Today I’d like to share an excerpt from my book 10 Core Practices for Better Writing.
This excerpt is from “Chapter Seven: Feedback,” which offers tips for giving and receiving critiques as well as coping with public criticism. The excerpt I’ve chosen to share today explains how to use critiques to make your writing better, and it also touches on dealing with difficult critiques.
“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” – Winston Churchill
There are two schools of thoughts about whether critiques of your work are beneficial.
One school of thought says that art is subjective; a critique is nothing more than someone’s opinion, and critiques might harm the artistic integrity of your work by interjecting someone else’s ideas and visions into it.
The other school of thought says that art may be subjective, but other people’s opinions matter and can actually be helpful. Writers may be too close to their own work to view it objectively, so a second opinion reveals strengths and weaknesses that the author simply can’t detect.
In my experience, when approached thoughtfully, critiques do far more good for your writing than harm. In fact, a critique can harm your work only if you let it, and let’s face it: ultimately, you’re the one who’s responsible for what you write. Read more
Today I’d like to share a few excerpts from my book 10 Core Practices for Better Writing.
These excerpts are from “Chapter Six: Process,” which examines methods, strategies, and other approaches to developing and fine-tuning a writing process that works for you.
Understanding The Writing Process
“I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.”
- Ernest Hemingway
A process is a system or series of steps that we take to complete something. When you write, you use a process, even if you’re not aware of it. Read more
Next week, the third and final book in the Adventures in Writing series will be available. It’s called 1200 Creative Writing Prompts. This week, to gear up for the launch, we’ll look at excerpts from the previous books in the series.
Today’s post features excerpts from 10 Core Practices for Better Writing. These excerpts are from “Chapter Five: Skills.” Enjoy!
“It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.”
- Ernest Hemingway
When we talk about writing skills, we usually think of the basics: the ability to write sentences and paragraphs correctly with proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation. But a lot more than that goes into writing well.
Ambitious writers strive to consistently produce better writing. We study the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation and we work at expanding our vocabularies. We memorize literary devices and storytelling techniques. We develop a distinct voice.
There’s a lot to learn, but over time, we learn to write prose and verse that captivates readers.
From learning how to comprehensively use tools, like writing software, to mastering concepts that are specific to form and genre, a professional writer needs to build skills that go far beyond the basics. Read more
How important is it for a writer to be able to discern the difference between good writing and bad writing?
Pretty important, if you ask me.
I know some writers aren’t concerned with quality. In today’s do-it-yourself and get-it-done-fast world, quality plays second fiddle to quantity. Who cares if your books are full of typos, bad grammar, and poor logic as long as you have published lots and made a bunch of money?
Readers care. Agents, publishers, and reviewers also care. And while you can still make a million with a bunch of badly written books and a stellar marketing scheme, your work won’t be taken seriously. Also (and this is critical), while it’s possible to make it big by writing badly, it’s not likely. It happens, but it doesn’t happen often. The better your writing, the better your chances for securing a readership and building a career.
The Characteristics of Good Writing
So, what constitutes good writing? Opinions on the matter vary widely. There will be different traits that make good fiction versus good poetry or good nonfiction. However, we can cull together a general list of the characteristics of good writing (in no particular order):
- Clarity and focus: in good writing, everything makes sense and readers don’t get lost or have to reread passages to figure out what’s going on. Focused writing sticks with the plot or core idea without running off on too many tangents.
- Organization: a well organized piece of writing is not only clear, it’s presented in a way that is logical and aesthetically pleasing. You can tell non-linear stories or place your thesis at the end of an essay and get away with it as long as your scenes or ideas are well ordered.
- Ideas and themes: is the topic of your paper relevant? Does your story come complete with themes? Can the reader visualize your poem? For a piece of writing to be considered well crafted, it has to contain clearly identifiable ideas and themes.
- Voice: this is what sets you apart from all other writers. It’s your unique way of stringing words together, formulating ideas, and relating scenes or images to the reader. In any piece of writing, the voice should be consistent and identifiable.
- Language (word choice): we writers can never underestimate or fail to appreciate our most valuable tools: words. Good writing includes smart and appropriate word choices and well crafted sentences.
- Grammar and style: many writers would wish this one away, but for a piece of writing to be considered good (let alone great), it has to follow the rules of grammar (and break those rules only when there’s a good reason). Style is also important in ensuring that a piece of writing is clear and consistent. Make sure you keep a grammar book and style guide handy.
