Everybody wants to know the secret to success, and writers are no exception.
We often talk about all the things one must do in order to become a successful writer, and the list never ends. From studying grammar to sending out query letters and building a platform, writers have to wear many hats and stay busy if they hope to succeed.
However, most of those tasks are irrelevant (and success is impossible) if a writer hasn’t acquired the basic skills necessary for doing the work. There’s no reason to worry about submissions, queries, contracts, and marketing if your writing habits and skills aren’t up to the task of getting the project done.
Today let’s look at the three most crucial writing practices that are necessary to any writer’s success. Read More
A good piece of writing holds your attention. It flows smoothly and everything makes sense. It’s interesting and a pleasure to read.
Great writing, on the other hand, doesn’t just hold your attention; it commands your attention. You become lost in it. You can’t put it down, and when you do, you want to read it all over again.
The question is, how do we define great writing?
Some would say that great writing shows true mastery of the craft: every word is carefully chosen, every sentence is thoughtfully constructed, and every paragraph is brimming with meaning and purpose. If you’ve ever marveled over a superbly written sentence, you’ve experienced this kind of writing. Read More
Today’s post is an excerpt from the book 10 Core Practices for Better Writing. Enjoy!
“‘Research’ is a wonderful word for writers. It serves as an excuse for EVERYTHING.” — Rayne Hall
Almost all writers rely on research for facts and information. Even fiction writers and memoir authors, whose work is either made up from imagination or based on personal experience, will turn to research to fill in holes and answer questions.
We use encyclopedias, reference books, and articles from scholarly journals, and we rely on historical facts and data collected by researchers so we can write truthfully and honestly. We also use Google, Wikipedia, and a host of other material found online. All this research is supposed to strengthen our work and lead to better, more credible writing.
We absorb this information and then spit it back out in the words we write. Then people come along and read our words. Maybe they go off and repeat what they’ve read. Maybe they rehash our material in a blog post of their own. Maybe they use it in an academic paper, or perhaps it inspires a poem or a short story. The information itself is constantly making the rounds, getting processed, filtered, and regurgitated. How are we to sift through it all to find reliable facts? How do we tell the truth from the lies?
And telling truth from lies is essential in conducting research. Misinformation is widespread, especially on the Internet.
The Information Age
We are currently bombarded with information. It’s more accessible than ever before in history. Millions of facts can be yours with a few keystrokes and the click of a button. Yet, oddly, the spread of misinformation seems more rampant than ever. It’s becoming less common for sources to be cited and more likely that the so-called facts you read online are just somebody’s beliefs or suspicions.
I find the spread of misinformation grossly irresponsible (it’s one of my pet peeves). There are so many ways to get the facts straight, there is really no excuse for it. I’m not talking about misunderstandings or unintentional mistakes—I’m talking about either knowingly repeating things that are untrue or willfully failing to get facts straight before reporting or repeating them.
But what does this have to do with you as a writer? How does responsible research (or lack thereof) reflect on a writer’s credibility, and how does solid research and the use of legitimate citations lead to better writing?
Credible Research for Writers
It can be difficult to know when research is required to back up the facts. There are some things that we know from life experience or from working in a particular field over a long period of time. Other things are simply common knowledge. And much online writing (especially in blogs) involves doling out advice based on personal experience.
But when you’re presenting historical data, citing statistics, or quoting sources, you have a responsibility to get the facts straight and in some cases, you should also cite them, especially in nonfiction writing.
Citations are important for a few reasons. First, a citation gives your readers an opportunity to look further into the topic. Second, you are giving credit where credit is due, to whoever compiled the facts for your use. Third, by citing your sources, you are showing your own work to be responsibly researched and therefore accurate and credible.
How do you know when research or citations are required or warranted? Use common sense and foster a little curiosity. Start by asking questions. If you’re writing fiction, you don’t need to cite your sources. If you’re writing an academic essay, you do. In fiction and poetry, there is room for make-believe. You can use artistic license and bend reality, but beware of readers with high standards. For example, many science-fiction readers will harp on a book with faulty science. If you know your audience and publishing medium, they should guide how you approach research and citations.
How to Research for Writing
Here are some final thoughts to consider when you’re conducting research:
- Books aren’t the only research materials you can use. Watch documentaries, conduct interviews, and check newspaper and periodical archives.
- Check your work for claims or statements that are debatable or that warrant proof. Are you quoting a person or a text? Are you citing statistics? Are you making a claim?
