Have you ever put a project on hold because your writing skills weren’t up to par yet? Do you ever set ideas aside because they seem too ambitious and you don’t feel ready to tackle them? Have you ever wondered how to improve your writing so you would be better equipped to handle more complex and advanced writing projects and ideas?
I’ve experienced all these situations at various stages in my development as a writer, and I’ve learned that I’m not alone. A lot of writers talk about ambitious projects they’ve put on hold because they aren’t yet skilled enough.
If we keep practicing the craft and getting better at it, someday we’ll be ready to dive into writing projects that are beyond our current skill level.
Choosing Your Path
A few years ago, I started writing a novel that was going to be packed with interesting characters, full of exciting twists and turns, and set in a vivid, mysterious story world. I wrote character sketches, crafted pages upon pages of world-building, wrangled reams of research, and delved into extensive narrative. I ended up writing about a quarter of a million words over two and a half years — yes, a quarter of a million words! — before realizing that something vital was missing. There was no story, no rising action that led to a climax with a satisfying conclusion. The characters were just bumbling around in this world I had created for them. Some of what I wrote was pretty good, but I was devastated when I realized how many words I had written yet how far I was from a workable draft.
I paused to assess the situation and decided that most of the material I had generated was usable. There were hints of plot here and there; it could be worked into a series. I toyed with it a little more and saw a viable story emerging but there were too many threads, too many characters, and I simply wasn’t up to the task for no other reason than I didn’t have the storytelling chops for a story as complex as the one I’d been building.
It would have been easy to give up at that point, to say maybe writing a novel isn’t for me. Instead, I decided to set this project aside and try something a little simpler. Of course, the book I ended up writing turned out be more complex than I intended, but it was a lot simpler than the one I had put on the back burner.
How to Improve My Writing
I usually don’t think it’s a good idea to give up on a project. It’s too easy for us writers to get tempted away from our current project by some dazzling new idea, and it’s too easy for anyone to give up on art when things get difficult (like when we’re writing that messy middle). But we also need to know when to quit — or in my case, hit the pause button.
I still dabble on that project every now and then, and it’s coming along. Someday, perhaps in a few years, I’ll bring it back to center stage and it will get written. In the meantime, here are some things I’m doing to prepare myself for when that day comes:
- Develop books that fit with my current skill level, and try to make each project a little more challenging than the last.
- Accept that mastering the craft of writing can take a lifetime. Gear up for the long haul.
- Re-commit to improving my writing. I made this commitment years ago, and eventually got really good at what I do. But there’s still room for improvement.
- Do the work. It’s called work for a reason. Yes, many parts of the writing process are fun, but I’ve got to push myself through the parts that are not.
- Continue studying storytelling through various mediums.
- Slow down. These days, many writers, especially in the self-publishing realm, are cranking out books as fast as they can. Give the book the time it needs to reach completion.
- Develop, draft, polish, and publish. Then do it again.
- Read, read, read.
How to Improve Your Writing
If you set out to improve your writing, your list will probably look different than mine. Where I really need to build my strengths is in storytelling. I have plenty of writing experience but most of it hasn’t been with writing fiction. You might need to work on fostering the habit of writing every day, or maybe you need to strengthen your grammar skills.
Each of us is on our own path. We have different methods and processes, different ideas and tastes, and different goals. Figure out what you need and what works best for you, and keep writing.
People often ask me how to become a writer. It seems like a simple enough question, until you start considering the semantics of the word writer.
A writer can be someone who writes, someone who has written, or someone who writes professionally. Anyone who’s been to school has written something, so this is a very loose definition. Let’s reign it in a little. We usually don’t use the word writer to indicate anyone who has written; we limit it to those who write regularly and those who write professionally (they get paid to write).
So the simple answer is this: to become a writer, all you have to do is write. To become a professional writer, you need to get paid to write.
Becoming a Writer
We can quibble about the details: How much does one have to write to be considered a writer? Do all forms of writing count? What if you only write on the weekends? What if you’re a blogger — is that a kind of writer? Who, exactly, gets to proclaim this title?
I can’t remember when I started calling myself a writer. For many years, I called myself a writer the way scrapbookers call themselves crafters and people who play community sports on the weekend call themselves athletes. It was all about context: writing was something I did, something I was passionate about, but not how I made a living. Yet I claimed the word because it correctly defined a part of who I am. I wrote; therefore I was a writer.
