Words on a Page Writings about writing

How to improve as a writer

A woman typing on a notebook computer

Improving as a writer.

That’s the goal we all strive for, isn’t it? To improve our style and the flow of our writing. To sharpen our descriptions, making them more vivid. To hone the dialogue that we write to make it more realistic.

I can’t think of any writer I know who doesn’t want to improve his or her craft. The question is how?

Becoming a better writer isn’t easy. There are any number of paths to doing that. For me, there are three key areas that you need to focus on.

Let’s take a look at them.

Deliberate practice

Writing just for the sake of writing won’t make you a better writer. It might help get the words flowing and exercise your fingers, but it does little else. What you need to do is practice deliberately.

What does that mean? Deliberate practice involves focusing on one area that you want or need to improve. Don’t just, for example, write endless lines of dialogue. Instead, study good dialogue. Imitate it.

Put your own spin on what you’re writing, even if that spin causes the piece to fall over. Keep working at it, though. That’s how you find your voice. That’s how how you develop a style.

Which leads into the next key area …

Deliberate reading

Where I steal an idea I leave my knife

— Michelangelo

I’m not advocating that you steal from other writers. That’s unethical in the extreme. But there’s a lot you can learn by studying the work of other writers.

Don’t just read anything. Read quality writing, writing that will actually point you in the direction of becoming a better wordsmith.

Why not read mediocre writing? Every hear the term GIGO (garbage in, garbage out)? It comes from the world of information technology, and applies to data. You’re not going to get good results by putting bad data into your system.

GIGO can also apply to what you’re absorbing when trying to improve as a writer. If, for example, I want to improve my skills at reporting and writing non fiction I wouldn’t read tabloid newspapers or sensationalist books. If you want to become a better fiction writer, chances are you wouldn’t read 50 Shades of Gray or the collected works of Robert James Waller.

Focus on the writing that is strong in the elements that you want to improve upon. Seek out the best authors. At the very least, find the work of superior writers.

Read, absorb. Then, apply what you’ve read or absorbed. Remember the advice I gave you about deliberate practice? It comes into play here. You don’t necessarily need to write full articles or stories or novels to put what you’ve learned into practice. Shorter passages will do.

Someone (I think it was Stephen King, penning the introduction to Harlan Ellison’s book Stalking the Nightmare) stated that writers are like the milk in the refrigerator. Like milk, we take on a bit of the flavour of what’s beside us. Part of the learning process is copying and aping what we’ve learned. For the first while, your writing will read something like what you’ve been absorbing. You will eventually incorporate that into your own style.

That synthesis takes time and a bit of help. Which leads us to …

Seeking advice and training and coaching

While I’ve always gotten good feedback from editors and reviewers, I haven’t gone out of my way as often as I should to get advice or training or coaching. That’s something I’m trying to remedy, though.

Think of getting advice or training or coaching in the same way as getting a second medical opinion. The person or people who you seek out should be able to give you honest and firm criticism. They should do it without being nasty. They should encourage you where needed, and be forthright about the failings of your writing when necessary. They should also offer suggestions about how to fix those problems.

You can get training and advice and coaching online or in person. It could be a forum, a writers group, or even a dedicated writing coach. I’ve been informally coaching writers for the last 18 months or so, and I think it’s helped them. It’s helped me.

(Quick plug: I’m thinking of adding coaching for writers to my list of services. If you’re interested, feel free to contact me).

But regardless of how you do it, you need to put the lessons you’ve learned into practice. Which means continually repeating the cycle of writing and getting feedback.

Becoming a better writer is a lot of work. It takes a lot of time. If you’re serious about your craft, then that putting in that work and taking that time is definitely worth it.

Thoughts? Let's start a conversation on Twitter.