- Be smart about the research you conduct. Confirm the credibility of all your sources.
- Double-check your facts (and their sources) to see if claims have been countered. Try not to be one-sided.
- Cite your sources in the text, in footnotes, or in a bibliography (for books). On a blog or website, you can include a list of sources at the bottom of your article.
Writing fast is the latest rage, especially among indie authors. Whether I’m reading blog posts or listening to podcasts, there’s an overwhelming emphasis among indies on how to write faster.
Nobody’s talking about writing well.
But there are a lot of benefits to writing fast, if you can do it. The faster you write, the more works you can produce. Theoretically, that means more money in less time. Many people write slowly or write only when they feel the urge, so jumping on the write-fast bandwagon can help a lot of writers get more motivated and focused.
But there are some drawbacks to writing fast, especially if writing fast means you’re skipping steps in the writing process (such as multiple revisions) or skimping on important elements of publishing (like getting a professional edit). Deliberate writing and professional-level publishing leads to higher quality work, and if you’re speeding through the process, you might miss some important details and end up with a shoddy book full of typos and plot holes.
Sometimes you have to choose between writing fast and writing well, but most of the time, I think the best practice is to find a balance.
Tips for Writing Faster
I have to stand firmly against the notion of whipping through projects and throwing them at people when they are hardly past the draft phase. But at the same time, I think a lot of writers could use some tips to help them pick up the pace, keep projects moving along, and most importantly, finish what we start and then put it out there for other people to enjoy. In that spirit, here are some basic tips on how to write fast while also writing well:
1. Plan ahead. Instead of staring at a blank page and wondering what to write, work out the details ahead of time. Try outlining to plan what happens in your story, or go deeper and write detailed story beats. Using an outline allows you to find plot holes and inconsistencies before you start drafting, which can be a huge time saver that results in fewer revisions later. That means while you’re drafting you can focus on telling the story rather than worrying about what story to tell.
2. Do it daily. If you write every day, you’ll finish your projects a lot faster than if you work on them only when the mood strikes. It might seem like twenty minutes or five hundred words a day isn’t much, but it adds up over time, and it’s a lot more than producing zero words each day.
3. Track your productivity. When drafting, it make sense to track both your time and your word count to get an idea of how many words you write per hour. Try writing at different times of the day, in different locations, and with different environmental stimuli (like sounds) to see which setting you’re most productive in.
4. Turn off your inner editor. Save time by ignoring typos and grammatical errors as you work through early drafts. If you make significant changes to the content later, early edits might end up discarded. Instead of spending valuable time revising prose that might get cut, focus on the content in your early drafts, and worry about the mechanics when the project is nearing completion.
5. Establish a production schedule and stick to it. If you know you can write five hundred words a day and you want to write a 50,000-word draft, you can calculate how long it should take. Working out a schedule is a good way to stay motivated. You might even set up rewards for when you reach major milestones like first draft completion. However, creativity is a fickle beast, so be sure to strike a balance between sticking to your schedule but allowing some flexibility for when you run into creative problems, like realizing you have to scrap and rewrite an entire subplot.
Do You Write Fast?
Do you have any tips on how to write faster? How do you feel about writing fast versus writing well? Do you think it’s possible to do both? What do you think about writing and publishing a full-length novel every month? What about every three months? Once a year? What if it takes eight years? Take some time to think about your productivity and your goals, and then get back to writing!
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.
When I write, I think about marketing early on — before I start outlining, let alone typing the first draft. My primary marketing strategy is to write the best book I possibly can. That doesn’t mean it’s the best book ever written, but it’s the best book I can write.
With each book, I try to improve my skills. I set new goals, establish fresh challenges, and look for areas where my writing can be strengthened. Could the language in my previous book have been more vivid? Could the characters have been more developed? Could the structure have been more compelling?
The best piece of marketing is the book itself — the title, the cover, and the promotions will sell your book, but they won’t inspire readers to tell their friends about it; they won’t motivate people to sign up for your mailing list or subscribe to your blog; and they certainly won’t entice people to finish reading your book or leave a positive review.
Only a quality product will do that, and the only way to produce a quality product is to produce the best writing you possibly can.
Practices for Writing Better
When I wrote 10 Core Practices for Better Writing, I started with a massive list of tips and practices that writers can use to write better. The list was far too long and too detailed. Many of the tips weren’t applicable to all writers. I needed to hone it down, so I zeroed in on best practices, actions we can incorporate into our daily routines and writing processes to consistently improve our craft. These are things we can and should do on a regular basis:
- Read. If you don’t read, you can’t write well. It’s as simple as that. If you’re not a reader, it will be blatantly obvious in your writing. Read in your genre and beyond. Reading is first on this list because it’s the most important thing for any writer to do — even more important than writing.