Becoming a writer is a long journey for many of us. There may never be a defining moment when you suddenly become a writer. It may be something that creeps up on you. It starts as a question: am I a writer? Then it becomes a possibility: I might be a writer. Then it’s a process: I am becoming a writer!
All of this reminds me of The Velveteen Rabbit, a story about a plush toy that wants to be real. The message of the story is that it is already real. This deals more with sentience as the deciding factor, but with writing, I think it’s safe to say the act of writing is the deciding factor.
If You Write, Are You a Writer?
I regularly encounter people who write prolifically — every day — yet they are hesitant or unwilling to call themselves writers. Some say they can’t call themselves writers because they aren’t formally trained, they haven’t finished a book, or their work hasn’t been published.
Well, if you write every day, what are you if not a writer?
If you don’t claim the word writer for yourself, you’ll end up in a perpetual state of becoming a writer without ever being a writer.
So I say if you write, then you are a writer.
Being a Writer
The word writer doesn’t tell us much anyway. A writer could be a technical writer, a copywriter, or an ad writer. Novelists, screenwriters, and poets are writers as are playwrights and journalists. It can be someone who’s been published but not paid to write, or someone who’s been paid to write but not published. But it is most definitely someone who writes.
So I say this: stop becoming a writer and just be a writer.
Stephen King once said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
It’s obvious that one must write in order to be a writer. But many writers forgo reading, especially in the modern era of electronic entertainment where video games, movies, and streaming TV shows are so readily available.
I find that when I go long stretches without reading, my writing suffers. Mostly, I become less motivated, but something else happens: my mind stops thinking in words; instead, it starts thinking in pictures.
In his quote, Mr. King talks about being a writer. But what if you’re not a writer yet? What if you’re still learning the craft? What if you’re wondering how to develop writing skills? Do reading and writing still top of the list of activities you should be doing?
How to Develop Writing Skills
Many writers think the best way to excel at the craft is to do nothing more than write. Practice makes perfect, right? Well, yes and no. Practice certainly helps, but what good is practice if it happens in a vacuum? Reading and writing are critical for any writer, but let’s not forget that study and feedback are also essential.
If there’s one thing I can tell about a writer from a piece of writing, it’s whether or not the writer reads. If the writer doesn’t read, the prose will be awkward, and it will sound like someone transcribed natural speech (this doesn’t work in writing). The story often feels like it was pulled from a blockbuster film and pushed through a wood chopper. Very basic rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation are not observed. It’s just obvious. If you’re not well read or if you’re not reading regularly, it will show in your work.
It almost goes without saying that the act of writing is necessary to developing writing skills. But you might be surprised at how many people think that without any practice, they can sit down and whip out a decent piece of writing. I believe this misconception comes from the fact that we all know how to write in the technical sense — we know how to type or write letters, sentences, and paragraphs. Therefore, we are all already writers. But this is a gross misconception. There’s more to writing than stringing letters and words together.
I already indicated that all writers must read and write, but writers who are still developing their skills need to study the craft. Not only do we need to study the mechanics, like grammar, syntax, context, and the general construction of comprehensive and compelling prose — we also need to study our form (fiction, nonfiction, poetry) and genre (literary, science fiction, romance, etc.). From writing workshops to reference books, there is an inexhaustible supply of resources that will help aspiring writers learn how to develop writing skills.
This one is hard for a lot of novice writers. Many people have an emotional attachment to their writing and view it as an extension of themselves. A criticism of the writing is a criticism of the writer. But this is not the case. You are not your writing. It’s wonderful when readers enjoy our work, but a litany of compliments will not improve our skills (and in some cases may hinder the development of our skills). Look for people who will give you objective, constructive criticism that helps you strengthen your writing, and treasure their feedback because nothing else will make your writing better faster or more easily than a well crafted critique that you then apply to your work.
The Cornerstones of a Writer’s Skill Development
Most of us will undergo heavy skill development before we’re ready to write professionally. By using these four practices of reading, writing, studying, and getting feedback on our work as the cornerstones of our practice, we can develop strong skills that will be with us for the entire span of our careers.
