He’s one of the most successful poets in the world. In fact, Taylor Mali has accomplished what most people believe to be impossible – he’s a full-time poet.
Mali gained a following through his involvement with the poetry slam movement and catapulted himself into a successful career writing and performing poetry.
He also spent nine years working as a teacher. His experience in the classroom often provides subject matter for his poems: Read more
It seems like every writer wants someone to read his or her work and provide feedback so they can make their writing better.
Trouble is, many writers want nothing more than praise. When they hear that their writing could actually use some work, some writers freeze up. Others go through the feedback and argue it point by point. A few will even launch into a tirade of sobbing or screaming.
Critiques are designed to help writers, not to offend them or make them feel unworthy. But the human ego is a fragile and funny thing. Some folks simply can’t handle the notion that despite all their hard work, the project they’ve written is less than perfect.
As a writer, you have to decide whether you truly want to excel at your craft. If you do, then you need to put your ego aside and learn how to accept critiques graciously. If you can’t do that, there’s a good chance that your writing will never improve and your work will always be mediocre.
The Importance of Critiques
Critiques are not tools of torture. They are meant to help writers. If the critique is put together in a thoughtful and meaningful way, it should lift the writer’s spirits by pointing out strengths in the piece, but it should also raise some red flags by marking areas that need improvement.
Usually, critiques sting a little. That’s okay. Sometimes, you’ll get lucky and your suspicions about what is weak in your writing will only be confirmed. Other times, you’ll be surprised that the critic found weaknesses in parts of the work that you thought were the strongest.
With practice and by following the tips below, you’ll learn how to overcome your own ego, how to obtain a beneficial critique and evaluate it objectively, apply it to your writing smartly, and for all that, you’ll be a better writer.
Tips for Accepting Writing Critiques, and then Writing Better
- Find someone who is well-read, tactful, honest, and knowledgeable about writing. If you can find a critic who possesses all these traits, then you have overcome the first hurdle.
- Polish your work as much as you can before handing it over. Do not send a rough draft to someone who will be critiquing your work, otherwise much of the feedback you get may address problems you could have found and addressed yourself. The point of a critique is to step beyond your own perspective and abilities. Note: some writers use alpha readers who read the rough draft and then give feedback on the content, usually the story. This is not a critique in the traditional sense. It’s more for testing general ideas.
- Don’t harass the person who is critiquing your work by calling them every day, especially if they’re doing you a favor. If you are working under any kind of deadline, plan accordingly.
- If possible, do not review the critique in the presence of the person who prepared it. The best way to first review a critique is to set aside some time alone.
- You may have an emotional reaction. Some of the feedback may make you angry or despondent. Know that this is normal and it will pass.
- After you review the critique, let it sit for a day or two. In time, your emotions will subside and your intellect will take over. The reasonable part of your brain will step in and you’ll be able to absorb the feedback objectively.
- Revisit the critique with an open mind. Try to treat your own writing as if it were not yours at all. As you review it, ask yourself how the suggestions provided can be applied and envision how they will make your work better.
- Figure out what is objective and what is personal in the critique. Critics are human. Some of their findings may be technical, mistakes that you should definitely fix. Other findings will be highly subjective (this character is unlikable, this dialogue is unclear, etc.). You may have to make judgment calls to determine where the critic is inserting his or her personal tastes.
- Decide what you’ll use and what you’ll discard. Remember that the critic is not in your head and may not see the big picture of your project.
- Thank the critic. After all, he or she took the time to help you, and even if you didn’t like what they had to say or how they said it–even if the critique itself was weak–just be gracious, say thanks, and move on.
- Revise. Now you can take the feedback you’ve received and apply it to your work. Edit and tweak the project based on the suggestions that you think will best benefit the piece.
- Long-term applications: you can apply the feedback to future projects too. Take what you learned from this critique and use it when you’re working on your next project. In this way, your writing (not just a single project) will consistently improve.
In some cases, you may not have any control over who critiques your work. If it’s published, then anyone can assess it. If you’re taking a class or workshop, then peer-to-peer critiques may be required. In cases like these, it’s essential that you keep a cool head. Even if someone is unnecessarily harsh or rude in their (uninvited) delivery, respond tactfully and diplomatically.
If you can obtain useful critiques and apply the feedback to your work, your writing will dramatically improve. Critiques are one of the most effective and fastest tracks to making your writing better. But they won’t help you one bit if you can’t accept them graciously.
Good luck with your critiques, and keep writing.
The more you write, the better your writing becomes. That’s not an opinion; it’s a fact. Experience breeds expertise, so if you write a lot, you’ll become an expert writer.
Ideally, you’ll write every day.
Writers who come to the craft out of passion never have a problem with this. They write every day because they need to write every day. Writing is not a habit, an effort, or an obligation; it’s a necessity.
Other writers struggle with developing a daily writing habit. They start manuscripts, launch blogs, purchase pretty diaries and swear they’re going to make daily entries. Months later, frustrated and fed up, they give up.
When weeks have passed and you haven’t written a single word, when unfinished projects are littering your desk and clogging up your computer’s hard drive, you can give up entirely and take out a lifetime lease on a cubicle in a drab, gray office. Or, you can step back, admit that you have a problem, and make some changes.
One thing sets successful writers apart from unsuccessful writers: commitment. When you’re committed to the work, your chances for success increase exponentially. And one of the easiest, most natural, and creative ways to commit to your own writing and produce better writing over time is to keep a writing journal.
