How Can I Improve My Writing?
Increasingly, I am asked by aspiring writers of various levels how they can improve their writing. This is a sufficiently common question, that warrants a sufficiently long answer, that I’ve decided to post the answer here for future reference.
How to improve your writing:
Join a critique group. No matter your skill level, the hardest thing for any writer to learn is to see through the eyes of readers. No writing book, course, or lecture can take the place of real live feedback from disinterested strangers looking at your work. Your local writers guild probably has a list of local groups in your area, or if you prefer, there are now many good online critique services. In addition, most good critique sites offer a host of forums and resources that can be invaluable to you.
I have tried and can recommend www.CritiqueCircle.com and www.Scribophile.com, both of which have free options. Critters is also a reputable service, though I found it less conducive to building relationships with critiquers and other writers. I can’t personally recommend Wattpad or Amazon’s WriteOn, as they seem to me too focused on the superficial, and I fear they may be designed to feed the fantasy of the aspirant more than to instill the skills of the serious writer.
Do not reply to critiquers to explain, justify, defend, or argue. Just say thanks, move on and use or don’t use their feedback as you see fit. Learn to see the truth beneath the comment, even when the comment is wrong.
Read like a writer. Read a lot, especially award-winning work in and beyond your genre. Study these tales as instructional samples. Look at formatting and punctuation, especially dialogue and dialog attribution. Move on to pacing, tone, word choice.
Some writing gurus advise reading bad prose in order to learn by counterexample. That’s a terrible idea. Humans learn by imitation, and until you have found your voice, you will tend to sound like whatever author you just read, be it Tolstoy’s translator or Edward Bulwer-Lytton. You can, however, learn a great deal by studying the masters from an earlier age and cringing over their self-indulgences. Nathaniel Hawthorn, for example, had a knack for saying something wonderfully, then saying it again (wonderfully) and then again (also wonderfully). This isn’t the nineteenth century. We can’t get away with that anymore, but if we can just come up with one “wonderfully” at a time, we’re good.
Stop trying to impress. Beginning writers invariably overwrite. They fluff up their prose with fresh ten-gallon words and flowery description. They invert standard sentence order incessantly. They use metaphors that leave readers scratching their heads, and they use metaphors entirely too much. They try too hard to be philosophical, to pull at the heart, to be dark and obscure and literary. Knock it off. Relax. Tell a good story. Make it clear. The rest will come with practice.
Look for the “Telling Detail.” Beginners, lacking confidence, often bury their story under the weight of unnecessary and often repetitive detail. Learn to recognize the one or two key details—in a setting, character, conversation, etc.—that implies everything else the reader needs to know. Better to give one bit of description that implies character and mood, say, than to spell out all three in long winded prose.
Master the basics. Become an expert on grammar, usage, punctuation, manuscript formatting, and vocabulary. As a writer, you will often break the rules, but you can only do so confidently and cogently if you know what they are in the first place. And by the way, many of the rules you were likely taught in elementary school are simply wrong. Often, they were contrived to steer students away from common sources of confusion. Learn those sources and avoid them—and learn when to ignore those sorts of rules.
- Zen Comma – David Bowman
- On Writing Well – William Zinsser
- A Writer’s Reference – Diana Hacker
- The Hodges Harbrace Handbook
- Self-Editing for Fiction Writers – Browne & King
Do not for a moment think you can rely on a grammar checker, or tools like Grammarly or Autocrit/Procrit. These can be helpful learning aids. They flag what they think are errors, and you research to decide whether they are right or not. Once you master the basics, you’ll find these tools are no longer almost ever right, and then you don’t need them any more.
Don’t accept shortcuts. The late Christopher Hitchens was fond of saying he reckoned “everyone has one book in him….and in the great majority of cases, that’s just where it should remain.” If you want to write as a hobby, that’s fine. It’s great therapy, a sort of thematic extended diary. No one wants to see that, but that’s okay. Meanwhile, there are frankly more aspiring writers than the world has need of. A great many spend an inordinate amount of time complaining that their chosen pariahs (agents, editors, purchasers, publishers, name-brand bookstores, the public, “gatekeepers,” etc. are conspiring to keep their voice from being heard. Well this is nonsense. All those “gatekeepers” make money by getting great works into the public’s hands. They want you to be great, but the cold reality is, if you aren’t, there are always others in the slush who may be. For many writers today, the greatest threat to eventual greatness is the impatient unwillingness to invest in their craft. Don’t be one of the whiners.You have little control of luck and taste, so focus on what you do control, attitude and industry.
Which leads me too…if you are really serious about writing…
Write a million critiqued words. No kidding. Ten long novels worth of your best effort, edited and polished, critiqued and revised, and most of it tossed in the forever file. That’s what it takes.
Dave Farland, first reader and lead judge for the Writers of the Future contest talks about “confident writing” as the ineffable divide between professional quality work and “not there yet.” I can’t explain what Dave means by “confident writing” any better than he can, but I understand it perfectly. Read sparkling pro-quality stories until you see it, and then you know what you’re shooting for.
What do you think? Have a good resource I should add? Want to suggest another tip? Leave a comment and let me know.
You make some excellent points without pulling your punches, which most writers sorely need regardless of whether they appreciate it at first reading. My addition to your encouragement to learn the basics of grammar is to find an editor who explains why a passage is wrong rather than simply indicating a correction. Editors are similar to firefighters in that we not only put out grammatical fires; we try to teach people how to avoid setting the next one. I keep saying, “Grammar may not seem simple, but when you know it, it’s easy.”