But even after we’ve started writing for publication and can call ourselves working writers or published authors, we should keep our craft fresh and sharp by continuing to regularly engage in skill development. That’s when reading and writing become our most important activities; we can scale back on studying and getting feedback, but we shouldn’t forgo them altogether.
Do you put a lot of thought into how to develop writing skills? What tools, practices, and methods have been most helpful in your development as a writer?
As an editor and writing coach, I often receive requests from people who are seeking writing help. Some are seeking professional services; they want someone to edit a book they’ve written or coach them through the process of writing a book. Other times, I get questions about writing that range from simple to complicated. One person might send me a sentence and ask if it’s grammatically correct; another will ask what they should do to become a rich and famous author.
We all need a little help every now and then, and there’s nothing wrong with asking questions or seeking advice. But to get the right kind of writing help, it makes sense to start by understanding what kind of help you need.
It also makes sense to seek help in the right places and from the right people. Too many times, I’ve seen people dishing out grammar tips and writing advice that were just plain wrong. For example, I’ve seen people say that using the serial comma is correct all the time, and I’ve seen people saying you should never use it. They are both wrong; it’s a style issue, not a grammar issue, which means it’s not a matter of correctness. There is no right or wrong answer.
On several occasions, people have left comments or sent emails to let me know I’d made a grammatical mistake on a blog post. This causes my heart rate to speed up, and I quickly check my text. There have been occasions when a thoughtful reader has helped me catch a typo — but there have been other occasions when I’ve taken time to check my work and double check my trusty resources only to find that my original text was correct and the person who was trying to make a correction was wrong.
I think most people have good intentions and are only sharing with others whatever they were taught. But these situations demonstrate why it’s important to know what kind of writing help you need and then get that help from a reliable source.
Before Seeking Writing Help
Before you reach out and ask for writing help, there are a few things you can do to make sure you get the help you need:
1. Define your problem.
It’s difficult to get help if you’re not sure what kind of help you need. Sometimes you’ll realize that you don’t need help at all. For example, if you’re trying to decide whether your main character is tall or short, that’s not something you need help with. You just need to consider the needs of the story you want to tell and make your own decision. On the other hand, if you’re running into difficulty at every twist and turn in your story and are finding it impossible to make decisions because you’re not sure what the story needs, then maybe a developmental editor or writing coach will be able to help you.
2. Try to find the answer on your own.
If you have a simple question about whether a word should be capitalized or where a comma should be placed, try looking it up before asking around. This is a good and necessary habit for any writer. You’re going to have lots of questions as your writing progresses, and it’s best to become self-reliant and use the resources that are available to you, like grammar and style guides. When you put a little effort into finding answers on your own, you’re more likely to learn from the experience and the question is less likely to arise again in the future.
3. Check to make sure the resources you’re using are reliable.
Use Google and Wikipedia to get answers to your questions, but use them wisely; make sure you check the credibility of any website you’re getting technical answers from. Anyone can pop up a site on the web and publish information, which may or may not be correct. Look for sources that are based on solid references. An even better solution is to build your own library of references, so you will always have accurate and reliable answers at your fingertips. For recommendations, check the writing references section here at Writing Forward.
4. Make sure the experts you consult and hire are credible.
There are many levels of editing and many levels of editors. Everybody starts somewhere, and you need to determine whether you want to hire a beginning editor who doesn’t have formal training and experience or a seasoned editor with formal training and experience. As with websites that publish faulty information, anyone can offer editing services. When looking for writing help from professionals, you’ll want to take their expertise and your budget into consideration.
Pause and Ponder Before Seeking Writing Help
Before going on your quest to get help with your writing, take a moment and make sure you know exactly what kind of help you need. Is it a problem you can solve for yourself? Do you need to consult an expert, or could you pick up a grammar guide and get the information yourself? Are you prepared to hire someone to help you, and if so, what is your budget and what are your expectations from their services? You’ll get better results when you know what you need.
Today’s post is an excerpt from 10 Core Practices for Better Writing. This is from “Chapter Two: Writing,” and it’s for people who are wondering how to become a writer.
First, Give Yourself Permission to Write
“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” – Richard Bach
I admire people who are fearless. When they want to do something, they do it. They don’t worry, plan, wonder, analyze, or seek permission. They simply do what they want to do.