Writers who are not working at the professional level are juggling their writing projects with a full-time job, families, school, and a host of other obligations. Writers also get stuck. You’re working on a manuscript and then one day, the ideas just stop flowing. You decide to step away for a day or two, and three months later, you’ve practically forgotten all about that book you were writing. In fact, you can’t remember the last time you sat down and actually wrote something.
Journal writing is many things, but first and foremost, it’s a solution. Journaling is best known for its artistry and highly recognized for its self-help (vent-and-rant) benefits. But few young or new writers realize that a journal is a writer’s most sacred space. It’s a place where you can jot down or flesh out ideas, where you can freewrite or work on writing exercises when you’re blocked, and where you can tackle writing prompts when you’re short on time. It’s a space where you develop better writing skills and learn new techniques through trial and error.
Inspiration and Productivity
The three biggest barriers to a writer’s success are writer’s block, time management, and procrastination.
If you’re working on a big project and writer’s block sets in, a good solution is to take a break and work on something else for a while. Too many writers take “something else” to mean “a different novel.” Instead of breaking from one big project to launch another big project (and ultimately ending up with several unfinished projects), use the break for journal writing. This gives you time to step away from the project that is stuck and provides a space for you to continue writing (and possibly to work through the problems you’re having with your project).
Everyone wants to write a book, even people who don’t consider themselves writers and who don’t want to be writers. But who has the time? Aspiring writers often complain that they’d love to take their writing hobby to the next level, but they are too busy. Journal writing is an ideal way to bridge that gap. Journaling allows you to keep your writing skills sharp and develop ideas, so when there is time to write that book, you’re ready for it.
You can keep a journal on your computer (or you can use an old typewriter, if that kind of thing appeals to you). But most writers use a good, old-fashioned notebook: pen and paper. While we can certainly crank out more words when we type, we are also at risk for the many distractions of the computer and the Internet. When your journal writing sessions are offline, your productivity may increase tenfold because you spend the entire session writing. After all, your journal doesn’t have Twitter or solitaire on it.
Good Writing Habits
The truth is, you don’t have to write every single day to be a professional or published writer. Daily writing is the best practice but many writers keep a regular, five-day work week. A few writers get by on the binge-and-purge model, writing heavily for a few months, then not writing at all for a while. But one rule remains firm: those who succeed treat their writing as a job and they commit to it.
Journal writing is an ideal way for writers to fulfill that commitment. When you keep a journal, you rid yourself of excuses. You can no longer say that you’re stuck on a plot twist because you can write in your journal until the plot becomes untwisted. In fact, writing in your journal may help you do just that. When you’re short on time, you can always turn to your journal for a quick, ten-minute writing session, even while larger projects are sitting on the back burner. And your journal is distraction-free, so you can stay focused during your journal writing sessions.
Do you have to keep a journal in order to succeed and become a professional or published writer? No, of course not. There are many paths to better writing and journal writing is just one trail on the mountain, but it’s a trail that is entrenched with the footprints of successful writers throughout history who have benefited from journaling.
Do you keep a journal? How do you use journal writing? How often do you write in your journal? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.
If you want to improve your writing, you’re going to have to work at it, because let’s face it, nobody gets by on sheer talent. You’re going to need to acquire better writing habits and solid writing skills.
The best way to consistently improve your writing is through daily writing. When writing becomes part of the natural rhythm of your life, your work will improve in leaps and bounds.
Some actions you take to make your writing better may not involve writing at all. For example, you should become an avid reader so you can absorb language, turns of phrase, imagery, and story elements that were crafted by skilled and successful writers who have gone before you.
Another non-writing activity that leads to better writing is collecting and employing plenty of useful writing resources.
Where would we writers be without our resources? Fat, hardbound reference books and web-based databases packed to the hilt with facts and information are both bane and boon for us. Love them or hate them, one thing is certain — if you’re a writer, you need them.
There are some resources that we all use — the dictionary, for example. What writer doesn’t have that bible of the language sitting within reach on a nearby bookshelf or conveniently bookmarked in a web browser?
If you’ve ever caught yourself using a word only to realize you’re not sure whether or you’re using it correctly, you know what a lifesaver the dictionary can be. In a situation like that, you have three choices – use another word, look up the word to verify its meaning, or take your chances and pray for the best.
Every time you open the dictionary, you’re adding something to your vocabulary. You might be learning a brand new word, verifying what you thought you knew, or simply gaining greater understanding of a word’s meaning. You’ll also build your vocabulary by making good use of the dictionary’s close cousin – the thesaurus.
When you’re proofreading and realize that you’ve repeated one word three times in a single paragraph, there’s no need to break your brain trying to come up with synonyms. Just take a peek inside any thesaurus to find alternatives that will keep your writing fresh.
Writing resources like dictionaries and thesauri help speed up the writing process, and using them will expand your vocabulary.
The result? Better writing.
3. Style Guides
I’ve sung the praises of style guides more than once on this blog. Style guides exist to help you craft material that is consistent in terms of grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
As comprehensive as the English language might be, there are plenty of holes where the rules are unclear or don’t exist at all. Style guides such as The Chicago Manual of Style set forth standards that you can adhere to and also address many grammatical issues and rules.
There are a host of style guides available and you should start collecting them immediately. The style guides you choose will depend on what you write. Chicago is for authors and general usage; I use it in my freelance work and on this blog. There are other guides that are geared specifically toward journalism, academic writing, and many large companies and organizations have their own style guidelines. For more information and a detailed description of style guides, check out this post on style guides.
Better Writing Resources
As you build a collection of writing resources, much credence will be given to books that are packed with facts and information. These writing resources are the foundation and structure of your reference base, and they will all lead to better writing, but what about the fun the stuff, the writing resources that are a delight to peruse and a joy to use?
