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.
How much do you read? What are you reading now and what have you read recently? How does reading affect your writing? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, 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.
Writing every day is the best way to acquire lots of experience.
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 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.
Keeping a Journal
One thing sets successful writers apart from unsuccessful writers: dedication. When you’re dedicated 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 keeping a journal.
Writers who are not working at the professional level are juggling their writing projects with full-time jobs, families, school, and a host of other obligations. Writers also get stuck. You’re working on a manuscript, and then one day, the ideas 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.
Journals can be used for many things, but first and foremost, keeping a journal is a solution. Journaling is best known for its artistry and highly recognized for its self-help or 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. And it’s superb for fostering a daily writing habit.
In other words, keeping a journal can make you a better writer. That’s not to say it’s the only way (there are many ways to become a better writer), but it’s a good way.
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 to write in your journal. This gives you time to step away from the project that is stuck and provides a space for you to continue writing (and possibly 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’re too busy. Journal writing is an ideal way to bridge that gap. Keeping a journal provides a time and space where you can explore ideas, develop good writing habits, and sharpen your writing skills, so when there is finally time in your schedule to write that book, you’re ready for it.
Distractions and Procrastination
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. There are no distractions, so you’re less likely to procrastinate.
The Benefits of Keeping a Journal
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 model, writing heavily for a few months and 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.
Keeping a journal 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 keeping journals.
Do you keep a journal? How do you use your journal writing time? 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. Splurge on a professional critique.
- Be willing to make sacrifices. Give up one of your TV shows or skip your vacation and stay home to write instead.
- 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 every three months 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. Write what genuinely interests you.
- During the first draft, allow yourself to 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 reins. 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 and finish what you start.
- 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.
- 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 more precise 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 or 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 back-stories, world building, 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 empathetic.
- Show the scenes that really matter. Don’t spend three pages with 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.
- 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 and 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, most 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 or hire a coach or editor.
- 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?
- Write every day, even if only 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 solely 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 a while. 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 stimulating 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? Is the color of the dress important or can that be left to the reader’s imagination?
- 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).
- Most people use contractions in their speech. 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.” Get rid of unnecessary italics and punctuation marks.
- When you read something that impresses or moves you, deconstruct it. Find out what makes it so special and compelling.
- 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 habits and 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 you would add to this list? Is your writing regimen missing any of these critical tasks? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.
A good piece of writing holds your attention. It flows smoothly and everything makes sense. It’s interesting and a pleasure to read.
Great writing, on the other hand, doesn’t just hold your attention; it commands your attention. You become lost in it. You can’t put it down, and when you do, you want to read it all over again.
The question is, how do we define great writing?
Some would say that great writing shows true mastery of the craft: every word is carefully chosen, every sentence is thoughtfully constructed, and every paragraph is brimming with meaning and purpose. If you’ve ever marveled over a superbly written sentence, you’ve experienced this kind of writing. Read More
Today’s post is an excerpt from the book 10 Core Practices for Better Writing. Enjoy!
“‘Research’ is a wonderful word for writers. It serves as an excuse for EVERYTHING.” — Rayne Hall
Almost all writers rely on research for facts and information. Even fiction writers and memoir authors, whose work is either made up from imagination or based on personal experience, will turn to research to fill in holes and answer questions.
We use encyclopedias, reference books, and articles from scholarly journals, and we rely on historical facts and data collected by researchers so we can write truthfully and honestly. We also use Google, Wikipedia, and a host of other material found online. All this research is supposed to strengthen our work and lead to better, more credible writing.
We absorb this information and then spit it back out in the words we write. Then people come along and read our words. Maybe they go off and repeat what they’ve read. Maybe they rehash our material in a blog post of their own. Maybe they use it in an academic paper, or perhaps it inspires a poem or a short story. The information itself is constantly making the rounds, getting processed, filtered, and regurgitated. How are we to sift through it all to find reliable facts? How do we tell the truth from the lies?
And telling truth from lies is essential in conducting research. Misinformation is widespread, especially on the Internet.
