Your brain has its own nefarious purposes. It likes to waste time doing dumb things. I should know; mine spent all weekend in front of the computer managing nothing but the muscles it takes to kill Germany in Civilization.
For most people, their brain is attached to them; they don't seem to leave home without it. This is unfortunate because most people's brains don't have that person's best interests at heart. No, these crafty brains settle into a comfortable non-thinking state that keeps the population from doing several things, one of which is critical thinking.
Now, if you're anything like me, you're outraged by your brain's enslavement of your body. “I'm not going to stand for this,” you might be saying. Don't say it too loud: Brains hear everything.
“But William!” you begin, “how will I ever escape the tyranny of my own lazy brain?”
Fortunately there are many things you can do to keep your brain under your thumb (metaphorically). You see, brains aren't nefarious by themselves; they're kind of like dogs; they're really quite friendly as long as you feed them, but as soon as they start starving, BAM! You're eaten. The problem these days is that people have gotten into the habit of not feeding their brains (and in some cases their bodies too.) You see, while America has continued to get fatter and more rotten (myself included), their brains have followed that exact diet (myself included again).
Fortunately, because you and I are both writers, our brains are already miles ahead! You've always known you were more cunning and sly than everyone else, and that's exactly why. But lets not rest on our laurels!
If you're starting to wonder if I'm ever going to get to the writing tip, you're almost in luck. You see, there are several things writers can do to keep their brains full and happy (but nevertheless ungrateful): Writing (of course.) But not just any old writing.
Particularly I find that finding new and exciting ways to approach a story, or ways to combine things into one, are quite fun. New words are fun to make up. Although I'll probably never use them, I find myself specifically identifying interesting words or even phrases as names or titles for some yet-uncreated character for a future story. For instance, when I was waiting (and waiting and waiting) for my car to get smogged, I got to watch a documentary on the Blue Angels (looped literally three times). I learned that there is such a job as Flight Surgeon for these Angels, and even more interesting, it has nothing to do with medicine. This got me thinking, “what other conventional words could be used in unconventional titles?” I came up with a few like Water Conductor and Thought Soldier. My brains likes me when I do these things, mostly because it's less of a brain exercise and more of an imagination lap (in the sense of physical exercise), and I've already written a blog about this.
Now, people would have you believe that the best way to keep your brain active is to do daily arithmetic and reading. While some of these people have this thing called science on their side, I like to think that there are ways to stretch your mind without having to invest in a Nintendo DS or have an education.
What I'm getting at is critical thinking. My favorite way to improve my critical thinking is by reading really horrible stories. Where can you find such stories? Everywhere, including Hollywood. Even terrible movies and television shows can help you start thinking about the who and why of a character or situation. This kind of critique has become uncommon in the minds of most people, which is why so many people's opinions usually boil down to “liked it” or “hated it.” It's not that they're dumb, it's just that they're out of the habit of really thinking about why things are good (or terrible).
To really improve, you need to learn how to take a story apart and examine its parts. Just like how a good mechanic would know how to take apart a faulty engine to find and fix the problem, a writer should know how to examine the parts of a story that have fallen flat, or sometimes more importantly, where the story succeeded. This is why there are some stories that were good overall, but upon rereading it, you discover lots of nagging little things that diminish the story. Or conversely, a story which has excellent parts but is overall quite poor.
Here's where I'd like to say, “I once wrote terrible stories, but once I learned what to avoid, I never wrote a bad thing again!” But I'd be lying. Every writer occasionally writes something that turns out weak; even the highly-paid professionals. The key to good writing isn't learning to never make mistakes, but learning how to recognize and repair mistakes once you've made them.