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? Read more
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? Read more
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. Read more
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. Read more
Today’s post is an excerpt from my book 10 Core Practices for Better 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. Read more
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!
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’ll need to acquire good 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 writing 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 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 copywriting and coaching work and on this blog. There are other guides that are geared specifically toward journalism or 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.
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!
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.