The Information Age
We are currently bombarded with information. It’s more accessible than ever before in history. Millions of facts can be yours with a few keystrokes and the click of a button. Yet, oddly, the spread of misinformation seems more rampant than ever. It’s becoming less common for sources to be cited and more likely that the so-called facts you read online are just somebody’s beliefs or suspicions.
I find the spread of misinformation grossly irresponsible (it’s one of my pet peeves). There are so many ways to get the facts straight, there is really no excuse for it. I’m not talking about misunderstandings or unintentional mistakes—I’m talking about either knowingly repeating things that are untrue or willfully failing to get facts straight before reporting or repeating them.
But what does this have to do with you as a writer? How does responsible research (or lack thereof) reflect on a writer’s credibility, and how does solid research and the use of legitimate citations lead to better writing?
Credible Research for Writers
It can be difficult to know when research is required to back up the facts. There are some things that we know from life experience or from working in a particular field over a long period of time. Other things are simply common knowledge. And much online writing (especially in blogs) involves doling out advice based on personal experience.
But when you’re presenting historical data, citing statistics, or quoting sources, you have a responsibility to get the facts straight and in some cases, you should also cite them, especially in nonfiction writing.
Citations are important for a few reasons. First, a citation gives your readers an opportunity to look further into the topic. Second, you are giving credit where credit is due, to whoever compiled the facts for your use. Third, by citing your sources, you are showing your own work to be responsibly researched and therefore accurate and credible.
How do you know when research or citations are required or warranted? Use common sense and foster a little curiosity. Start by asking questions. If you’re writing fiction, you don’t need to cite your sources. If you’re writing an academic essay, you do. In fiction and poetry, there is room for make-believe. You can use artistic license and bend reality, but beware of readers with high standards. For example, many science-fiction readers will harp on a book with faulty science. If you know your audience and publishing medium, they should guide how you approach research and citations.
How to Research for Writing
Here are some final thoughts to consider when you’re conducting research:
- Books aren’t the only research materials you can use. Watch documentaries, conduct interviews, and check newspaper and periodical archives.
- Check your work for claims or statements that are debatable or that warrant proof. Are you quoting a person or a text? Are you citing statistics? Are you making a claim?
- Be smart about the research you conduct. Confirm the credibility of all your sources.
- Double-check your facts (and their sources) to see if claims have been countered. Try not to be one-sided.
- Cite your sources in the text, in footnotes, or in a bibliography (for books). On a blog or website, you can include a list of sources at the bottom of your article.
Writing fast is the latest rage, especially among indie authors. Whether I’m reading blog posts or listening to podcasts, there’s an overwhelming emphasis among indies on how to write faster.
Nobody’s talking about writing well.
But there are a lot of benefits to writing fast, if you can do it. The faster you write, the more works you can produce. Theoretically, that means more money in less time. Many people write slowly or write only when they feel the urge, so jumping on the write-fast bandwagon can help a lot of writers get more motivated and focused.
But there are some drawbacks to writing fast, especially if writing fast means you’re skipping steps in the writing process (such as multiple revisions) or skimping on important elements of publishing (like getting a professional edit). Deliberate writing and professional-level publishing leads to higher quality work, and if you’re speeding through the process, you might miss some important details and end up with a shoddy book full of typos and plot holes.
Sometimes you have to choose between writing fast and writing well, but most of the time, I think the best practice is to find a balance.
Tips for Writing Faster
I have to stand firmly against the notion of whipping through projects and throwing them at people when they are hardly past the draft phase. But at the same time, I think a lot of writers could use some tips to help them pick up the pace, keep projects moving along, and most importantly, finish what we start and then put it out there for other people to enjoy. In that spirit, here are some basic tips on how to write fast while also writing well:
1. Plan ahead. Instead of staring at a blank page and wondering what to write, work out the details ahead of time. Try outlining to plan what happens in your story, or go deeper and write detailed story beats. Using an outline allows you to find plot holes and inconsistencies before you start drafting, which can be a huge time saver that results in fewer revisions later. That means while you’re drafting you can focus on telling the story rather than worrying about what story to tell.
2. Do it daily. If you write every day, you’ll finish your projects a lot faster than if you work on them only when the mood strikes. It might seem like twenty minutes or five hundred words a day isn’t much, but it adds up over time, and it’s a lot more than producing zero words each day.
