Stephen King once said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
It’s obvious that one must write in order to be a writer. But many writers forgo reading, especially in the modern era of electronic entertainment where video games, movies, and streaming TV shows are so readily available.
I find that when I go long stretches without reading, my writing suffers. Mostly, I become less motivated, but something else happens: my mind stops thinking in words; instead, it starts thinking in pictures.
In his quote, Mr. King talks about being a writer. But what if you’re not a writer yet? What if you’re still learning the craft? What if you’re wondering how to develop writing skills? Do reading and writing still top of the list of activities you should be doing?
How to Develop Writing Skills
Many writers think the best way to excel at the craft is to do nothing more than write. Practice makes perfect, right? Well, yes and no. Practice certainly helps, but what good is practice if it happens in a vacuum? Reading and writing are critical for any writer, but let’s not forget that study and feedback are also essential.
If there’s one thing I can tell about a writer from a piece of writing, it’s whether or not the writer reads. If the writer doesn’t read, the prose will be awkward, and it will sound like someone transcribed natural speech (this doesn’t work in writing). The story often feels like it was pulled from a blockbuster film and pushed through a wood chopper. Very basic rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation are not observed. It’s just obvious. If you’re not well read or if you’re not reading regularly, it will show in your work.
It almost goes without saying that the act of writing is necessary to developing writing skills. But you might be surprised at how many people think that without any practice, they can sit down and whip out a decent piece of writing. I believe this misconception comes from the fact that we all know how to write in the technical sense — we know how to type or write letters, sentences, and paragraphs. Therefore, we are all already writers. But this is a gross misconception. There’s more to writing than stringing letters and words together.
I already indicated that all writers must read and write, but writers who are still developing their skills need to study the craft. Not only do we need to study the mechanics, like grammar, syntax, context, and the general construction of comprehensive and compelling prose — we also need to study our form (fiction, nonfiction, poetry) and genre (literary, science fiction, romance, etc.). From writing workshops to reference books, there is an inexhaustible supply of resources that will help aspiring writers learn how to develop writing skills.
This one is hard for a lot of novice writers. Many people have an emotional attachment to their writing and view it as an extension of themselves. A criticism of the writing is a criticism of the writer. But this is not the case. You are not your writing. It’s wonderful when readers enjoy our work, but a litany of compliments will not improve our skills (and in some cases may hinder the development of our skills). Look for people who will give you objective, constructive criticism that helps you strengthen your writing, and treasure their feedback because nothing else will make your writing better faster or more easily than a well crafted critique that you then apply to your work.
The Cornerstones of a Writer’s Skill Development
Most of us will undergo heavy skill development before we’re ready to write professionally. By using these four practices of reading, writing, studying, and getting feedback on our work as the cornerstones of our practice, we can develop strong skills that will be with us for the entire span of our careers.
But even after we’ve started writing for publication and can call ourselves working writers or published authors, we should keep our craft fresh and sharp by continuing to regularly engage in skill development. That’s when reading and writing become our most important activities; we can scale back on studying and getting feedback, but we shouldn’t forgo them altogether.
Do you put a lot of thought into how to develop writing skills? What tools, practices, and methods have been most helpful in your development as a writer?