The Best (& Most Ignored) Exercise for Writers

This incredibly simple exercise will make you a better writer … if you let it

by Hyphenman on Sep 29, 2015

Many writers waste their time with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) or meaningless writing exercises that don’t improve their writing one iota or get them to connect with readers in a relevant way.

A pity. Because the best writing exercise ever devised is right at their fingertips and seldom used.

How can 50,000 words produced at a lightning pace in one month – the goal of NaNoWriMo – sharpen your skill as a writer? Whatever you produce is unedited and unread. Churning out drivel at a record pace or churning out drivel at a snail’s pace still results in drivel.

The best way to improve your writing is to have it edited and judged by professionals. Apart from that, there’s still a way to improve on your own.

Reading, of course, can help, provided you take note of how the words are strung together, how the rhythm of the writing carries you along, how the words evoke an emotional and visceral response, and so much more.

But the real test is in the writing. If you read more than [CONTINUED] you write, you’re going to be a hell of a reader and a hack of a writer.

Writers write. Period.

But what to write. How do you get better? How can you ever tell if your writing is effective? How can you know if it gets your message across?

Simple. Write e-mails. LONG e-mails.

Consider this short list of authors whose letters were so compelling that they were collected and preserved in books: Saul Bellow, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, P.G. Wodehouse, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, George Orwell, Sylvia Plath, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and Virginia Woolf.

They wrote to everybody on every subject. To friends, lovers, fellow writers, newspaper editors, agents, publishers, and random organizations.

They expressed opinions and related experiences. They talked about love and pet peeves. They shared their anger and their joy. If it was under the sun, they wrote about it. If it was cloaked in darkness, they wrote about it.

So are you a better writer than any of them? Smarter? Can you afford to ignore the example they have set?

Thanks to computers, we can now write letters faster and more legibly than any authors of the past. But we don’t. We text, and we tweet. Thank goodness our deepest thoughts are no more than 140 characters long.

I practice what I preach. I write long e-mails. I even spell “e-mail” correctly. I’m funny, compelling, provocative, challenging, and sometimes outrageous. How do I know? Because the recipients tell me.

I re-read my e-mails over and over and edit them. Why? Because they are me on paper. I want to present myself in as good a light as possible. My e-mails represent who I am and what I do. I have too much respect for myself and my writing to ignore mistakes or awkward phrasing or clunky wording. I take pride in what I do and how I write.

Believe it or not, e-mails have made me a better writer.

How exactly do e-mails help you improve as a writer? In numerous ways. For example:

— They help you to say exactly what you mean.
— They force you to get to the point. You know going into it that the recipient most likely has a short attention span, that he or she is on the computer – or more likely, their smartphone or other mobile device – to perform tasks other than to read your long-winded e-mail.
— They teach you to be engaging and entertaining and to connect directly with the recipient.
— If you let them, they show you how to relate an anecdote, tell a story, share meaningful events in your life, express an opinion, be funny, ask questions, and, in short, to be the writer you want to be.
— They exercise your writing muscles and crystallize your thinking.
— No matter what kind of writing you prefer to do, they change the pace and give you a break. They let you switch from the distant to the personal. They call upon a different portion of your brain.

Can any of that be said for any other writing exercise that you can think of? For NaNoWriMo?

To derive all the benefits, a long e-mail can take time to produce. Many people like to use the lame excuse that they simply don’t have that time.

I correspond with a top-notch journalist who won the Pulitzer Prize. He writes short, terse responses, if he responds at all.

He claims he can’t keep up with me, that he can’t match the e-mails I send him. Up to a point, that’s true. I’m semi-retired and have whole days of time.

But the lie comes when we talk on the phone. We’ll talk non-stop for hours. Several e-mails could be written, re-read repeatedly and edited during that time.

So why doesn’t he write them? Because he has neither the motivation nor the desire to. He figures he writes for a living, and that’s enough. Plus, if he overdoes it, he might sap his energy to write.

That’s not only untrue, it’s silly. The letters from some of the world’s greatest writers, the ones cited above, prove that. They wrote letter after letter and produced book after book. They didn’t rest on their laurels or sap their energy.

They were writers. So they wrote. And never stopped.

You would be wise to do the same.


THE LAST WORD: Building and strengthening your writing muscles takes steady and consistent exercise. If you really want to improve as a writer, you should write long e-mails a minimum of three times a week.

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