3. Track your productivity. When drafting, it make sense to track both your time and your word count to get an idea of how many words you write per hour. Try writing at different times of the day, in different locations, and with different environmental stimuli (like sounds) to see which setting you’re most productive in.
4. Turn off your inner editor. Save time by ignoring typos and grammatical errors as you work through early drafts. If you make significant changes to the content later, early edits might end up discarded. Instead of spending valuable time revising prose that might get cut, focus on the content in your early drafts, and worry about the mechanics when the project is nearing completion.
5. Establish a production schedule and stick to it. If you know you can write five hundred words a day and you want to write a 50,000-word draft, you can calculate how long it should take. Working out a schedule is a good way to stay motivated. You might even set up rewards for when you reach major milestones like first draft completion. However, creativity is a fickle beast, so be sure to strike a balance between sticking to your schedule but allowing some flexibility for when you run into creative problems, like realizing you have to scrap and rewrite an entire subplot.
Do You Write Fast?
Do you have any tips on how to write faster? How do you feel about writing fast versus writing well? Do you think it’s possible to do both? What do you think about writing and publishing a full-length novel every month? What about every three months? Once a year? What if it takes eight years? Take some time to think about your productivity and your goals, and then get back to writing!
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 a mediocre piece of work a boost, and works of average quality can become 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 blatantly 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 basic 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 may 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.
In recent years there has been a trend building around writing fast. The idea is to finish a book as quickly as possible, publish it, and start immediately on the next book. You quickly end up with a decent sized catalog. Each release creates new opportunities for marketing, so you are constantly able to promote your works.
This trend seems to be more popular among indie authors, since traditionally published authors are contractually obligated to go through the longer process that many publishers require, which includes multiple revisions of the work and carefully timed publication dates. I’ve seen indie authors publishing books as fast as once a month, but many are putting out a book every three months or so. They’re writing pretty fast.
Writing that fast is not a bad idea, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea either.
For the past couple of years, most of the books I’ve bought have been self-published, and some of them have been very good. The difference in quality between self-published and traditionally published works is decreasing with each passing year as indie authors learn the craft and the trade. Plenty of self-published books are even better than their traditionally published counterparts.
But I don’t think self-publishing has reached the same quality that traditional publishing enjoys, universally. I found that I didn’t finish more than two-thirds of the self-published books I bought whereas I finished almost all the traditionally published books I purchased.
A Case Study
Recently, I picked up a book by an author whose blog I’d been following. The book was in the fantasy genre, and my expectations were very low because it had been written and published in less than four months. I’ll be honest — I couldn’t see how a decent book could be made in such a short time. Maybe a full-time author could pull it off, or maybe a story in a simpler genre could be written in such a short time span. But this was a pretty thick tome, complete with a large cast of a characters, an intricate world, and a detailed magic system, and the author wasn’t full-time.
I was pleasantly surprised when I read the book and found it quite good. Good — not great. In fact, I would say it was average but had the potential to be a five-star novel. There was a major plot hole, which was glaringly obvious, and a few big speed bumps where there were problems with inconsistency and inaccuracy. These moments yanked me out of the story. But I couldn’t get over the book’s potential. And I found myself thinking, If this author had set the work aside for a couple of weeks and revised it with fresh eyes, and if they had used beta readers, this book could have been truly great. Maybe even a breakout indie hit.
The author in question had been in a hurry. I remember following the writing process on the author’s blog. This person’s goal was to publish as many books as possible as quickly as possible. While I think this can work for some authors, I doubt it’s the best career path for most. If books are written quickly and published before they’ve reached their full potential, readers will be less inclined to review and recommend those books, let alone buy other books in the author’s catalog. And in the grand scheme of things, taking a couple of extra months to polish a book that is then going to generate revenue for the rest of your life is probably a smarter career strategy.
On the other hand, another author I follow wrote and published an excellent work of science fiction in about the same amount of time. But there were some notable differences. The science-fiction author had more books under their belt and was therefore more experienced. This author was also writing a sequel in a series, so much of the world-building and character development was already done. And this person was already a full-time author. It’s easier to write well and write fast when you have all those things going for you.