But most of us are more cautious. We’ve experienced failure. We don’t like taking risks. We’ve seen amateurs trying to pass themselves off as professionals. We’ve had our writing critiqued and the feedback wasn’t good. We set the bar high — nothing short of a potential bestseller is worth writing.
When the mind is clouded with these thoughts, it’s hard to try new things. We don’t want to make fools of ourselves. And who are we to take up writing anyway?
Some people are intimidated by the blank page. Others are intimidated by grammar. Many think they are simply not qualified. There are plenty of reasons to refuse to write even if writing is what you want to do:
- I didn’t go to college.
- I went to college, but I didn’t take a writing class.
- I have a story to tell, but I’m not a writer.
- I was never good at English.
- I could never be as good as my favorite author.
- It’s too hard to get published.
- I don’t know anything about publishing or marketing.
- Writing is too hard.
- There’s no money in it.
How to Become a Writer
The first thing you need to do is stop making excuses, and then you need to give yourself permission to write.
Almost every excuse for not writing is fear based. You’re afraid you’re not qualified. You’re afraid it will be too difficult for you. You’re afraid of failure.
We all experience fear. It’s not unusual for people to want to write, but to feel as though they shouldn’t. I’m here to tell you that the fear may never completely go away. Most of the time, I crack open a new notebook or document and dive right in. But when I’m working on a big, meaningful, or important project, I get a little nervous. I procrastinate. I question whether I’m cut out for it.
But that doesn’t stop me. I force myself to write that first sentence, even if it sucks. Then I write the next sentence and the next one. Who cares if it’s no good? Nobody can see it but me, and I get to go back and clean it up before I show it to anyone else. I’ve got nothing to lose, so why would I let all those irrational fears stop me?
One day, one of my relatives approached me, sat me down, and said in all seriousness, “I’m thinking about writing,” and then looked at me expectantly, while I sat there thinking, Okay. So go write.
Suddenly, I realized that this person was asking me for permission to write. I somehow became part of the equation of whether or not someone would pursue writing. Which is ridiculous.
Look, nobody needs to give you permission to write. If you want to write, then write. Stop making excuses; stop looking for a magic talisman that will turn you into Shakespeare. Just write.
Am I a Writer?
Lots of people fret over this question. There are discussions all over the Internet about who qualifies as a writer. Do you need a degree? Do you have to have published something? Earned income from writing? At what point do you go from being a normal person to being a writer?
For me, the answer is simple: if you write, then you’re a writer. Now, that doesn’t mean you should jot writer down as your profession on a form or application. It’s only your occupation if you make a living at it (or any income whatsoever). But in a general sense, people who write are writers. If you want to split hairs and talk about writers who write professionally or who make a living writing, then we call those people authors.
The real question is not whether you’re a writer. It’s what kind of writer are you? Are you a writer who writes when the mood strikes? Do you wait for inspiration and then write only a few times a year? Is writing a hobby or do you want to make writing your career? Is your goal to get published? Do you want to improve your writing?
Are you wondering how to become a writer? Start by giving yourself permission to write, and then make a commitment to writing.
Young and aspiring writers often contact me to ask what they need to do to become professional authors. The simplest answer is to read and write as much as possible. But I like to place special emphasis on the importance of getting plenty of writing practice.
In the early days of self-publishing, we saw heaps of books published by writers who hadn’t yet put in the practice required to produce work that was of professional quality. Some of them admitted they were publishing first drafts without even bothering to reread what they’d written, let alone polish it, and that’s the mark of an amateur.
There’s nothing wrong with being an amateur. We all start somewhere. And there are readers out there who will buy, read, and even enjoy written works that are unpolished, terribly flawed, and peppered with typos and bad grammar.
But professional writing reaches for higher standards. That’s not to say it has to be fancy or academic or elite. But it should be clear and concise. It should make sense. It should be compelling. It should be the result of adequate amounts of writing practice — the practice you put in to sharpen your skills.
Get the Most Out of Your Writing Practice
For those who are at the beginning of their writing journeys, let’s look at some of the best ways to get the most out of your writing practice:
- Acknowledge your current skill level. Whether you’re a beginner or intermediate writer, it helps to understand and accept your abilities. Know how far you’ve come, and you’ll have a good idea about how much practice lies ahead for you. You’ll also gain a sense of your strengths and weaknesses and what you need to work on in order to produce better writing.
