As I travel around the Internet reading blogs, watching interviews, and listening to podcasts on writing, I’ve noticed that much of the focus is not on writing at all. There’s a lot of talk about writing fast, e-books versus paper books, and the fate of brick-and-mortar bookstores. But most of the chatter is focused on marketing: book covers, ad buys, pricing strategies, funnels, giveaways, and a host of other promotional tactics and strategies.
All these things are important to an author’s career. But I sometimes wonder if we’ve lost sight of what matters most: the craft. I find very few experts offering advice on writing better and producing higher quality work.
Writing requires a rather large skill set, and while talent gives the luckiest scribes a boost, there are many elements of craft that must be learned and can only be mastered through diligent, long-term study and practice. The most brilliant marketing in the world won’t turn a mediocre book into a phenomenon. Sure, marketing can give a mediocre piece of work a boost, and works of average quality can become quite successful. However, nothing increases your odds of success as much as top-notch writing and storytelling. Read More
In recent years there has been a trend building around writing fast. The idea is to finish a book as quickly as possible, publish it, and start immediately on the next book. You quickly end up with a decent sized catalog, and because with each release, you create new opportunities for marketing, you are constantly able to promote new works.
This trend seems to be more popular among indie authors, since traditionally published authors are contractually obligated to go through the longer process that many publishers require, which includes multiple revisions of the work and carefully timed publication dates. I’ve seen authors publishing books as fast as once a month, but many are putting out a book every three months or so.
It’s not a bad idea, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea either. Read More
Your writing leaves an impression. Readers will come away from your work feeling informed, entertained, inspired, even moved.
Or will they?
When I was in high school and during my early college days, I wrote papers and turned them in without giving them so much as a second glance — no revisions or rewriting and no proofreading and editing. My papers often came back marked up, and the markings almost always pointed out grammar, spelling, and punctuation rules that I already knew – but because I hadn’t bothered to edit my work, I’d accidentally broken the rules and turned in an unpolished piece of writing that was peppered with typos.
Writing and editing are essential steps in any project, but too often, we skimp on editing and end up with unpolished prose. Read More
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.