For example, books filled with prompts, activities, and creative writing exercises will stretch your limitations and give you fresh writing ideas. Lots of novice writers forgo these types of writing resources in favor of writing what they want, but the gains to be made by working through writing exercises and other creative challenges are immense and will surely pave the way toward better writing.
In fact, for those of us who aspire to becoming published poets and fiction writers, these creative writing resources may become the most powerful weapons in our arsenal. Make it a point to start building your own pile of such books.
Writing Resources are a Treat
If you’re truly passionate about writing, then you’ve probably already starting building your own library of writing resources. When you see a book on writing from one of your favorite authors, you snatch it and can’t wait to start reading. In the bookstore, you always check to see what’s new in the section where they stock writing resources, and every time you pull your dictionary off the shelf, your heart does a little leap for joy.
Writing isn’t easy. It takes a lot of self-discipline. Plus, the world of writing is competitive. You can position yourself to put out better writing by educating yourself with a collection of writing resources like those we’ve discussed here, plus plenty of others that deal with specialized fields (technical writing, copywriting, fiction writing, poetry, screenwriting, etc.) and reference books that provide hard facts so your work is well researched and accurate.
Have a little fun with your writing resources, and treat yourself to one or two new ones each month until you have a fully-stocked library of such works, which will contribute to improving your writing. Looking for recommendations? Visit the Writing Forward writing resources page, where you’ll find a list of excellent resources, including written reviews (I’ve personally read and recommend all of them).
Do you have any favorite writing resources? How have they helped you produce better writing? Share your favorites and your experiences by leaving a comment.
Writers are human, and sometimes we make mistakes. You’re probably aware of the most common mistakes in writing: comma splices, run-on sentences, mixing up homophones, and a variety of other broken grammar, spelling, and punctuation rules.
In my editing and coaching work, I’ve noticed another common mistake: redundancy. Sometimes, we use repetition effectively, but most of the time, by saying the same thing twice, we’re littering our writing with unnecessary verbiage. If we remove the excess, we can improve our writing by making it more concise.
Understanding and Identifying Redundancies
Dictionary.com defines redundancy as a noun meaning “superfluous repetition or overlapping, especially of words.” Its cousin, the adjective redundant, means “characterized by verbosity or unnecessary repetition in expressing ideas” or “exceeding what is usual or natural.”
Sometimes we clutter our writing without realizing it. We do this to fulfill word counts, to give our prose rhythm and meter, or to be descriptive. Sometimes we do it because we’re using writing as a tool to discover our thoughts and ideas. There’s nothing wrong with cluttered writing as long as we unclutter it before putting it in front of readers.
One of the easiest ways to identify redundant language is to ask whether we can remove it without losing meaning. Here is an example:
The lecture was boring and dull. It was putting Olivia to sleep.
The words “boring” and “dull” mean the same thing. We are told a third time that the lecture was a drag because it lulled Olivia to sleep. We can remove most of the first sentence without losing any details or changing its meaning:
The lecture was putting Olivia to sleep.
Redundancies can also be identified through repetition. However, repetition means using the same word or phrase more than once whereas redundancy means saying the same thing more than once. It’s a subtle but significant difference. Also, repetition and redundancy can occur together:
Charlie smiled as he approached the cheese platter. He chose brie and Gouda from the cheese platter and wished they were serving baguettes instead of crackers.
We see Charlie approaching the cheese platter. When he selects brie and Gouda, it’s implied that he selected them from the cheese platter (because we just saw him approaching it), so it’s unnecessary for the narrative to say that he chose them “from the cheese platter.” The narrative is redundant because it’s not necessary to mention the cheese platter twice:
Charlie smiled as he approached the hors d’ouvres table. He chose brie and Gouda from the cheese platter and wished they were serving baguettes instead of crackers.
Some redundancies are difficult to spot, especially in cases where the exact same word or phrase isn’t used:
Donna realized she was hungry. “I haven’t eaten since breakfast,” she said. “Want to grab a pizza?”
When Donna says she hasn’t eaten since breakfast and suggests grabbing a pizza, the reader will conclude that she’s hungry, so the narrative doesn’t need to tell the reader that Donna is hungry in the previous sentence. When information is revealed through dialogue, it doesn’t need to be stated in the narrative as well:
“I haven’t eaten since breakfast,” Donna said. “Want to grab a pizza?”
As you can see, it’s pretty clear that Donna is hungry without the narrative explicitly saying so.
In addition to broad redundancies, there are a host of redundant phrases that pop up in writing. For example, it’s redundant to say “let’s collaborate together” because collaboration is, by definition, done together. Here’s a list of 50 redundant phrases to avoid in writing. Read through the list and see if you can find a few phrases you didn’t realize were redundant.
Eliminating Redundancies to Improve Your Writing
Try this for practice: choose a recently finished piece and review it, looking for redundancies. Highlight them, then make another copy of the piece, editing the redundancies out. If you catch an average of one redundancy per page (or more), then plan on dedicating one proofreading pass to eliminating redundancies as one of your editing and proofreading steps. After a few passes, you’ll start to catch redundancies in the drafting phase and eventually, you’ll break the habit and improve your writing.
Are redundancies one of your bad writing habits? Have you ever caught a glaring redundancy in a piece of your writing? Do you think you might have missed a few redundancies?
Nobody’s born knowing how to read and write.
Sure, the lucky ones have talent, but we all start out learning our ABCs. Eventually, we memorize sounds that letters make, and we learn how they come together to form words. Pretty soon, we’re reading. Someone puts a pencil in our hand and then we’re scribbling letters on paper. At last, we can write.