- Be willing to practice for the sake of practice. If you study creative writing at a university, you’ll get a lot of practice through your coursework. Otherwise, set aside time for writing practice that is not aimed at publication. Writing exercises are ideal for this.
- Find projects and exercises that complement your skill level. There are hundreds of books, blogs, and websites that are packed with writing exercises (including the website you’re reading right now). You can even pick up high school or college textbooks if you want a more structured or academic approach. Be sure to scan through the exercises to make sure they suit your skills and your goals.
- Challenge yourself. If all you do is write Shakespearean sonnets, your writing will eventually grow stale and you’ll become a one-trick pony. Look for projects and exercises that require real effort.
- Take your time; don’t rush. When you’re writing strictly for practice, it’s tempting to hurry because it feels like work and you want to be done with it. But you will get more out of your writing practice if you slow down and focus on what you’re doing. Pay attention to the details, refine your sentences, and give your writing the attention it deserves.
- Try new things. I can’t recommend this strongly enough. Most of us have a niche — we want to write poetry or science fiction. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut when you never step outside your favorite forms and genres. But doing so will broaden your skills and result in fresh writing that isn’t weighed down with tropes, formulas, and stereotypes.
- Always polish your work! It’s easy to finish a writing exercise and be done with it after the first draft. After all, it’s just an exercise, right? Wrong! Revision is an important step in your writing practice. Don’t skip it.
- Show your work to a friend or mentor. Find a reader or writer with a good eye and ask them to look over your exercises and offer some feedback. You don’t have to get feedback on every exercise you do, but it’s helpful to get an outside perspective on occasion. Again, if you’re in a structured program, you’ll get feedback from your instructors and peers. Writing groups are also a great way to get feedback.
Even people who are dripping with talent or born prodigies must practice in order to become truly proficient at their trades. Practicing doesn’t mean you’re trying to become an elitist or a snob. It simply means you want to reach a point where you can produce quality work, writing that is worth reading. If you put in the hours and the work, you’ll feel good about sharing and publishing your writing.
How often do you practice writing? Do you have any tips or suggestions to share with other writers who need writing practice? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing.
Today’s post is an excerpt from 10 Core Practices for Better Writing. This comes from “Chapter Eight: Tools and Resources,” and it examines a writer’s need for a place to write.
A Place to Write
“You want to be a writer, don’t know how or when? Find a quiet place, use a humble pen.” — Paul Simon
Many books I’ve read on the craft of writing say that you should start by creating a special place where you can write. It can be an entire room or just a desk in a corner. Maybe you like to write at a local café or park.
It’s not a bad idea. A dedicated writing space can be free of distractions. If you can manage an entire room (some writers set up in a closet), you can keep others out when you’re doing your work (just put a sign on the door: “writer at work, do not disturb”). You can fill your space with the tools and resources you need (pens, notebooks, laptop, reference materials, etc.) and it can be decorated with whatever inspires you.
But that’s not realistic for everyone. Personally, I’ve never been able to set up a place just for my creative writing. When I write in a notebook, I usually curl up on the couch or sprawl out on my bed. When I work on the computer, I sit at my work desk, which is where I perform my day job and do lots of other things, from paying the bills to watching my favorite TV shows.
A dedicated writing space is nice but limiting. You’ll end up writing in a single location to the exclusion of all other places you could write. You might even become dependent on your own special writing space. If you’re ever away from it or if you have to give it up, it could negatively affect your productivity. You’ll be far more creative and productive if you train yourself to do the exact opposite: write anywhere and everywhere—on the bus or train, at your desk, or in a bustling café.
You can set up a special space too, but try to avoid relying on it for all your writing sessions.
- A busy, crowded café might seem distracting, but maybe you’ll be inspired by the people you see there.
- A quiet room may sound ideal, but is it too isolated? Some writers work better with some background noise.
- Think about your writing environment. Are there things to look at when you’re thinking through a problem? Do these things distract you, inspire you, or help you focus?
As you experiment with writing in different locations, pay attention to how each location affects your work. You might do your best work when you’re riding the bus or relaxing on the front porch.
