As I travel around the internet reading blogs, watching interviews, and listening to podcasts on writing, I’ve noticed that much of the focus is not on writing at all. There’s a lot of talk about writing fast, e-books versus paper books, and the fate of brick-and-mortar bookstores. But most of the chatter is focused on marketing: book covers, ad buys, pricing strategies, funnels, giveaways, and a host of other promotional tactics and strategies.
All these things are important to an author’s career. But I sometimes wonder if we’ve lost sight of what matters most: the craft. I find very few experts offering advice on writing better and producing higher quality work.
Writing requires a rather large skill set, and while talent gives the luckiest scribes a boost, there are many elements of craft that must be learned and can only be mastered through diligent, long-term study and practice. The most brilliant marketing in the world won’t turn a mediocre book into a phenomenon. Sure, marketing can give an average piece of work a boost, making it quite successful. However, nothing increases your odds of success as much as top-notch writing and storytelling.
When I write, I think about marketing early on — before I start outlining, let alone typing the first draft. My primary marketing strategy is to write the best book I possibly can. That doesn’t mean it’s the best book ever written, but it’s the best book I can write.
With each book, I try to improve my skills. I set new goals, establish fresh challenges, and look for areas where my writing can be strengthened. Could the language in my previous book have been more vivid? Could the characters have been more developed? Could the structure have been more compelling?
The best piece of marketing is the book itself — the title, the cover, and the promotions will sell your book, but they won’t inspire readers to tell their friends about it; they won’t motivate people to sign up for your mailing list or subscribe to your blog; and they certainly won’t entice people to finish reading your book or leave a positive review.
Only a quality product will do that, and the only way to produce a quality product is to produce the best writing you possibly can.
Practices for Writing Better
When I wrote 10 Core Practices for Better Writing, I started with a massive list of tips and practices that writers can use to write better. The list was far too long and too detailed. Many of the tips weren’t applicable to all writers. I needed to hone it down, so I zeroed in on best practices, actions we can incorporate into our daily routines and writing processes to consistently improve our craft. These are things we can and should do on a regular basis:
- Read. If you don’t read, you can’t write well. It’s as simple as that. If you’re not a reader, it will be obvious in your writing. Read in your genre and beyond. Reading is first on this list because it’s the most important thing for any writer to do — even more important than writing.
- Write. It should go without saying that if you want to be a writer, you must write. You can write whenever you feel like it or whenever there’s a convenient gap in your schedule, but you’ll get the best results if you write every day.
- Revise. Whether you revise at the sentence level or at the full-draft level is up to you, but revision is not optional unless you can afford to hire a massive team of editors to do it for you. Not only do revisions clean up your work; they show you where your strengths and weaknesses lie. You can then work on improving your weaknesses.
- Study grammar, spelling, and punctuation. The basic tools of your trade are words, sentences, and paragraphs. If you don’t understand the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation, your writing will be in big trouble. Writers who can’t be bothered to learn the rules of grammar tend to produce sloppy work and weak prose. A little study goes a long way.
- Build skills. The skills you need to develop as a writer vary depending on what you write. If you write nonfiction, you’ll probably need good research skills. Novelists need to understand character development (the human condition) and story structure. No writer is born with enough talent to cover every skill required to produce quality writing. Figure out which skills you need and get busy acquiring and mastering those skills.
- Develop a process. Figure out which writing process works best for you, and you will increase your productivity while improving the quality of your work. You might save time by outlining, but if it causes you to lose your passion for writing, then outlining might not be right for you. Understanding how you work will help you work better.
- Welcome feedback. This is a tough one for a lot of writers. Whether you’re in a workshop, critique group, receiving feedback from an editor, or reading reviews of your work online, feedback is inevitable. Learn how to take it with a grain of salt; don’t let it discourage you; and try to separate yourself (your ego) from your work. At the same time, take it to heart. Absorbing and applying well-crafted, critical feedback is one of the fastest and best ways to improve your writing.
- Collect tools and resources. Do you need to sketch ideas in a paper notebook? Does your clunky and outdated word processing software hinder your writing? Do you know where to obtain the information you need, whether it’s research for your book or information about the publishing industry? Collect your tools and resources and then put them to good use.
- Keep creativity and inspiration flowing. A lot of people think creativity is magic. It’s not. We may not fully understand it, but we can learn to cultivate creativity by paying attention to what inspires and motivates us.
- Engage with your community, industry, and audience. The writing community will be your best support system. Whether you form partnerships with other writers or absorb wisdom they share from their experiences, they’ll provide a wealth of resources and knowledge. Learning the ins and outs of the writing and publishing industry will help you forge your career path. Most importantly, make sure you know who your readers are so you can build an audience.
What strategies, techniques, and practices do you employ to continuously improve your craft? Share your techniques for writing better by leaving a comment.
For a more in-depth look at these practices for writing better, and for tips on how to integrate them into your life, pick up a copy of 10 Core Practices for Better Writing.
Depending on what you’re writing, learning story architecture matters more than “better writing.” A lot of writers have very polished sentences and a story that nobody wants to read, or is unfocused or unbalanced. Making a plan and structuring your major plot points and scenes will help get your story right.
I appreciate your thoughts, but not all writers are focused on storytelling. Poets and nonfiction writers may not need to study story architecture, although it certainly doesn’t hurt. And I actually have to disagree with you even when we’re talking about storytellers. If a writer can’t string words and sentences together in a coherent manner, the story will get lost. Editors and beta readers will have a hard time paying attention to the story. I’ve experienced this in my own work with writers (as an editor and coach). It’s true that most writers do reach a point where their technical skills are at an intermediate level and then — yes — at that point, focusing on story becomes the priority and the mechanics take a backseat. But the basics of writing really do need to be mastered first.
It’s all out there – the tips and advice and rules. I’ve been absorbing it since I retired.
I can do the technical stuff – the grammar and rephrasing and moving bits around for better coherence. If I’m not sure, I can look it up. If nobody’s sure, I can hear how it sounds.
I’m happier editing than writing.
What I need is an injection of story sense: something to get the inspiration coursing; something that breaks down whatever’s blocking the flow of ideas.
The internet is full of writers. I want to be a storyteller.
Cathy, fortunately there are lots of excellent storytelling resources available. You can get started here at Writing Forward in the storytellingstorytelling section of the blog, and you might want to check out my book What’s the Story? Building Blocks for Fiction WritingWhat’s the Story? Building Blocks for Fiction Writing. I once felt the same way you do, and that’s why I wrote it!
Thank you for this very interesting posting. Its so useful overthinking the own working style, too. Best wishes, and stay save. Michael
Thanks, Michael. Stay well.