It’s a given that if you put a little more time into a project, it will get better. A couple of extra revisions, beta readers, or hiring a developmental editor will cause the project to take longer, but these actions will also improve your book tremendously.
Some authors can write fast and turn out high quality work, but I think these authors are rare. They tend to be full-time, have plenty of experience, and know what they’re doing; many of them write contemporary fiction, which means less world-building. It takes more time to write a book when you have to create a world or do a ton of research. So if you want to use the write-fast career strategy, maybe simpler stories are the way to go.
Write Fast or Write Better?
Ultimately, every author has to find his or her own artistic vision, business plan, and career path. Writing fast has worked for some indie authors, but many who write fast are sitting around wondering, where are the readers?
What you do think about writing fast or writing well? Do you think one strategy works better than the other? Do both work? Which is more important to you as a writer?
Writing leaves an impression. Readers will come away from your work feeling informed, entertained, inspired, even moved.
Or will they?
When I was in high school and during my early college days, I wrote papers and turned them in without giving them so much as a second glance — no revisions or rewriting and no proofreading or editing. My papers often came back marked up, and the markings almost always pointed out grammar, spelling, and punctuation rules that I already knew – but because I hadn’t bothered to edit my work, I’d accidentally broken the rules and turned in an unpolished piece of writing that was peppered with typos.
Writing and editing are essential steps in any project, but too often, we skimp on editing and end up with unpolished prose.
The Importance of Editing
In time, I learned the value of revising my work, but it was a lesson that did not arrive in the form of essays hatched with red markups. I learned the value of editing as a reader.
The first time I caught a typo in a novel, I felt smug. I thought myself quite smart to have found a mistake that the author had missed. Later, when I understood that each novel is reviewed by several editors, I felt even more smug when I’d find errors in books or articles. Not only had the writer missed the mistake, the editors had missed it too!
I also noticed that each error was a speed bump, which interrupted the flow of my reading. I’d be enjoying the story, and all of a sudden, a blatant misspelling or poorly structured sentence would throw me off course, and I’d be yanked out of the tale.
That was enough for me to develop a careful practice of editing everything I wrote. When people read my work, I don’t want them to pause to contemplate the rules of grammar. I want the reading to flow smoothly and totally uninterrupted. So writing and editing now go hand in hand.
The Absence of Editing
I’ve learned that in the world of blogging, editing is sorely lacking – and it’s easy to tell when a blogger doesn’t understand the rules of proper English or is simply being careless. In some cases, the work contains information and ideas that can’t be obtained elsewhere, so the value of the content overrides the necessity of good grammar. In other cases, the material is so riveting and entertaining, minor mistakes are easily forgiven.
Some readers will ignore grammatical hiccups or confusing verbiage. Others won’t notice them at all. But there will always be those who are so completely turned off by an unpolished piece of work that they’ll simply stop reading whatever you publish. Is that a harsh reaction on the reader’s part? Maybe. But if your work is so riddled with mistakes that it’s difficult to read, then why should anyone waste their time?
As writers (and particularly for bloggers who produce tons of written material on any given day, week, or month) it’s nearly impossible to hire a professional editor to check everything we put out in public. No matter how carefully we proofread and edit, chances are that a few typos will slip through over time. But if you aren’t polishing your work at all, and your writing is weighted down with mistakes, you’re sending readers a message that you don’t care very much about your work or the impression that it leaves.
Your Writing and Editing Habits
I’ll leave you with a few questions that you can ask yourself about your own writing and editing habits. Feel free to share your responses in the comments section or simply share your feelings about writing and editing (or lack thereof).
- Do you edit every piece of writing that you submit, share, or publish?
- How many times do you proofread a piece of writing?
- How careful is your writing and editing process? Do you do a quick scan or a careful review? Do you pause to edit sentences as you’re writing them, or do you wait and finish a draft before editing it?
Remember, editing is one of the keys to better writing, so be sure to incorporate it into your writing process.
If you have any writing and editing tips to share, feel free to post them in the comments.