It takes years of study and practice just to be able to write a simple sentence. So, what does it take to become a proficient and professional writer, to compose thoughtful and meaningful pieces of writing?
It takes commitment and a willingness to work hard at the craft. There are big things you can do to write better, like go to college and study literature or creative writing. But there are also quicker, simpler ways to improve your writing a little bit at a time.
Write Better with These Techniques
There are innumerable techniques that we can apply in order to write better. I started writing a short list of some quick and easy things we can all do to improve our writing and suddenly found that list approaching 100, so that’s where I decided to stop. The list below is not exhaustive. In fact, if you think of anything to add, please do so by leaving a comment.
- Be willing to invest in your writing. Buy a book. Spend a few hours studying grammar. Splurge on a professional critique. Give up one of your TV shows and join a writer’s group.
- Start with a vision or a concept. Let that be your guide as you write.
- Keep it simple. Tight writing is clearer and easier to read. Let readers get lost in the story instead of getting caught up in the words.
- Be logical. If a character is hiking in the Appalachian mountains, she might slip and fall but she probably won’t break a heel.
- Avoid clichés.
- Read books, articles, and essays on the craft of writing. But don’t spend more time reading about how to write than you spend writing. I recommend a book a month for beginners.
- Be aware of how you structure your writing. Start with a compelling introduction and end with a closing or summary that will linger in the reader’s mind.
- Set word counts or time minimums for your writing sessions. Experiment to find what’s comfortable for you. My minimum is 500 words but I can produce up to 2000 words in a one-hour session if I’ve planned what I want to write.
- Find out whether you work better with an outline. Many writers find that their writing is more focused when they use an outline. You can also establish mileposts (main points you want to address or significant plot points you want to reach).
- Stop talking about what you’re going to write. Stop thinking about what you’re going to write. Sit down and write.
- Avoid passive voice unless you’re writing historical fiction. This is what passive voice looks like: She was invited by her boyfriend to the concert. Active voice is far more effective: Her boyfriend invited her to the concert.
- There’s more to writing than just writing. Some of our most important work is done away from the keyboard. Make sure you set aside time for prep work, outlining, note-taking, research, planning, and revisions.
- Find your best routine. Some writers work well in the morning. Some work better at night. Some like to write in short, 20-minute spurts. Others do better with longer sessions.
- Write about topics and themes that you’re passionate about. Don’t set out to write a zombie book because zombies are hot right now.
- During the first draft, be messy. Don’t worry if you haven’t named all your characters or if your punctuation marks are in the right places. Just get it written.
- Use the first draft to find your voice, discover your characters, and unearth your plot and themes. You can dig into the details later.
- Be flexible: many writers say their best stories take off in unpredictable directions. As the saying goes, let the characters take the reigns. The discovery process is often what makes writing fun and magical.
- Allow yourself to write badly. It’s better to write badly than to write nothing at all. You can fix it up later and if it’s beyond redemption, you’ll learn something.
- Do not abandon one project just because you had another brilliant idea. Stay focused.
- Know your limits. Can you work on several projects simultaneously? Some writers have to work on one project at a time. Others can manage multiple projects.
- Finish what you start.
- Keep adjectives and adverbs to a minimum. Go through an old piece of your writing and highlight all the adjectives and adverbs. How many of them could be deleted or replaced with better nouns and verbs?
- Connect with other writers. They will keep you going. Find them in book clubs, writing groups, classes, workshops, online and offline.
- Get an alpha reader (or two) and a few beta readers. Have your work critiqued. Feedback is essential!
- Be willing to rewrite — not just tweak, edit, and make minor changes, but completely rewrite either large portions or an entire book.
- Set deadlines. If you can’t meet your own deadlines, get someone to hold you accountable: a writing coach, teacher, or writing group/buddy. Most of us are less likely to let someone else down.
- Don’t stop for anything. Some days you’ll be too tired, too hungry, too stressed out to write. Give yourself some slack (cut your writing session in half) but don’t skip it!
- If you get stuck, find something in your project to explore. When my story hits a brick wall, I stop and work on character backstories, world building, scientific research, and brainstorming.
- If you need a special writing space, then create one. Make it a priority. But know that not having a special writing space is not an excuse. Many writers have worked in undesirable conditions. Be committed!
- Explore relationships and internal struggles in your writing. This is where readers connect with what you’ve written.
- Make readers feel or think. Preferably, make them do both.
- Pull out your old writing every once in a while to see how far you’ve come (I do it every few years).
- These days, self-publishing is free and easy, and I applaud people who take the DIY route. But get someone else to publish your work at least once. You’ll learn a lot through the submission-rejection-acceptance process.
- Put yourself in other people’s shoes. The best writers are empaths.
- Show the scenes that really matter. Don’t spend three pages showing your characters engaging in meaningless small talk and then spend a single paragraph on a major event that is central to the story.
- Don’t skimp on research. I was just reading reviews on a historical novel and I discovered that readers are knowledgeable about facts and aren’t afraid to call out writers who fail to get them right!
- Be curious. Ask questions. Get a cynical friend or sharp-minded family member to check for holes, gaps, inconsistencies, and inaccuracies in your writing.
- Rewrite to make the substance of your work deeper, clearer, and more concise. I recently read an essay by a writer who rewrote an entire book twelve times. Twelve times! That’s dedication.
- Do you want to change the world with your writing? Look for injustice and inequality (you won’t have to look hard or far). Find real stories about real people and let them inspire you.
- Edit your writing to make it flow smoothly. Work at the sentence level.
- Take breaks between drafts and between every revision. The longer the piece, the longer the break.