- Credibility or believability: nothing says bad writing like getting the facts wrong or misrepresenting oneself. In fiction, the story must be believable (even if it’s impossible), and in nonfiction, accurate research can make or break a writer.
- Thought-provoking or emotionally inspiring: perhaps the most important quality of good writing is how the reader responds to it. Does she come away with a fresh perspective and new ideas? Does he close the cover with tears in his eyes or a sense of victory? How readers react to your work will fully determine your success as a writer.
I want to add an honorable mention for originality. Everything has been done before, so originality is somewhat arbitrary. However, putting old ideas together in new ways and creating remixes of the best that literature has to offer is a skill worth developing.
Why You Need to Know the Difference Between Good and Bad Writing
To write well, a writer must be able to recognize quality in a piece of writing. How can you assess or improve your own work if you can’t tell the difference between mediocre and better writing?
Writing is also an art form and therefore subject to personal taste. Can you read a book and dislike it but acknowledge that the writing was good? Have you ever read a book and loved the story but felt that the writing was weak?
A writer should be able to articulate why a piece of writing succeeds or fails, and a writer should also be able to recognize the qualities in a piece of writing even when it doesn’t appeal to personal taste. These skills are especially necessary when writers are reviewing or critiquing other writers’ work and when revising, editing, and proofreading their own work.
Where do you stand? Do you rate other people’s writing? Do you worry about whether your own writing is any good? Would you add or remove any characteristics of good writing from this list? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing.
Today I’d like to share an excerpt from my book 10 Core Practices for Better Writing.
This excerpt is from “Chapter Four: Grammar,” which explores the relationship between grammar and writing and includes tips and resources for mastering grammar.
Grammar and Writing
Grammar, spelling, and punctuation are the most basic components of good writing. Grammatically correct texts are easier to read, easier to get published, and easier to sell to readers; in many cases, a firm understanding of grammar also makes the writing process easier.
Grammar is unpleasant for some writers. We’re in it for creative expression—we want to tell a story, make a statement, or share ideas. Why do we have to fret over parts of speech and punctuation marks?
But grammar is necessary. You can get by as a professional writer without totally mastering grammar, but you will fall flat on your face if you don’t know the basics.
Too many writers avoid studying grammar because they prefer to focus on the creative side of writing. Some work under the assumption that grammar is unimportant (they are wrong!), while others rely on editors and proofreaders to do the dirty work.
But developing good grammar habits, while painstaking, enriches the experience for everyone involved—from the writer to the editor to the reader.
Why Grammar, Spelling, and Punctuation Matter
If you’ve ever read a piece of writing that was peppered with typos and grammatical mistakes, you know how frustrating these oversights can be for a reader. They’re like bumps in the road, jarring you out of the text. When you’re deeply immersed in a story or article and encounter one of these errors, you’re pulled out of the reading experience.
Writers gain great benefits from developing skills in grammar. Have you ever been writing and gotten stuck on some technicality? Should I put a comma here? Am I using this word correctly? Are these words in the right order? If you’ve learned grammar and studied a style guide, eventually these kinds of questions won’t interrupt the flow of your writing.
I’ve found grammatical mistakes in novels, magazine articles, even in textbooks, and (especially) on blogs. Now, a lot of these errors are typos. It’s not that the writers or editors didn’t know their way around the English language—they just let one (or two) mistakes slip past. If people who are experts at editing can’t catch every mistake, can you imagine the number of errors in a piece produced by someone who doesn’t have a good handle on grammar? Those works are riddled with mistakes!
And when mistakes appear to be more than mere typos and instead seem to reflect a deficiency in good grammar and basic writing skills, then I find myself questioning the quality of the work. If writers can’t be bothered to learn the tools of their trade, why should I bother reading their work?
There are many things that lead to better writing, and there are a few things that raise a flag to signal poor writing. Bad grammar is one of them.
Learning the rules of grammar might be a drag (I happen to find grammar fun and interesting), but it’s a worthwhile pursuit if you want to get your work published and find an audience for your writing. Study a little bit of grammar each week, and you’ll be writing better in no time.
Once you master grammar, you won’t have to worry about it anymore. It becomes a natural part of your writing process. Proofreading and editing become less of a chore, and your writing sessions flow more smoothly.
