on the need to consume print media. I might look like a newspaper advocating print news to maintain my business, but let me tell you why I think it is better than online news portals.
For one, printed newspapers do not have fragmented information. If a story is reported, the paper is likely to cover the entire thing, usually in a single column. At best, it would be continued on another page. In news websites, it’s a pain to navigate through the content (what with breaks and paywalls). I have to constantly look at ads and be at the receiving end of their user-hostile website or pay up to consume the news. Print newspapers carry a lot of advertisements too but they are not as annoying or obstructive. Plus, I have already paid for the paper, so it does not slap me with clickbait or tell me how much Rahul from Lucknow earns playing rummy.
But my point is not the convenience or lack of obstruction. It is the access to columns written by smart people. I have been reading articles written by authors such as Santosh Desai, Jug Suraiya, Manu Joseph, Aravinda Anantharaman, Amulya Gopalakrishnan for years. And each of them has contributed to the way I write today. I have also learned concepts associated with journalism such as anchor piece (in a newspaper), writing a headline, brevity, and fact-checking from newspapers. This is why I spend more than an hour every day sifting through Mint and TOI (few thoughts on those who sell these newspapers). The Saturday (Mint Lounge) and Sunday editions of those papers respectively are a treasure trove of information, and contain tips and hacks and knowledge about everything under and over the world roof.
It is in Mumbai Mirror (at least when it ran daily) that I learned my share of sex-related information (to an extent from Dr Mahinder Watsa), which would go on to help me moderate an online community later. Why flossing may not have the intended benefits, why I should maybe wear two masks to avoid getting covid infected, why I should invest in emerging markets, how hybrid work culture is about to be unleashed, what an NFT is, and what is the overall makeup of my country at a given point are examples of things I have learned and continue to learn from reliable print media. The facts that they are printed and circulated nationally and come with a prepaid subscription perhaps add to the authenticity of the reportage. It’s far easier to read and take in the information and better to rely on news organizations that you have relied on for decades than to use Google as your director. With the high number of so-called online news outlets cropping up, it’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. (See what I mean about idioms?)
Looks like this point came out as a critique of online news outlets rather than an advocacy of print newspaper. But you get the idea. Even during the pandemic, I opted for the digital versions of the newspapers and avoided online platforms. I got rid of Inshorts soon after I began depending on it for my daily news diet, because of its opinionated snippets and insufficiency. I also avoided reading news articles that I found on social media and instead depended on occasional purchase of magazines such as The Caravan, The Economist, Economic Times Wealth, Outlook Money, TIME, Fortune, Forbes, Bloomberg Businessweek, and WIRED. To state the obvious, avoid broadcast news and 24-hour news channels like the plague.
One last piece of advice: it took me years to transfer the good chunks of my experience editing Wikipedia, playing video games, and reading print news into my writing. And it will perhaps take you the same amount of time to develop your writing the way you want it to be. Don’t expect overnight improvement and you will be all right.