- Be engaged with your work. If you’re not engaged, your readers won’t be, either.
- Use the dictionary and thesaurus, even when you’re not writing. Look up words you hear in conversations or see in books and online. Here’s a bonus tip: use online dictionaries with audio pronunciations. Many heavy readers are prone to mispronounce words they’ve read but never heard.
- When you proofread (and you must proofread multiple times), train your eyes on words and punctuation marks.
- Know the difference between form (fiction, poetry, blogging) and genre (romance, science fiction, mystery).
- Think and daydream. Writers must make time for thought and imagination. If someone asks what you’re doing, say “I’m working.”
- Listen to conversations. How do people talk? Dialogue feels like real conversation but it’s an illusion. Record and transcribe a real conversation, then compare it with a great dialogue scene from one of your favorite books.
- When you read a book that doesn’t meet your highest standards, analyze it to determine what could have been better.
- Keep a notebook or journal. Small paper notebooks that fit into your purse or pocket are great (don’t forget to carry a pen). In the digital age, must of us have app-capable devices. I recommend Evernote for note-taking and web-clipping because it’s easy to use and syncs to all your devices.
- Always stay way ahead of your deadline, unless you do your best work under pressure.
- Don’t ever send shoddy work to an editor, publisher, or agent. If you need help, engage a writer friend.
- If you’re writing dialect, do it with care, caution, precision, and consistency. Otherwise, don’t do it at all. Good dialect is hard to read. Bad dialect won’t get read.
- Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and take risks. If it doesn’t work out, you can always rewrite.
- Find out what your weaknesses are and then study or do exercises to practice and eliminate (or at least minimize) those weaknesses.
- Do not exaggerate. For example, in fiction: what kind of person jumps up and down screaming at the end of a job interview when she gets hired? In nonfiction: culture changes over time; it’s not the end of the world. Be real and be reasonable.
- Write every day, even if just for five or ten minutes.
- Learn your craft, including grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
- If you want to be a pro, adopt a style guide (and make sure you know what that is and whether your form of writing already has an established style guide).
- Try to see things from new angles. What would Alice in Wonderland look like from the Queen of Hearts’ perspective?
- Do not rely on spell check. Also, do not rely on editors and proofreaders. Do your best work using your own mind.
- Watch your rhythm. Vary the lengths of your words and sentences.
- Make sure your writing is properly paced.
- Master the art of formatting dialogue, using dialogue tags, and including action throughout dialogue. Dialogue is pretty tricky, so be willing to work at it.
- Set two kinds of goals: one for your writing (word counts and deadlines) and one for its content (what do you want to say to the world?)
- Watch out for unnecessary repetition. If you’re writing an essay about horses, you’ll have to use the word horses a lot. But don’t repeat words unnecessarily, especially in close proximity. That’s what the thesaurus is for!
- Use language that sounds natural and flows smoothly.
- Get out of your comfort zone once in awhile. If you’re a journalist, read some poetry. If you like science fiction, read a little Shakespeare. Write outside of your form and genre, too.
- Nothing makes a piece of writing pop like triggering readers’ senses. The cool, sweet bite of a candy cane can set a holiday scene more vividly than ten pages of description.
- Do some legwork. Are you writing a scene that takes place at a baseball park? Go to a game. Bring your notebook.
- Know the difference between a metaphor and a simile. Use them wisely.
- Do not change tense or point of view in the middle of a piece unless you have a good reason. Don’t even do it on accident (this is the kind of thing you should catch during revisions and proofreading).
- Don’t leave big questions hanging around unanswered. Fulfill promises that you make to your readers.
- Take care of yourself! This goes without saying but writers seem to be especially prone to eating poorly and forgetting to exercise, particularly when they’re absorbed in a project. Most of us have to make sacrifices to get our writing done, but our health should always come first.
- What goes in comes out. If you read and watch trash, you’ll probably write trash. If you’re okay with that, then so be it.
- Write because you want to, not because you have to. Sometimes, writing feels like a job. Find ways to remind yourself that this is what you love.
- Give your writing a little literary flair by studying poetry terms and literary devices like alliteration and assonance.
- If you don’t know what alliteration and assonance are, then go look them up. Now. I’ll be here when you get back.
- Don’t use big, fancy words or old-fashioned sentence structures to make yourself sound smart. You’ll either come off like a snob or like you’re stuck in the 19th century.
- Know when to be specific and when to be vague. The character is wearing a dress. Is it a sundress? A gown? A school uniform?
- Use detail to reveal character and reflect your themes. When we find out the character is wearing a Catholic school uniform, we learn a lot about her. Cut descriptions that aren’t necessary to the piece (like the fact that her shoes were from Macy’s).
- Normal people speak in contractions. Remember this when you’re writing dialogue.
- Don’t use formatting and punctuation marks to instruct readers on where to place emphasis. Example (of what not to do): You just had to say that, didn’t you? Yes, because it’s a good “rule of thumb.”
- When you read something that impresses or moves you, deconstruct it. Find out why it was so special.
- Study your craft closely. If you write fiction, you should know about the three acts, character arcs, and themes. If you write poetry, you should know the difference between a couplet and a stanza.
- Be yourself and take risks. Sometimes, we feel like we’re revealing too much of ourselves in our writing. Not everyone wants to star in a reality show, and writers are often introverts or private people. But bare your soul once in a while.
- Look before you leap. Think about who will be affected. Will your friends stop talking to you after your memoir comes out? Will your lover see himself in the character you modeled after him? Could you lose your job? Predict the consequences, weigh them, and move forward.