Today I’d like to share a few excerpts from my book 10 Core Practices for Better Writing.
“Chapter Three: Revision” explores the importance of revising your work and includes tips and ideas for editing and proofreading.
“The best writing is rewriting.”
- E.B. White
We use the terms first draft or rough draft when we are initially writing a piece because almost every single project is going to go through multiple drafts. But how is the drafting process tackled? And what are the benefits of multiple revisions?
Some writers love the revision process; others think it’s a drag. Regardless of how you feel about revising your work, one thing is certain: if you want to produce better writing (and become a better writer), then revisions are absolutely essential.
To revise means “to change” or “to alter.” In the world of writing, to revise means “to alter something already written or printed, in order to make corrections, improve, or update: to revise a manuscript.” (dictionary.com)
Revision involves making substantial changes to improve the writing. In fiction, this could mean changing characters’ names, realigning the plot, or resequencing the scenes. In other forms of writing, revision might entail major structural changes (moving chapters around) or a content overhaul (adding, removing, or changing information). Sometimes, revision involves rewriting a project entirely.
Revisions Improve Your Future Writing
As you revise, you catch things in your writing that don’t work. We all have bad habits, and as you go through multiple revisions, you’ll start to notice negative patterns in your own writing. Maybe you have a tendency to leave words out. Perhaps you use too many words (or too few). Maybe you repeat words too often or use obscure language that readers won’t comprehend. You could have grammar weaknesses, holes in the syntax, gaps in continuity, and a host of other problems that occur in writing.
Over time, revision teaches you what your weaknesses are. Early on, I realized that I had a problem with word repetition. I would notice a word used several times in a single poem. It didn’t sound right, so I fixed it by finding replacement words. Then I saw the same problem in another poem, then another, and another. Eventually, I started catching myself, not during the revision process, but during the initial writing.
And I realized that revising what I’d already written improved what I had yet to write.
We all want to achieve better writing, and there are many ways to do that. You can study the craft of writing, learn grammar, collect writing tips, and practice writing every single day. All of these things (and many more) will make your writing better. But revision is where you truly turn your writing into a dazzling piece of work.
Writing Methods and Revision Techniques
There’s more than one way to approach revisions.
Some writers use their initial draft to get ideas out of their heads and onto the page (or the screen, as the case may be) as quickly as possible, without worrying about the details. The goal is to get that first draft completed and then you can clean it up later. This often means more revisions when the drafting is done.
Other writers prefer to labor over each sentence while composing a first draft, which means fewer revisions later but more work during the initial writing.
Revising as You Go
If you have already developed your project, then revising as you go might be a good approach. For example, if you’re working from a detailed outline and have a good sense of what you want to communicate, you can focus on wording, grammar, and punctuation as you work through your first draft.
Some writers are compelled to edit as they write because poorly written sentences and typos weigh on them and make it difficult to move forward, or it might seem as if trying to get it right on the first draft will save time later, which is unlikely. Going over each sentence and paragraph several times before moving on to the next could very well be just as time consuming as going over an entire draft multiple times.
I often revise as I go when writing blog posts and other short projects. I’ve found that there are some benefits to it. I start by outlining so I know what I want to say, then I draft paragraphs, revising each one before moving on to the next. Then I do a final proof or two. I find fewer errors during proofreading by using this method.
The writing happens fairly quickly, but since I’m working on short pieces, I can easily keep all the ideas for each piece in my head as I’m writing. When I’m working on a more elaborate project, like a book, there’s a lot more going on, so I prefer to draft first and revise later.
Draft First, Revise Later
A book is an enormous undertaking. Some writers spend several years on the first draft alone. For example, in a novel there’s a lot to think about: characters, plot, setting, scenes, action, dialogue, description, themes, and story arcs. Even if you have a basic sense of your story, once you start drafting, you’ll encounter all kinds of problems.
If you’re revising as you write, these problems get compounded and can seriously hold up your progress. If you’re simultaneously working on grammar, spelling, and punctuation or fine tuning the most minute details of every scene as you write the first draft, you’ll find yourself stopping every few words to make changes and fix mistakes, and you’re likely to lose your train of thought. When you’re deep in a scene, you could lose the entire flow because you’re worrying over minutia that could be dealt with later.
