They seem obvious, at least to me. Especially the first one. How does anyone improve a skill except by practice? Whether they’re athletes, artists, entrepreneurs, doctors — whatever — people get good at something by doing it. A lot. It’s the same with writing.
I think any book you read or course you take on writing that doesn’t involve actually writing, and preferrably a lot, probably isn’t worth much. You learn and improve by doing, not simply reading about it.
The second, reading, seems obvious to me too. But I would add that the reading should as broad as possible – traditional, experimental, classical and foreign (works in translation). Magazines, blogs, books. This gets you familiar with styles and approaches from which, eventually, your own may emerge. And the more you read the more ideas and ways of seeing you’re introduced to, and this is enormously valuable as well.
Finally, listening. I would say observe, which is more accurate, but the listening aspect of observation is vital. Listening helps to familiarize you with how people speak – the grammar they actually use (correct or not), the language they use (which can sometimes include weird neologisms), and syntax – how people construct their sentences, phrases and so on.
Observation is about paying attention to how people behave. The listening aspect is about paying attention to behavior through speech.
If you write, read and listen – a lot – I believe a writer can’t help but improve. If only through osmosis, your writing should begin to reflect the way people communicate through language.
(This is a re-post of an entry from July 28, 2004 — with a small edit.)