It’s not possible to improve your writing overnight, unless you hire an expert to do it for you.
People study the craft for years, decades even, and still they strive to make each piece of writing better than the last.
Sure, there might be some quick tricks and shortcuts you can pick up and apply immediately, but these only improve your writing in small increments.
If you want to become a good writer (let alone a great writer), be prepared to make a long-term commitment to the craft.
Improve Your Writing
It might take time and energy to improve your writing, but it’s actually not that hard, especially if you love what you do. Here are some good writing practices you can adopt to ensure that your writing is constantly improving.
- Be professional. If you want to be a professional writer, then act like one. Whether you’re sending a submission to an editor or leaving a comment on a blog, always check your work.
- Practice makes perfect. It goes without saying that if you don’t ever bother writing, your writing will never get any better. Set aside fifteen to twenty minutes a day and make writing part of your daily routine.
- Use literary devices. Nuances differentiate good writing from great writing. When you understand literary devices and how they strengthen a piece of writing, you can use them to improve your writing.
- Read. I feel like a broken record every time I explain that to write well, one must read. However, it’s a simple truth that bears repeating. There are no exceptions to this one. A writer does two things above all else: reads and writes.
- Invest in your writing. Buy some books on style and grammar. Get a special notebook or a fancy pen. Pick up some writing software (I recommend Scrivener). Start building a library. Spring for a writing class or a professional editor.
- Participate in your industry. True professionals know their industries. As a writer, you should understand the difference between legacy publishing and self-publishing, know what role an agent plays, and what publishing houses do (and don’t do) for their authors.
- Get your tools and resources in order. How would a carpenter build without a hammer? Writers don’t need a lot of tools, but they definitely need something to write with, whether it’s a fancy computer or a cheap pad of paper and a disposable pen. Make sure you have any necessary resources on hand too, like style guides, dictionaries, thesauri, and encyclopedia (most of these resources are available for free online).
- Get inspired. Sometimes inspiration strikes when you least expect it. Other times, you’re begging for it but nothing happens. With practice, you can learn how to foster creativity and generate ideas that will keep you busy writing even when your muse is on vacation.
- Claim your space. Some writers swear by their writing spaces. You don’t need a cabin in the woods or even a whole room. A small desk tucked into a corner is enough space to get started.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff. If you’re always getting hung up on every little mistake and stopping your flow of ideas to repair typos and awkward sentences, you’ll wear yourself out (and lose a lot of great ideas in the process). Write now and edit to improve your writing later.
- But later, make sure you do edit. There’s no excuse for putting messy writing out there into the world. A rough draft is meant for your eyes only (and sometimes, a couple of select alpha readers). Polish your stuff before you show it around. Nothing will improve your writing more immediately than the simple act of polishing it.
- Pay attention to detail. You’ve heard the saying: it’s all in the details. Give your readers enough details that they can visualize what you’re communicating but not so many details that they’re bored with too much description.
- Look it up. Not sure which punctuation mark to use? Curious about whether your sentence is properly constructed? Instead of rewriting to escape the tedious task of researching the rule, take five minutes and look it up.
- Be consistent. If you use the serial comma, make sure you always use it (not just when you feel like it). Don’t switch from plural to singular in the middle of a paragraph. Don’t change tense in the middle of a story. Want help with consistency? Pick up a style guide.
- Be clear and concise. If your message or idea is getting lost in superfluous, fancy words and language, you won’t be able to communicate with people — at best, you’ll only be able to communicate with the elite few who are fluent in fancy talk. Clear, concise words beat big, fancy words every time.
- Check your facts. There’s plenty of room for creativity in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, but there are also times when you have to get your facts right or risk being laughed into the discount bin.
- Stay on topic. We’ve all read pieces of writing that strayed off on some tangent. The writer probably intended to connect that tangent to the main idea, but somehow the connection was never made. Cut that stuff out and the writing will improve drastically. Make sure your final draft sticks with the topic or the main plot.
- Take breaks. Whether you’re writing a 1000-word blog post or a 100,000-word novel, you have to take breaks sometimes. During a long writing session, take a break to stretch. During a long writing project, take breaks to clear your head, gain perspective, and get your bearings.