- Seek the truth. The best writing is honest.
- Don’t keep repeating yourself. You don’t need to tell the reader twice that it’s Monday.
- There’s a lot of grammar and punctuation you’ll need to master. Commas are the hardest and most misused. Study and practice them.
- By all means, use your spell check but do not rely on it as a professional editor.
- Do not pepper your writing with symbols & shorthand. Your book, poem, or article is not a text message.
- If you write any kind of list, do not end it with “and so on,” “and so forth,” or “et cetera” unless you absolutely have to.
- Agreement: Subjects and verbs must agree. Pronouns and nouns must agree. This is the kind of stuff you should catch during one of your many proofreading sessions.
- Remember that there is a time and place to break every single rule.
- On the other hand, don’t assume that you or your writing are the exception. Don’t break rules because you’re lazy or trying too hard to be original. People want to be engaged more than they want to read some new kind of story that’s never been told before.
- Try to catch all your typos (and try your best) but don’t beat yourself over the head if you miss one or two.
- Words like “however” and phrases like “for example” work better at the beginning of a sentence than embedded in the middle and surrounded with commas. Don’t jar your readers unless you have a good reason.
- When you use pronouns, make sure the nouns they represent are clearly established, especially when two people of the same gender are mentioned in a single sentence.
- The best way to check for awkward wording, bad rhythm, missing words, and shoddy dialogue is to read aloud.
- Discard any advice that doesn’t work for you. Know your own working style.
Make Your Writing Better
Here’s a way you can put this list to good use: copy and paste it into a text document. Delete all the things you’ve already mastered. Then, choose three things to focus on for the next month. Choose one thing that you can do throughout the month (like read a book on craft), something you can do in a couple of minutes when the need arises (look up words you don’t know), and something you’ll need to do every time you write (avoid passive voice). Next month, pick three new techniques to tackle.
Do you write better than you did a year ago? Five years ago? What did you do to improve your writing? Do you know what your strengths and weaknesses are? Do you have anything to add to this list? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment. And keep writing!
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 writing resources like dictionaries and style guides. We use encyclopedias and reference books, 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 (and some of us use Wikipedia), and we use blogs and other material found online. All of this research is supposed strengthen our work and lead to more credible, better 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 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?
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, misinformation seems to be spreading more rampantly than ever. It’s becoming less and less common for sources to be cited, and Darren Rowse of Problogger recently noticed that external links (which are a form of citation) are an endangered species.
I find the spread of misinformation grossly irresponsible (it’s one of my pet peeves). We are so connected and there are so many ways to get the facts straight, there is really no excuse for it. I’m not talking about misunderstanding or making a mistake — I’m talking about either knowingly repeating things that are untrue or 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?
Solid Research — The Path to Better Writing
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 writing today involves doling out advice (tips) based on personal experience (that’s pretty much the entirety of the blog you’re reading right now).
But when you’re presenting any historical data, including statistics, or quoting sources, you have a responsibility to get the facts straight and to cite them.
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 credible and accurate.
Online Research and Citation
I want to take a minute here to address research and citation on the Internet, where these practices are sorely lacking (particularly on blogs). Online, there is an added component of citation, which is to include a link back to your source. Even if your research comes from a book or magazine, you could link to the author’s website or to the book’s page in an online store (such as Amazon) so readers can take a look.
We can get into a whole discussion about how links are Internet currency and it’s considered polite or ethical to link to your sources. There are a boatload of benefits that come from using external links. Among these, building relationships with other writers or bloggers, but perhaps more importantly, making it easy for your readers to follow the information trail.
In any case, we all need to be conscious of link inclusion. After all, hyperlinks are what makes the Web go round. I know that I get frustrated when online writers discuss articles or books they’ve read and don’t bother to include titles, links, or any kind of reference. It’s something we should all keep in mind and practice more often.
Let’s Get Curious
Back to research and citations. How do you know when research (and therefore a citation) is required or warranted? Use some common sense and foster a little curiosity. Start by asking questions:
- Did this really happen? Is it true?
- How can I be sure?
- Who compiled this research and are they credible? What are their qualifications?
- Are there any potential conflicts of interest in the reporting?
- Is there any corresponding research to back this up?
- Is there any conflicting research that provides contrast?
If you start firing off questions (yes, be a cynic), you’ll eventually stumble across the answers you’re looking for. Remind yourself daily: question everything.
Here’s What Writers Can Do
- Make a commitment to being a responsible and therefore credible writer.
- 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. Establish 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 with a bibliography (for books). On a blog or website, you can include a list of sources at the bottom of your article.
What Readers Can Do
Misinformation is not only the fault of writers and reporters acting irresponsibly. If the audience blindly soaks up information without questioning it, they too bear the burden of responsibility. We all need to be more aware of fact versus fiction.
- Be cynical. Ask questions like: where is the proof?
- Evaluate the sources, if they are provided.
- Do a little googling of your own to see what other facts or opinions are out there.
It’s important for writers to work responsibly. If you’re writing in the nonfiction genre, it pays to get your facts straight. In recent years, some memoir authors have come under heavy fire for changing the details of their own personal experiences in an effort to make their material more enticing. Readers didn’t like that at all and careers were damaged (we’re not going to name any names!).
There will always be irresponsible people and audiences who are willing to hang onto every untrue word they utter or write. You can be one of them if you choose, or you can opt for the ethical route — and be a credible, trusted writer. The choice is yours.
Does credibility matter to you, as a reader and as a writer? Does careful research lead to better writing or is it irrelevant? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment and let’s discuss!