Most writers seem to get the best results by plowing through the initial draft and then revising several times. This allows ideas to stream without interruption. Then, through a series of revisions, the work is slowly improved until it’s polished. Some writers revise chapter by chapter, others revise scene by scene. I’ve heard writers say they do revisions for particular elements: one revision to fine-tune the plot and characters, one to strengthen the scenes, one for dialogue, and so on. This allows you to focus your attention on specific elements with each revision. Some writers work through the entire manuscript from beginning to end several times.
With the draft-first-revise-later method, every revision makes the manuscript better, resulting in a clean, polished project.
- Find an old piece of writing that you haven’t worked on or looked at in a while. Save a copy of the original, and then open it in a word-processing program. Read through the entire piece once, then go back through a second time and make major changes to the structure and content. Move sentences and paragraphs around, make better word choices, fix issues with plot and character or concept. Then go through a third time and check strictly for grammar, spelling, punctuation, and typos. Use highlighting to mark sections you’re not sure about (such as whether you’re using a word properly or whether a sentence is technically correct). Wait a day, then review the original and the revised copies side by side. How much improvement were you able to make? Could you go over it a couple more times?
- Find a writer friend and exchange projects for editing and proofreading. You can swap short pieces like blog posts or entire chapters from novels you’re working on. Before you hand your pieces to each other, do your best to edit and proofread your own work. Make sure you use the track-changes feature in Microsoft Word so you can see what changes you make to each other’s writing (you can also do this activity with printed copy and a red pen). Did you friend catch anything you missed? Were there suggestions for improvements that you hadn’t considered?
In the world of writing, one form stands out as different from all the rest: poetry.
Poetry is not bound by the constraints of sentence and paragraph structure, context, or even grammar.
In the magical world of poetry, you can throw all the rules out the window and create a piece of art, something that is entirely unique.
That doesn’t mean writing poetry is creatively easy. It can be much more difficult to make a poem than it is to write an essay or piece of fiction. There’s so much creative space, and without any limitations whatsoever, it can be overwhelming.
Yet poetry brings a great bounty of writerly skills and tools, and many of these will spill over into other writing forms, sprinkling them with just a little of the magic that is poetry. And while poetry might not be your favorite form of writing, reading poetry, working through some poetry exercises, and engaging in poetry writing, even just a little bit, will improve your writing in any other form or genre.
Poetry Improves Your Writing
What is it about poetry that makes your writing better?
While other creative writing forms may use vivid imagery to create pictures in the reader’s mind, no other form comes close to what can be achieved with imagery in poetry writing.
Most writing forms attempt to explain something–a scene, a situation, an idea, a set of instructions, an experience. Poetry doesn’t bother to explain. It shows. It paints a picture and pulls you into it.
In a poetry workshop, you will hear this over and over: show, don’t tell. When you master the art of showing readers a scene through imagery, you can easily apply the concept to your other writing, creating work that comes alive in a reader’s mind.
Language, Word Choice, and Vocabulary
A poet’s vocabulary is paramount. Of course, language is essential to all types of writing, but in poetry, words must be selected carefully in order to generate a visceral response from the reader. In fiction, readers connect emotionally with characters and their plights. We get to know the characters, understand them, and we come to relate to them or even think of them as friends (or enemies).
Characters rarely appear in poetry, so instead of using the emotional connection forged between people, a writer must grab the reader’s heart by appealing to their senses, using words and images that make readers feel. This is achieved by learning how to use language that evokes emotions without telling readers what they should be feeling.
The meaning of each word in a poem must be weighed carefully. Connotations can mean the difference between a poem with depth and a poem that feels flat.
Finally, every single word must be necessary to the poem. Therefore, poetry teaches writers how to be economical with language.
A poet must be constantly aware of meter and rhythm. Poems and song lyrics are often compared, confused, and intermingled, and with good reason. Both poetry and music must pay attention to cadence and melody.
Think about how you feel when you hear a particular piece of music. You tap your feet, shake your hips, bang your head. Our bodies respond physically to music.
Through poetry writing comes a natural ability to marry musicality with language. When this musicality is brought to other forms of writing, readers feel it in their bones and muscles. They will have a physical reaction.
Poetry Leads to Better Writing
Writing is about connecting with readers. And poetry writing helps you develop skills for connecting with readers mentally (language), emotionally (images), and physically (rhythm). Many young and new writers are impatient with poetry. They were forced to read archaic poems in school and came away with a bad taste for poetry. But poetry is like music; there’s something for everyone. Look around a little and you’ll find a poet whose work speaks to you.