- Work with a mentor. At some point in your journey toward becoming a writer, you should make it a point to study under a mentor who is more knowledgeable than you. You’ll find mentors teaching classes and workshops. You can also join a writing group, find a writing partner, or hire a writing coach.
- Expand your vocabulary. We writers love to gush over notebooks and pens, but the real tools of our trade are words. Learn as many as you can. Use them wisely.
- Know yourself and be yourself. As you gain experience with writing, you’ll find some strategies that work for you and others that don’t. Find which writing process is best for you and then stick with it. And above all, write from your heart. Disinterest will show, so write what moves you, what feels honest and right.
Do you try to improve your writing on a regular basis? Got any tips to add to this list? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing!
You know that feeling you get when you read a novel and become completely lost in it? You can’t put it down, so you lose track of time. When you finally finish, you wish it would just keep going.
Isn’t that the kind of story you want to write?
Over the past year, I’ve read only a few books that I couldn’t put down. Unfortunately, several of the books I started to read didn’t keep my interest past the first few chapters. There was a time when I forced myself to finish every book I started, no matter how boring it was. But I don’t have time for that anymore. My book pile is big and my reading list is long, so if I’m not compelled by the time the second act gets underway, I move on and find something more intriguing.
As a reader, I’m on a perpetual quest for better stories. What does that mean for writers?
The Best Fiction Sticks
I’ve been thinking about what makes some books so easy to put down and what makes some stories impossible to let go of. After reading The Catcher in the Rye, for example, I had the strangest feeling that Holden Caulfield was a real person. I expected him to come walking around some corner and start mumbling about the lousy week he was having. This sensation lingered for a few days, both times I read the book.
But let’s go back further. I read Charlotte’s Web when I was about six years old. Then I read it again. And again, and again. I watched the animated film over and over. No matter how many times I read the book or watched the movie, I always cried at the end. To this day, quotes from the book and scenes from the film get me choked up. It’s a story that sticks.
The most recent book I couldn’t put down was a trilogy: The Hunger Games. I’m a science fiction fan, so the dystopian world intrigued me, but what really kept me glued to the page was the heroine, Katniss Everdeen. She wasn’t fearless but she was brave, strong, and honorable. It’s rare to find female characters of this caliber in fiction, and it’s not every day that a novel with such positive messages becomes a worldwide sensation.
Stories like these haunt readers; stories like these linger in hearts and minds. These are the best kinds of stories.
Writing Better Stories
If we want to write better stories, we have to read the best fiction and figure out what makes it so excellent. When I’m absorbed in a book, I always try to keep one corner of my mind focused on what the writer is doing so brilliantly to keep my full attention on the story. Some things are obvious: believable characters, an interesting plot, realistic dialogue. Other elements of the best fiction are more elusive. Here are some observations I’ve made about how to write better stories:
Give People a Reason to Read
If I get to the third chapter of a book and still don’t care about it, I’ll probably put it in the donation pile and pity whoever ends up with it. The characters have to want something badly enough to go out there and try to get it. The must have purpose, an objective if you will. The characters’ purpose gives me a reason to read their stories.
Don’t Bore Your Readers
Pages of description, minute details that are neither interesting nor relevant to the plot, and dull scenes that have no essential function to the story will bore readers to death. Keep the conflict coming and the action moving and your readers will stay up to read your book rather than reading it to help them fall asleep.
It’s the Little Things
Too much detail and description gets boring, but the right details can make an otherwise average scene extraordinary. One liners that make readers laugh, subtle (or overt) pop culture references, and symbolism that has deeper meaning keep readers stimulated.
Stimulate Imagination, Provoke Thought, and Pull Heartstrings
Speaking of stimulation, it’s one of the main reasons people enjoy reading so much. Sure, lots of readers are just looking for escape and entertainment, but plenty of us want to engage our imaginations and have our intellects challenged. Get readers emotionally involved, and not only will they enjoy your book; they’ll also become loyal fans of your work.
Do Something Different
Forget about trying to be completely original. I doubt that’s possible anymore. Every story is the result of stories that have come before. But that doesn’t mean you can’t put your unique stamp on your story. Give old story premises new twists and your stories will feel fresh and invigorating.