- Write. It should go without saying that if you want to be a writer, you must write. You can write whenever you feel like it or whenever there’s a convenient gap in your schedule, but you’ll get the best results if you write every day.
- Revise. Whether you revise at the sentence level or at the full-draft level is up to you, but revision is not optional unless you can afford to hire a massive team of editors to do it for you. Not only do revisions clean up your work; they show you where your strengths and weaknesses lie. You can then work on improving your weaknesses.
- Study grammar, spelling, and punctuation. The basic tools of your trade are words, sentences, and paragraphs. If you don’t understand the basic rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation, your writing will be in big trouble. Writers who can’t be bothered to learn the rules of grammar tend to produce sloppy work and weak prose. A little study goes a long way.
- Build skills. The skills you need to develop as a writer vary depending on what you write. If you write nonfiction, you’ll probably need good research skills. Novelists need to understand character development (the human condition) and story structure. No writer is born with enough talent to cover every skill required to produce quality writing. Figure out which skills you need and get busy acquiring and mastering those skills.
- Develop a process. Figure out which writing process works best for you, and you will increase your productivity while improving the quality of your work. You might save time by outlining, but if it causes you to lose your passion for writing, then outlining may not be right for you. Understanding how you work will help you work better.
- Welcome feedback. This is a tough one for a lot of writers. Whether you’re in a workshop, critique group, receiving feedback from an editor, or reading reviews of your work online, feedback is inevitable. Learn how to take it with a grain of salt; don’t let it discourage you; and try to separate yourself (your ego) from your work. At the same time, take it to heart. Absorbing and applying well crafted, critical feedback is one of the fastest and best ways to improve your writing.
- Collect tools and resources. Do you need to sketch ideas in a paper notebook? Does your clunky and outdated word processing software hinder your writing? Do you know where to obtain the information you need, whether it’s research for your book or information about the publishing industry? Collect your tools and resources and then put them to good use.
- Keep creativity and inspiration flowing. A lot of people think creativity is magic. It’s not. We may not fully understand it, but we can learn to cultivate creativity by paying attention to what inspires and motivates us.
- Engage with your community, industry, and audience. The writing community will be your best support system. Whether you form partnerships with other writers or absorb wisdom they share from their experiences, they’ll provide a wealth of resources and knowledge. Learning the ins and outs of the writing and publishing industry will help you forge your career path. Most importantly, make sure you know who your readers are so you can build an audience.
What strategies, techniques, and practices do you employ to continuously improve your craft? Share your techniques for writing better by leaving a comment.
For a more in-depth look at these practices for writing better, and for tips on how to integrate them into your life, pick up a copy of 10 Core Practices for Better Writing.
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. Each release creates new opportunities for marketing, so you are constantly able to promote your 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 indie authors publishing books as fast as once a month, but many are putting out a book every three months or so. They’re writing pretty fast.
Writing that fast is not a bad idea, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea either.
For the past couple of years, most of the books I’ve bought have been self-published, and some of them have been very good. The difference in quality between self-published and traditionally published works is decreasing with each passing year as indie authors learn the craft and the trade. Plenty of self-published books are even better than their traditionally published counterparts.
But I don’t think self-publishing has reached the same quality that traditional publishing enjoys, universally. I found that I didn’t finish more than two-thirds of the self-published books I bought whereas I finished almost all the traditionally published books I purchased.
A Case Study
Recently, I picked up a book by an author whose blog I’d been following. The book was in the fantasy genre, and my expectations were very low because it had been written and published in less than four months. I’ll be honest — I couldn’t see how a decent book could be made in such a short time. Maybe a full-time author could pull it off, or maybe a story in a simpler genre could be written in such a short time span. But this was a pretty thick tome, complete with a large cast of a characters, an intricate world, and a detailed magic system, and the author wasn’t full-time.
I was pleasantly surprised when I read the book and found it quite good. Good — not great. In fact, I would say it was average but had the potential to be a five-star novel. There was a major plot hole, which was glaringly obvious, and a few big speed bumps where there were problems with inconsistency and inaccuracy. These moments yanked me out of the story. But I couldn’t get over the book’s potential. And I found myself thinking, If this author had set the work aside for a couple of weeks and revised it with fresh eyes, and if they had used beta readers, this book could have been truly great. Maybe even a breakout indie hit.