If you’re interested in exploring poetry and using it to improve your writing, start by checking out these accessible resources:
- Poem of the Day (podcast): Packed with classic and contemporary poems, each piece is only a minute or two in length. Save the ones you like and listen to them over and over again. Tip: you can subscribe via iTunes.
- IndieFeed: Performance Poetry (podcast): Today’s poets are cutting the edge with poetry that speaks to the 21st century. From humor to heartbreak, these poets write out loud. Most pieces are under ten minutes and the podcast updates a few times each week.
- Poetry Foundation: Once you whet your appetite, dig in and find out what’s going on in the world of poetry. The Poetry Foundation is dedicated to the craft of poetry and includes lots of great poems, poets, and other poetry related resources.
Poetry will show you how to improve your writing by taking your craftsmanship to the next level. It forces you to whip out your magnifying glass and look at your writing up close. Whether you apply poetic concepts to fiction, blogging, or article writing, your engagement with poetry will help you produce better writing.
If your writing is good today, it can be great tomorrow.
Have you ever dabbled in poetry and noticed how it affected your fiction or creative nonfiction? Do you think studying poetry can make your writing better? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.
Today’s post is an excerpt from 10 Core Practices for Better Writing. This is from “Chapter Two: Writing.” Enjoy!
“I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.”
– William Faulkner
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 routine. 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.
Routines don’t work for everyone, but they do work for most people. Almost all the writers I know say they have to write every day. If they miss a day, they end up missing two days, then three, four, and pretty soon they haven’t written in several weeks.
A scant few writers can produce good work by binge writing. They don’t write at all for a few months, and then they crank out a novel in a few weeks. But this is the exception rather than the rule.
So, are you the exception or are you the rule? The only way to find out is to experiment. I’m a huge advocate for writers trying different things. Go ahead and try writing only when you’re inspired. Over the course of a month, how much did you write? How about in the span of a year? Did you write a whole novel? A page? Nothing? If you’re productive working this way, stick with it.
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.
These days, we’re all crunched for time. You’d think technology would give us more time for leisure and personal pursuits, but it seems to have the opposite effect. The world just keeps getting busier and busier.
What you’ll find is that if you write only when you feel like it, you won’t write very often. The world is full of distractions—phone calls, emails, television, video games, social media…The list goes on and on.
We’ve already established that the best way to improve your writing is to practice. You can improve your writing by writing occasionally, but the improvements won’t be significant and it will take decades for you to become an expert. What you need to do, even if you just try it for a month to prove to yourself there’s a better way, is to make writing part of your daily routine.
The single best way to develop a routine, to make something a habit, is to do it every day. Okay, you don’t have to write every day, but you should get in a good twenty-minute writing session at least five or six days a week—I would say that’s the absolute minimum. If you can write for a full hour, all the better. Remember, this is time spent writing—not reading, editing, or brainstorming. It’s your writing time.
I once had a music teacher who said it’s better to practice for fifteen minutes every day than to practice for two hours three times a week. I think the same is true for writing. Even if you dedicate only a few minutes to writing every day, it will become an ingrained habit. Writing will become an integral part of your life.
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 to start all over. On the other hand, if you exercise for forty-five minutes a day, five days a week, you’ll build up your muscles. The soreness will subside and you will get stronger and leaner. And overall, you’ve actually put less time in.
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.
Poetry writing requires no license, no education, and no experience. All you need to get started is a pen and some paper.
In fact, lots of writers discover their calling because they are compelled at a young age to write poetry.
But there’s a big difference between writing poetry and writing good poetry.
Opinions about the art and craft of good poetry writing are many and varied. Some hold poetry to a high academic or literary standard. Others appreciate the fact that poetry writing provides a creative and healthy form of self-expression.
I believe that all poetry is good in the sense that anything that comes from the heart or anything that speaks truth is good. The poem itself may not win any awards, but the act of writing it can be mood-altering, healing, and maybe even life-changing.
Many poets pursue the craft with a clear goal: they want to get published. Others write poetry because they find solace in the work. They don’t care about readers, publication, or awards. And plenty of writers fall in between; they write for the joy of it but also with a desire to continually write better poetry with hopes of getting published one day.
