Set Yourself Up for Success: Seven Steps for Long-Term Writing Improvement, Part II

Last week, I gave you a few tips for how to establish and sustain long-term writing improvement. Those included:

1) Self assessment for effective training;

2) Building a strong foundation using the right tools; and

3) Buying a library.

This week we’ll conclude that list with four additional tips. And if you have any others, be sure to share!

4) Schedule your work using the writing cycle.

Many corporate writing trainers will tell you to make writing a daily practice. And most writing training contains advice about how to keep a journal, when to set aside your time, even how to establish your space. But I think even more important is how to schedule your time. And I return to one of the plastic, foundational tools I use in all of my work, The Writing Cycle.

You see, I think that each of the 6 discrete stages in The Writing Cycle requires a different sort of energy, maybe even a different sort of work space and medium. So if you’re trying to perform each task at the same time of day, in the same space, you might be fighting an uphill battle.

I suggest that you keep track of your most and least productive times of day to get a feel for your energy cycles. Work in chunks of 90 minutes, with 15 minute breaks for mundane tasks like email, filing, coffee refills. During your low energy 90-minute chunks, you can do things like brainstorm or copyedit. Reserve your high energy times for stages in the Writing Cycle that require dedicated focus. Tasks like arranging, writing, and revising deserve your whole self.

5) Make time to read.

If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the
tools to write

~Stephen King. On Writing. p 147.

I couldn’t agree more. Reading is the Secret to Becoming a Stronger, Faster Writer. Read widely, in a broad area of disciplines. Keep a reader’s journal. Pay attention to the language. And click on the link to see my earlier blog post about this very same topic.

6) Find a writing partner.

One of the joys of working in academia is that each semester, you are surrounded with a slightly different set of colleagues. When I was working on my dissertation, I took complete advantage of that. So when I wrote the first chapter, I had a wonderful creative writer take a look. He helped me tremendously with perspective and vision. In another semester, I had a social science writer take a look at chapter four. She really forced me to tighten my logic, add transitions, and craft a thesis statement – wow! How did I miss that?

If you’re struggling to find a writing partner, think about what you need. What is your goal? I needed someone to give me feedback. So I sought out fellow English professors. If you’re looking for a critique, seek out someone with editing experience, a professional. Use LinkedIn or other forms of social media to find

And before you pay for the service, try bartering. What can you offer in return that would be valuable to them? I always start with coffee. Then I move my way up to lunch. I’m a delightful conversationalist. And with my current critique partner, we swap manuscripts. So I give her as much feedback as she gives me. All of these are valuable forms of currency in the writing world.

And more often than not, I have found that people just need to be asked.

7) Create a collaborative writing culture.

This might sound like a daunting task. But remember that quote about being the change you want to see in the world? This is where it happens. And here’s how–

If you’re a freelance writer supporting yourself with your work, or if you’re writing creatively in your spare time, build a community around you. Check with your local library to see if there’s a writer’s group in your area. See if there’s an art council that might be interested in supporting such an initiative. A university or community college might have faculty members who would like to help your efforts. And the campus is a place you can post flyers (with permission) so students can see what you’re up to.

If you’re a manager or a staff member within an organization and you feel isolated recognize that other people are writing too. Start talking about it. When you get a writing assignment, ask your supervisor questions about related to The Writer’s Triangle to make them aware that writing is a process. Discuss your work in progress with peers and colleagues. When you buy your library, make selective works available to others in the office. Organize brown bag lunches to share tips you’ve been learning. And when you move into a managerial position, don’t just edit your staff’s work. Give them feedback and train them to become better writers.

So there you have it – 7 Steps to Long-Term Writing Improvement. Which ones are you implementing right now? Which ones were new to you? And what suggestions do you have?



  1. Mark Caldwell says

    The Writing Cycle download is very helpful. Thank you. And your video explanation of the Writing Cycle perfectly compliments the six steps.