The author in question had been in a hurry. I remember following the writing process on the author’s blog. This person’s goal was to publish as many books as possible as quickly as possible. While I think this can work for some authors, I doubt it’s the best career path for most. If books are written quickly and published before they’ve reached their full potential, readers will be less inclined to review and recommend those books, let alone buy other books in the author’s catalog. And in the grand scheme of things, taking a couple of extra months to polish a book that is then going to generate revenue for the rest of your life is probably a smarter career strategy.
On the other hand, another author I follow wrote and published an excellent work of science fiction in about the same amount of time. But there were some notable differences. The science-fiction author had more books under their belt and was therefore more experienced. This author was also writing a sequel in a series, so much of the world-building and character development was already done. And this person was already a full-time author. It’s easier to write well and write fast when you have all those things going for you.
It’s a given that if you put a little more time into a project, it will get better. A couple of extra revisions, beta readers, or hiring a developmental editor will cause the project to take longer, but these actions will also improve your book tremendously.
Some authors can write fast and turn out high quality work, but I think these authors are rare. They tend to be full-time, have plenty of experience, and know what they’re doing; many of them write contemporary fiction, which means less world-building. It takes more time to write a book when you have to create a world or do a ton of research. So if you want to use the write-fast career strategy, maybe simpler stories are the way to go.
Write Fast or Write Better?
Ultimately, every author has to find his or her own artistic vision, business plan, and career path. Writing fast has worked for some indie authors, but many who write fast are sitting around wondering, where are the readers?
What you do think about writing fast or writing well? Do you think one strategy works better than the other? Do both work? Which is more important to you as a writer?
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 or 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.
The Importance of Editing
In time, I learned the value of revising my work, but it was a lesson that did not arrive in the form of essays hatched with red markups. I learned the value of editing as a reader.
The first time I caught a typo in a novel, I felt smug. I thought myself quite smart to have found a mistake that the author had missed. Later, when I understood that each novel is reviewed by several editors, I felt even more smug when I’d find errors in books or articles. Not only had the writer missed the mistake, the editors had missed it too!
I also noticed that each error was a speed bump, which interrupted the flow of my reading. I’d be enjoying the story, and all of a sudden, a blatant misspelling or poorly structured sentence would throw me off course, and I’d be yanked out of the tale.
That was enough for me to develop a careful practice of editing everything I wrote. When people read my work, I don’t want them to pause to contemplate the rules of grammar. I want the reading to flow smoothly and totally uninterrupted. So writing and editing now go hand in hand.
The Absence of Editing
I’ve learned that in the world of blogging, editing is sorely lacking – and it’s easy to tell when a blogger doesn’t understand the rules of proper English or is simply being careless. In some cases, the work contains information and ideas that can’t be obtained elsewhere, so the value of the content overrides the necessity of good grammar. In other cases, the material is so riveting and entertaining, minor mistakes are easily forgiven.
Some readers will ignore grammatical hiccups or confusing verbiage. Others won’t notice them at all. But there will always be those who are so completely turned off by an unpolished piece of work that they’ll simply stop reading whatever you publish. Is that a harsh reaction on the reader’s part? Maybe. But if your work is so riddled with mistakes that it’s difficult to read, then why should anyone waste their time?
As writers (and particularly for bloggers who produce tons of written material on any given day, week, or month) it’s nearly impossible to hire a professional editor to check everything we put out in public. No matter how carefully we proofread and edit, chances are that a few typos will slip through over time. But if you aren’t polishing your work at all, and your writing is weighted down with mistakes, you’re sending readers a message that you don’t care very much about your work or the impression that it leaves.
Your Writing and Editing Habits
I’ll leave you with a few questions that you can ask yourself about your own writing and editing habits. Feel free to share your responses in the comments section or simply share your feelings about writing and editing (or lack thereof).
- Do you edit every piece of writing that you submit, share, or publish?
- How many times do you proofread a piece of writing?
- How careful is your writing and editing process? Do you do a quick scan or a careful review? Do you pause to edit sentences as you’re writing them, or do you wait and finish a draft before editing it?
Remember, editing is one of the keys to better writing, so be sure to incorporate it into your writing process.
If you have any writing and editing tips to share, feel free to post them in the comments.
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 stories (and other writing projects) 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 each 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 how to improve your writing, and you’ll get a little better every day.
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.
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’m 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?