Writing for Yourself
There’s nothing wrong with writing poetry for yourself. Poetry writing has tremendous therapeutic and creative value. However, many young poets think they can get published and earn recognition without ever truly applying themselves. They don’t read poetry, they don’t study the craft, they are not knowledgeable about poetic forms or literary devices. They make a lot of arguments:
- I don’t read poetry because I don’t want other poems to influence mine. I want my poetry to be raw.
- I write from my heart. It’s a form of self-expression.
- Poetry is an art form, so there are no rules.
- It’s my style (I’ve heard this about poems written in all-caps, for example).
- My mom/friend/teacher said I have talent, and that’s all I need.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these arguments. But if you want to get published — if you want your work taken seriously by the literary world — you’re going to have to step up your game. You’ll have to stop making excuses and learn how to write better poetry.
Tips for Writing Better Poetry
When we first start writing poetry, our work is amateurish and awkward. We might make poems that are cute or silly, poems that don’t make much sense, or poems that are murky, excessive, or verbose. We express ourselves but fail to generate poems that compel readers. But with practice and by putting a little effort into our poetry writing, our poems can blossom and become riveting — for us and for our readers.
Here are five tips to help you write better poetry, which, if taken seriously and practiced regularly, will help you improve your writing:
- Read poetry. Too many young and new poets don’t read poetry. I get it. A lot of the poems you come across just don’t capture your attention. The stuff you read in school was unwieldy. But if you look hard enough, you will discover good poetry that you will fall in love with. Go on a personal quest to find it. In order to grow as a writer, and especially as a poet, it’s imperative to familiarize yourself with the canon, which has already proven to resonate with readers. By seeking out established poets whose work you admire, you will build a roster of mentors. Try reading poems aloud. Keep a notebook or journal in which you can write your thoughts and responses to various works, and jot down your favorite excerpts. Bonus tip: you can also watch or listen to recorded or live poetry.
- Write regularly: Beginning poets have a tendency to take up the pen only when the mood strikes. By engaging your creativity on a daily basis, the very practice of poetry writing will become habitual and ingrained as part of your daily routine, and it is through daily practice that our work improves.
- Allow yourself to write badly: Allowing yourself a large margin for writing poorly or below your own standards will give you a freedom in your writing and room to explore your poetry on broader and deeper levels.
- Study and learn to speak in poetics. Poets have their own language. When they mention couplets and iambic pentameter, you should know what they’re talking about. Study literary devices and learn how to use them in your own poetry. That alone will kick your work up a few notches.There are many books available that will help you understand poetry intricately and will familiarize you with terms and definitions, such as alliteration or trochee. Such books will provide detailed analyses and teach you new ways to read and write poetry. To get started, look for A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver or try The Practice of Poetry by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell.
- Do poetry writing exercises. It’s easy to sit down and just write a poem. Writing exercises present challenges and provide new ways of thinking and being creative within an established framework. Some poetry exercises will produce your best work but also teach you to approach poetry writing in an innovative and more imaginative manner.
- Embrace best practices and techniques. It’s true that there are no rules in poetry, but there are a few best practices, like eliminate any unnecessary words, don’t arrange words awkwardly to fit a rhyme scheme, and use imagery. When it comes to poetry, you really want to follow the old adage: show, don’t tell.
- Seek feedback from objective, well-read people who are familiar with poetry. When something in your poem isn’t working for one of them, don’t say “Oh, that’s my style.” And if it is your style, then consider that your “style” isn’t working.
- Revise. Revising your work goes hand in hand with allowing yourself to write badly. You can always go back and make changes. Some new writers insist that once they write a poem, that’s it. They believe the art is in the original creation and it should never be altered in any way. While this is certainly one way of looking at poetry as art, there is another philosophy that believes revision is necessary for true creative freedom. In knowing that you can go back and make changes later, you will give yourself more liberty in your initial writing, opening creative channels to greater possibilities.
Poetry Writing is an Adventure
Poetry teaches us how to access rich language and produce vivid images in our writing. It is one of the best ways to develop comprehensive and creative writing skills, even if poetry writing isn’t really your thing. Fiction and creative nonfiction writers often work with poetry for the sole purpose of expanding their language skills. They may not like poetry or have no intentions of publishing poetry. They just want to be better writers.
Poetry writing will take you on an exciting adventure through language if you let it, and the very act of working to improve your poetry is a journey that many writers find exhilarating.
Do you have any tips for writing better poetry? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.
And keep writing (poetry)!