Some of the greatest writers throughout history have said that writing is revising. That’s where the work is polished and fine tuned so that it shines and strikes a chord with readers. A piece of writing enters the proofreading and editing phase as a lump of coal and it comes out a diamond.
I’m a firm believer in the idea that every individual should do things his or her own way. Each of us has to find the genre that fits, the notebook that’s most comfortable, and the writing process that clicks. But there’s no alternative to proofreading and editing. It’s something we all have to do.
A rough draft is just that — rough. And when you put a rough piece of writing out there for people to read, it will feel to them like a piece of wood that hasn’t been sanded. It’s jagged, edgy (not in a good way), misshapen, and unpleasant to the touch.
Yet many writers continue to share, publish, and distribute their work before they’ve even given it a once-over. I don’t know if they think they got it right on the first pass, can’t be bothered with cleaning up their own mess, or simply don’t care about their work or their readers.
Proofreading and editing are essential steps in the writing process. Whatever your process is, proofreading and editing must be included because nobody gets it right on the first try (okay, maybe one in a million). Even when material has been revised, edited, and proofread several times, a typo or two can slip through. Just the other day I was reading an encyclopedia and right there on the second page was a glaring typo. I’d guess that encyclopedia was reviewed by the writers plus a team of editors and proofreaders. So just imagine how many mistakes are in a piece of your writing that hasn’t been edited or that you’ve only given a cursory proof.
For the Love of Creation
Creativity is a strange and wonderful phenomenon. Some of us are born to make things, and we do it because we love our work. We are passionate about poetry and fired up over fiction. Don’t we love our work enough to make it shine as brightly as possible? When I read work that hasn’t been polished, I get the sense that the writer is not really working. It’s all fun and games, sitting around coming up with rhymes and making up stories. But the craftsmanship, the work, is in the detail. It’s in the proofreading and editing. If all you want to do is have fun, go to a bar or a ballgame.
Nothing says “I’m unprofessional” like a rough draft that has been turned in, submitted, or otherwise shared or published. If there’s one reason I’m relieved I never became an editor at a magazine or newspaper, it’s that I don’t have to suffer through page after page of lazy, unpolished writing. This is why editors rarely offer feedback on why they reject so many submissions. They figure if the writers can’t take the time to polish their work, the editors shouldn’t waste their time doing anything more than sending a polite, canned rejection slip.
Some young or new writers will wonder why they should belong to a writing group or participate in a workshop if they have to do all their own editing and find their own mistakes. When you clean up your work before getting feedback, the person who’s providing feedback will be able to provide you with a response that is more insightful. If you already know how to use quotation marks, contractions, and how to differentiate between passive and active voice, feedback that points these things out won’t make you a better writer. It’s just someone else telling you where to point your vacuum cleaner when you have a perfectly good set of eyes and can see the dirt for yourself. Your writing group and workshop should function more like a carpet cleaner. They go through and find the stuff you can’t see, the stuff you don’t know, not the stuff you were too lazy to look for.
Know Your Trade
Occasionally, I come across a writer who doesn’t like editing and would prefer to pay someone else to do it. These writers usually have the greatest trouble with grammar and mechanics, and they don’t want to learn. They just want someone else to fix it. I’m happy to help, but I’m always left wondering why a writer wouldn’t want to know the tools of his or her trade. That’s kind of like a plumber who doesn’t know the difference between a wrench and screwdriver.
Respecting Your Readers
Readers, however, are the most important reasons why every writer should proofread and edit. By readers, I don’t simply mean the folks who buy books and magazines. Readers are also your teachers, members of your workshop or writing group, and even your friends and family. It’s almost a matter of etiquette — it’s disrespectful to ask someone to read your sloppy rough draft or a project you’ve only reviewed once or twice. If you don’t take time to polish your writing, why should anyone make time to read it?
Proofreading and Editing Are Essential to Better Writing
For all of these reasons (and I’m sure, many more), proofreading and editing are essential to producing writing that is polished, professional, and publishable. When you proof and edit your own work, typos will still slip through. I’ve heard several authors talk about reading their own published work years later and finding all kinds of problems that they wish they’d caught before it went to print. And they had high-level, professional editors!
Most of us don’t have a team of experts. We’re all busy. We all make mistakes. But if we can’t make time to do our best, then why bother writing at all?
Can you think of any other reasons why proofreading and editing are so important? What other actions lead to better writing? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.
Recently, we talked about developing better writing habits, and I shared a few writing tips to help you improve your writing habits over time.
Today, I want to talk about why the number one tip on that list was write every single day, and I’ll explain why it’s the best path to better writing.
Writing on a Whim
I started out writing poetry just before I hit my teens. Writing was a sacred outlet, and I poured my dreams, frustrations, and desires onto the pages of my notebook.
During those years, I developed an unhealthy attitude about writing, one that I believe many young or new writers cling to — that talent is all that matters. You had it or you didn’t, and it never occurred me that something that required talent would also benefit from hard work. So, I wrote, but only when I felt like it. Weeks would go by and I wouldn’t write a word, and then in just a few days, I’d half fill a notebook with my amateur poetry and angst-ridden tween rants.
By the time high school was over, my belief that good writing was all about talent talent and the habit I’d developed for writing only when the fancy struck me were embedded into my thinking and my behavior. Later, my whole perception of writing would be shaken.
Eventually, I entered the creative writing program at university. For the first time in my life, writing was more than a casual hobby; it became challenging. Surrounded by peers of equal or even greater talent, I started pushing myself. I suddenly realized that I wanted to produce better writing — I wanted to be a talented writer, yes, but also a developed one. My coursework required that I write constantly. In one semester I would have anywhere from two to four writing classes, with lots of homework and plenty of projects, which kept me busy writing every single day.