Write Smooth Sentences That Make Sense
This one is last on the list for a reason. One of the best novels I read recently did not have the best sentence structures. In fact, some paragraphs were fragmented and disjointed — not so much that I couldn’t understand what was going on, but it was a bit jarring at times. The story was strong enough that I didn’t care that much, but this type of oversight can mean the difference between a four-star and a five-star review.
How Do You Write Better Stories?
When you’re reading and writing fiction, do you think about the little things that make the difference between a mediocre story and a mesmerizing story? What was the last book you read that you couldn’t put down? What was it about that book that made it so potent? How do you apply what you’ve learned as a reader to your own fiction? How can authors learn to write better stories? Share your thoughts and experiences by leaving a comment, and keep writing!
Have you ever read a sentence and wondered what it was trying to say? Ever gotten hung up on a word that felt out of place because the meaning of the word didn’t fit the context? When was the last time you spotted a word that was unnecessarily repeated throughout a page, chapter, or book?
There are two sides to any piece of writing. The first is the message, idea, or story. The other side is the craft of stringing words together into sentences and using sentences to build paragraphs. Adept writing flows smoothy and makes sense. Readers shouldn’t have to stop and dissect sentences or get hung up on words that are repetitive or confusing.
Which is why word choice is such an important skill for any writer to possess.
Common Word-Choice Mistakes
The right word can make or break a sentence. If we want our prose to be rich, vibrant, and meaningful, then we need to develop a robust vocabulary. As we write, revise, and proofread, there are plenty of common word-choice mistakes to watch out for. If we can catch those mistakes and fix them, we’ll end up with better writing:
Repetition: When the same words and phrases are repeated in a short space, they act like clichés. They become tiresome and meaningless. Some words have to be repeated, especially articles, prepositions, and conjunctions. If we’re writing a story set on a submarine, the word submarine (or sub) will get repeated frequently. That’s to be expected. However, repetitive descriptive words get monotonous. Every girl is pretty, every stride is long, everybody taps their keyboards. The fix: look for words that can be replaced with synonyms or alternative wording and avoid using the same descriptive words over and over again.
Connotation: With all the synonyms available, choosing the right word can be a challenge. Each word has a meaning but most words also have connotations, which skew the meaning in a particular direction. Connotations are implied or emotional meanings that overlap a word’s official meaning. If your character is going home, there is a much different implication than if the character is going to her house. The fix: when choosing synonyms, consider the underlying meaning and emotional flavor of each option.
Precision: The best word choices are specific. One word will be vague and nondescript while another will be vivid and descriptive. Consider the following sentences:
He wrote a poem on a piece of paper.
He wrote a poem on a sheet of vellum.
The second sentence is more visual because the word choice (vellum) is more precise. The fix: whenever possible, choose the most precise word available.
Simplicity: Readers don’t want to have to run to the dictionary to get through a page of your writing, and most don’t appreciate the haughtiness that erudite writing evokes. If you’re writing to a highbrow audience, then by all means, feel free to pontificate, but to reach a wider audience, make your language accessible. The fix: check your text for rare and long words, and if you can replace them with more common or shorter words, do it.
Musicality: Sometimes, word choice comes down to musicality. How does one word sound in your sentence as opposed to another? If you’re trying to choose between words like bin and container, you might make your decision based on which word sounds better in the sentence. The fix: read sentences and paragraphs aloud to see how different words sound.
Thoughtful Word Choices for Better Writing
Whether you agonize over word choice while you’re drafting or during revisions, there are some incredibly useful tools for making word choice a breeze. In addition to using the tools that are at your disposal, consistently working to expand your vocabulary will do wonders for improving your language and word-choice skills:
- The thesaurus and the dictionary are your friends. Use them (especially the thesaurus).
- Read voraciously. Nothing will improve your writing and your vocabulary as well as the simple act of reading.
- Read and write poetry. Poems are full of vivacious words. You’ll develop a knack for word choice and grow a bountiful vocabulary if you study a little poetry.
- Play word games like Scrabble, Scattergories, and Words with Friends, which force you to actively use your vocabulary.
- Sign up for Word of the Day and commit to learning 365 words over the next year.
Have you ever gotten frustrated by reading a book that was peppered with poor word choices? Do you make a conscious effort to use the right words in your writing? How far will you go to find the perfect word for a sentence? Share your thoughts on how thoughtful word choices result in better writing by leaving a comment, and keep writing!