Today I’d like to share a sneak peek at my forthcoming book, 10 Core Practices for Better Writing, which will be available in early July.
The book explores 10 essential habits that every writer can adopt to become a master of the craft of writing.
Today’s post features several excerpts from the first chapter, which covers the first and most important practice: reading. If you want to write better, then you need to read more.
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.
Simple as that.” – Stephen King
To write well, there are only two things you absolutely must do: read and write. Everything else will flow from these two activities, which are essentially yin and yang. Without each other, reading and writing cannot exist. They rely on one another. They are two parts of a greater whole.
Writing is a complex and complicated skill. While basic writing skills can be taught, it’s impossible to teach the art of fine writing. It is possible to learn, but this learning is only fully achieved through reading.
The human brain is like a sponge. We soak up everything we observe and experience throughout our lives, and each thing we are exposed to becomes part of the very fiber of our beings. What we read is no exception.
You may not be able to recite all the Mother Goose nursery rhymes you read as a child, but they’re still somewhere in that head of yours. When a little voice whispers Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, there’s a good chance you’ll recall Jack jumped over a candlestick. You absorbed that nursery rhyme many years ago, and it remains with you, always.
If you want to write well, you must read well, and you must read widely. Through reading you will gain knowledge and you will find inspiration. As you read more, you will learn to read with a writer’s eye. Even grammar sinks in when you read. If you’re worried about memorizing all the rules of grammar, then just read books written by adept writers. Eventually, it all will become part of your mental makeup.
A well-read writer has a better handle on vocabulary, understands the nuances of language, and recognizes the difference between poor and quality writing.
A writer who doesn’t read is like a musician who doesn’t listen to music or a filmmaker who doesn’t watch films. It is impossible to do good work without experiencing the good work that has been done.
All the grammar guides, writing tips, and books on writing will not make you a better writer if you never read. Reading is just as crucial as actually writing, if not more so, and the work you produce will only be as good as the work you read.
“Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.” – William Faulkner
We are like mirrors. We reflect back into the world all that we have taken in. If you mostly read textbooks, your writing will be dry and informative. If you read torrid romance novels, your prose will tend toward lusty descriptions. Read the classics and your work will sound mature. Read poetry and your work will be fluid and musical.
It’s important to read technically adept writing so you don’t pick up bad grammar habits but what about voice and style, word choice and sentence structure? What about story and organization? How does what we read influence the more subtle aspects of our writing?
If you know exactly what kind of writer you want to be, you’re in luck. Your best bet is to read a lot within your favorite genre. Find authors that resonate with your sensibility and read all their books.
At the same time, you don’t want to rope yourself off from experiencing a wide range of styles. You might like high literature and want to pen the next Pulitzer Prize winning work of fiction. You should read the classics, of course, but don’t completely avoid the bestsellers. There’s a mentality among some writers that you should only read that which you want to write. It’s hogwash. Reading outside your chosen area of specialty will diversify and expand your skills, and you’ll be equipped to bring new techniques and methods into your craft. If you so choose, you’ll even be able to walk, or perhaps cross, genre lines.
If you want to be a science fiction writer, then by all means, stock your shelves with loads of sci-fi. Buy out the science fiction section in your local bookstore. But don’t seal yourself in a box, otherwise your work will become trite. If you’re too immersed in genre, your writing will feel formulaic and not in a good way. You’ll end up playing by all the genre rules (and this is a key reason why much genre work is ignored by academics and literary elite—it’s too focused on catering to its genre and not focused enough on good storytelling). For example, do we need another epic fantasy with names that nobody can pronounce and that are oddly strewn with apostrophes? No, I don’t think we do.
So yes, you should concentrate on your genre, but don’t cut yourself off from the rest of literature. You should read a few books outside your genre each year and make sure you toss in some of those classics for good measure.
Look for 10 Core Practices for Better Writing–coming in July. 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.
Nobody’s born knowing how to read and write.
Sure, the lucky ones have talent, but we all start out learning our ABCs. We memorize the sounds that letters make, and we learn how they come together to form words. Pretty soon, we’re reading. Someone puts pencils in our hands 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 on her high heeled shoes.
- Write better by avoiding 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. You will almost always write better in active voice.
- 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 can move on having learned 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 people write better when they’re working 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 much better you write now (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 red-and-white striped 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 brown).
- 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. Here’s an 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.
Write Better Starting Now
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!