  2. Anna Biunno says

    Good grief! I now know the root cause of my writing dilemma. As a technical writer with aggressive delivery schedules, most of the discrete stages of the writing cycle are typically compressed into one. The period after the brainstorming stage that is required for selection, arrangement, and syntax, is often passed and I slide right into the editing stage.

    You don’t need to convince me that I need to spend time in each stage if I want to improve my writing.

    I also like your suggestion of creating a collaborative writing culture. In my industry, we’re so entrenched in our work that we don’t allow ourselves time to collect and share our thoughts about the writing process.

    I love your posts; they are my daily tonic for maintaining optimal intellectual health.

    • Anna – you just made my day! I love showing people how to solve their writing frustrations. Glad I could help-Michelle
      P.S. I’ll be offering an 8-week course on The Writing Cycle in the near future. Keep an eye out for an upcoming announcement!

  3. Sirajudeen Ahmed says

    please can u help me,how i can improve myself in good communication by speaking good English. is there any good chat room that can enhance my speaking or Emoticon for chat web site.
    yours Friendly
    Sirajudeen Ahmed.

    • Hello Sirajudeen and welcome. I have a few suggestions for you. First, subscribe to podcasts of any news program that you find interesting in English. Both BBC and NPR produce high-quality news programs with excellent English language speakers. You can download and listen to these daily, and that will help improve your listening skills.
      Second, watch your favorite American television programs with the closed captioning turned on. That will allow you to see the action, hear the language, and see the text on the screen. (Although please be aware that the closed captioning is not always accurate.)
      Third, read. In fact, I would take this one step further. What is your favorite book in your own native language? Find a good quality English translation. Read the two side by side. Keep a reading journal and summarize in English a small passage each day. Copy – word for word – one or two sentences a day. And read the text out loud as you do so.
      Learning a new language takes time. But all of these suggestions will help. And I’m sure my readers have words of encouragement that would like to offer you as well. Best of luck to you Sirajudeen–Michelle

  4. I am disappointed that I didn’t read the first few tips first because these last few are absolutely amazing. I have been stuck in the same writing style for quite a while and I wasn’t sure how to shake things up. I can’t say that now. You have given me a ton of information to review that will help me grow as a writer.

  5. Love your tips, Michelle. I especially agree with #5 and enjoyed reading your Secret to Becoming a Stronger, Faster Writer post. Reading an excellent fantasy series in junior high was what inspired me to be a writer. I also like #7, and I think online resources (blogs, forums, online magazines, and Facebook/LinkedIn groups) would be a good supplement to the suggestions you made.

  6. Entire article is great!I love #5 and #6. I’m so guilty of writing and handling other mundane tasks that by the end of the day, reading gets pushed aside. I’m a serious bookworm, so it’s difficult to pull myself away from fiction or non-fiction once I get started, so I must save it for the end of the day.

    And, I hope to find a writing partner in the near future. I know it’s necessary, but I didn’t think about bartering. That should help make the asking easier. Thanks for the tips.

    • Hello Chamois, and welcome! I just told a friend on LinkedIn that I am terribly disappointed in myself for not having made reading a priority this summer. I will definitely reorganize my daily / weekly schedule for the fall to make more time for it. And good luck finding a partner! Keep us posted, okay? Best wishes–Michelle

  7. Michelle,

    I’m impressed by what you had to say to Sirajudeen. In another LinkedIn writers group, I had someone in circumstances similar to Sirajudeen’s contact me and ask for advice. What I offered was similar to your advice, but I took it a step further:

    I opened the question to the group, asking what other members would advise regarding the foreign-language speaking would-be writer. Surprisingly, I got not one response. I’m afraid a lot of people in this business look at it as a zero-sum game: “if we help someone else, that’ll be one less writing project for us.”

    I’m a corporate writer myself, and I’ve found Gary Halbert’s advice to be very helpful:

    Find copy you like, and write it out in long hand over and over. His premise is that working with other great writers’ copy this way gets it “into your bones.” I don’t know if there’s any scientific theory to back that up, but it’s a great way to learn the terms, structure, style and cadence of writers who really know what they’re doing.