Immediately, I began to see a change in my own work, an improvement. The poetry I wrote was consistently better than what I’d written the day before. My short stories, once flat and lifeless, started to take on some energy, and my essays, which had always been strong, reached new heights.
There were many reasons for this rapid growth. I learned the value of editing, of being a choosy reader, of using resources, like books that were packed with writing exercises designed to improve different aspects of my writing or help me discover new terrain in my work. The feedback from peer reviews were invaluable.
One course would be laden with critiques, and other courses wouldn’t involve them at all. Some instructors liked to see the raw footage, the unedited stuff; others made you proofread and revise incessantly before turning anything in. One thing, however, was completely consistent: daily writing had become an ingrained habit for me.
Better Writing Happens When You Do it Every Day
It was making a habit out of writing daily, making it a priority in my life, that had the greatest impact on improving my writing.
There are thousands of tips out there for how to be a better writer. You’ve read the books or at least heard of them. There are articles and lists, websites (yes, like this one), and short courses that say do this, do that, write sideways or upside down. Write in a park, or try a café, use a thesaurus, make sure you use spell-check…
All of that advice does have value. Sometimes, you’ll find a golden writing tip that works perfectly for you, but it’s rare for those tips to prove helpful for everyone. Only a very few bits of advice are truly applicable for every writer across the board, and writing daily is first and foremost among them.
What are You Waiting For?
It almost seems obvious if you think about it. You want to be a writer, so uh, yeah, you should write. A lot. Yet many people who say they want to be writers don’t.
Daily writing is by far the best way to become better at your craft. Writing regularly will even increase your creativity. Some people worry that if they write too often, they’ll run out of ideas. But the truth is that the more you create, the more creative you become. Writing daily will only give you more writing ideas than ever before.
Are there a few extra-specially talented writers out there who can just produce mind-boggling work without practicing regularly? Of course; they’re prodigies. Should you let a day go by without writing a single word? Yes, occasionally, that’s probably a good thing to do. A little break now and then can give you some perspective. It can rejuvenate you.
If your goal is better writing, then commit to writing every single day. Whether you write for five minutes or an hour, doing it daily ingrains writing as a regular part of your life. Stick with it and eventually, you’ll master it.
So, keep on writing (every single day)!
Do you write every day? Occasionally? Only when you feel like it? How has your writing frequency improved or affected the quality of your writing? Do you have any tips to share that will help others produce better writing? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.
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 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.
Crucial Writing Practices
I believe that success and opportunity go hand in hand. In order to succeed, we have to prepare ourselves so that when opportunities arise, we’re ready to grab them.
For a writer, every idea is an opportunity. However, if your writing skills aren’t up to par, then your ideas won’t matter because you won’t be able to execute them. You may have a great premise for a story, but if you don’t know how to write a story, you’ll never be able to bring that premise to life, at least not in a way that is effective or meaningful.
So it’s essential for young and new writers to focus on skill development, and the single best way to develop strong skills is by adopting a few simple writing practices.
I’m always surprised by aspiring writers who don’t read. I mean, if you don’t read, then why would you want to be a writer? That’s like making yourself a meal that you’d never eat.
When you don’t read, it shows in your writing. First of all, grammar, spelling, and punctuation are usually a mess. But there are more subtle indications too. Sentences are awkward, stories lack cohesion, poetry is riddled with unnecessary words and phrases. No matter how much writing practice you’ve had (and no matter how much you revise), if you don’t read, your writing will always be stuck at the amateur level.
So, set aside some time to read. You can read one book a month or read for an hour every night before bed. Get up early and read articles and essays. Spend a few minutes every Sunday evening reading a poem. It will do wonders for your writing.
Bonus tip: make sure you occasionally study grammar and read about the craft of writing.
2. Daily writing
Okay, you don’t have to write every day, but you should get in a good, 20-minute writing session at least five or six days a week. If you can write for a full hour, all the better.
While some writers get by on binging (writing profusely for short periods, then not writing at all for a while), consistency will help you develop good habits while strengthening your skills. Think of it this way: if you exercise for five hours every Saturday, you end up sore. By the following Saturday, your muscles have weakened again, so you have start all over. On the other hand, if you exercise for an hour a day, five days a week, you’ll build up your muscles. The soreness will subside and you will get stronger and leaner.
Your writing practices are not unlike your diet and exercise habits. You’ll get the best results if you start slow, and develop a regular routine.
This doesn’t mean you have to do the same thing every day. Sure, you may be working on a novel, but you can take breaks to write poetry or essays. If you don’t have a project in the works, then do some writing exercises. I have found blogging to be an excellent way to ensure that I write consistently (especially between projects).
Bonus tip: you’ll have better luck turning daily writing into a habit if you do it at the same time every day.
Normally, I say there are only two things a writer must do: read and write. However, if you want to succeed, reading and writing are not enough. You also have to learn how to produce the most polished work possible.
That means rewriting, editing, and proofreading your work.
Here’s a good rule of thumb: don’t ever show your work to anyone unless you’ve gone over it for at least one rewrite, one edit, and one proof. Nobody wants to see your typos. Not even your mother and certainly not any agents, editors, or readers.
Bonus tip: When you revise, use a style guide and make sure you keep resources handy so you can look up grammar questions.
What Are Your Writing Practices?
What do you consider your most important writing practices? When you’re crunched for time and have to choose between reading or writing, what do you do? Are there any essential writing practices that you would add to this list? Is your writing regimen missing any of these critical tasks? Tell us about it by leaving a comment.