    • Hello Dave, and welcome! I’m sorry to say that I’ve seen similar reluctance in my business when I’ve tried to suggest collaborative relationships. My own opinion is the better we are all able to communicate, the better opportunities we will all have for greater projects on which to work.
      Thank you for sharing Gary Halbert’s advice. I don’t know about the scientific theory, but the rhetorical and educational theory is certainly in place. Both Cicero and Quintilian advised it, and it was common practice throughout the Middle Ages. If it helped great rhetoricians like Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther King, Jr., I think we should be able to learn something from it.
      Hope to see you here again. Best wishes–Michelle

  8. Thank you for a great blog filled with useful information.

  9. Michelle, kudos for helping other writers with your suggestions.

    RE: Gary Halbert’s old-school advice is a huge waste of time. There is no scientific theory behind it. Bob Bly and his ilk retaught this concept in the horse and buggy era. Talk about busywork! It has no value, in my humble opinion, for today’s copywriters, although perhaps not all your responding writers are specifically copywriters. The best teacher is experience.

    Dave, many Americans are afraid to help foreign language speakers, especially from certain locales. I’ve seen it a thousand times. As well, a question like “Can you help me be a better English writer?” is quite a big request. It’s like the email I often receive, “How can I become a copywriter?” Tough to answer in a brief email. Anyone can learn a language, but learning the nuances of that language is very difficult and takes a good deal of time.

    Chamois,(good to see you!), be extremely careful in choosing a partner once you feel ready. There are many, many pitfalls, some which can be very difficult to recover from. Been there, done that.

    Michelle, one of your earlier points was “Buy a library.” What exactly do you mean?

    • Hello Victoria, and welcome!
      I’m sorry to say that I disagree wholeheartedly with your dismissal of the copy and imitate method referenced by Dave and attributed to Gary Halbert. It is in itself a form of experience. As I mentioned previously, it is a classical device recommended by many rhetorical educators including Cicero and Quintilian as well as Edward P. J. Corbett in Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. On pp 424-425 of that excellent book, he recommends copying passages as “[t]he first exercise in imitation.” He goes on to say that while “[t]his may strike you as being a rather brainless exercise, … it can teach you a great deal about the niceties of style.”
      He goes on lay down a number of rules, which are as follows (paraphrased for ease of reading on the internet):
      1) restrict yourself to 15-20 minutes
      2) copy by hand
      3) switch authors regularly
      4) read the entire passage before copying it
      5) copy the passage slowly and accurately
      And then he offers samples from some of the English language’s most gifted writers, ranging from John Dryden and Daniel Defoe to Susan Sontag and Alice Walker.

      As to my point about buying a library, I explain in the post how necessary it is for any writer to have certain reference works ready and at hand. A grammar handbook, a style guide, a usage manual, and a dictionary are the bare essentials. On the Resources page of my website, I explain why each are necessary, in hard copy, what they are, and how to make an educated buying decision. I also offer reviews for some of the top titles in each category.
      Thanks for stopping by Victoria. Your contribution, especially about the broad question of becoming “a better writer,” is appreciated, as are your comments to individual respondents. Hope to see you back here this week, when we talk about writing to become a better reader.

  10. Wow Michelle,

    I’m so glad I caught this particular article. I have a habit of writing whenever I have a free moment. This fluctuates tremendously from day to day and from week to week. I keep a journey but I have not taking the time to recognize when are the BEST times for me to perform certain task. Thanks for the “wise counsel.”

    “If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.” ~Isaac Asimov

    • Hello Jermaine – Daily writing is a fabulous practice. And I’m glad to hear you’re catching your ideas when they’re fresh. But do try to track your peaks and valleys, and see if that helps. And thank you for the quote – it’s definitely great inspiration, especially on a rainy week like we’re having. Best wishes- Michelle

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