Friday, June 14, 2013

7 Ways to Improve as a Writer

PREMISE: Every writer can get better at writing.


The standard advice you hear about how to get better at writing is to write more, finish your projects, and submit your work. You're told to write either a certain number of words or for a certain amount of time every day, ideally at the same time of day, and after a while this is supposed to magically make your writing better.

The trouble with that, I think, is that it leads to people just churning out words at the same level of quality—the level where they started. Any improvement is slow. The advice to finish projects is the best part of it. Learning to finish one story and start another one is important. Submitting them is also important, but personal rejections are rare; getting a bunch of form rejections doesn't tell you anything about what you need to improve.

Because of that, I've made a list of ways to work on getting better as a writer. The great thing about these methods is that you can repeat them at different levels as you improve. You can switch to a different method anytime you feel like you're no longer making much progress with the latest one. But sometimes coming back to one of the methods later, when you've had more experience, will make it effective again.

Here's that list!

1. Read
  • Read about writing. There are so many writing books, you can find one for any level, but I have some recommendations: Five Great Books for New-Ish Writers, and Five Books for Leveling Up in Writing and Life.
  • Do targeted reading. I can think of two approaches. The first one is spreading out: reading a wide variety of fiction in various styles and genres to learn about what you like, different ways of telling stories, and what kinds of stories you want to tell. The second is focusing in: diving into your favorite subgenre and becoming an expert in what's already been done so that you can discover what you'd like to add to that subgenre.
  • Read submissions (aka "slush") for a publication. A slush reader decides whether or not a story is good enough for the editor to consider. Because most submissions must be rejected due to the number coming in—only the very best can even be considered—slush reading tends to teach people a lot about how not to write. If you find out that a magazine is looking for slush readers, offer your services. You'll be volunteering your time for free, so think of it as an internship. Just try not to become so perfectionistic that you can't write anymore.

  • 2. Study
  • Take classes about the mechanics of writing. Especially if you're really new to writing, it's a good idea to get your writing evaluated and learn the right skills, so that you don't waste years of time on bad habits that get you nowhere. It can give you the reassurance that your ability to write good sentences is not your problem.
  • Go to classes and workshops that are specifically about creating stories. This should come after you know that you have decent sentence-writing skills. I suggest starting with short classes that meet repeatedly over time (once a week for a semester, for example), so that you can improve by doing assignments and having a qualified teacher point out your strengths and weaknesses. There are longer workshops and retreats for different skill levels, but save those for later, when you'll get more out of them (or go straight there if you're at the intermediate level at least, already). They tend to cost more in concentrated time and money, and they can be more stressful, especially if you're not quite ready to be there.

  • 3. Analyze
  • Copy stories out. This is an exercise I read about in an interview with Kelly Link. You take a story you admire, or a particularly good section of a story, and write it out by hand. This lets you examine the way the words go together at a slower pace than reading. From what I understand, handwriting engages more of the brain than typing something out, because you have to draw each letter in a few steps instead of typing an entire letter in one step. Also (at least for the time being), most people learn how to write by hand at an earlier age than they learn to type, so there will be more brain connections associated with that than with working on a keyboard.
  • Dissect stories. Which elements do you like about your favorite stories? How is the title effective? How are the characters' motivations revealed? How does the author create emotional responses in you? Thinking about these things, and anything about how a good story goes together, is very helpful. This process also works for thinking about stories you don't like. Try to pinpoint where the story goes wrong, and think about how it could be better.
  • Examine your writing lineage. I got this idea from Austin Kleon's excellent book, Steal Like an Artist. The idea is that if you copy from one person, you're being inauthentic. If you use your own unique viewpoint to remix ideas from a range of influences, you're doing what every artist has done since the third human artist learned techniques from the two preceding human artists. If you have a few favorite authors, your writing lineage includes them, as well as their influences. Find out who influenced your favorite authors and study that work directly.
  • Give and get writing critiques. The best way to do this is to join a writing group, and there's so much that goes into finding a good group for you that I'll have to write about it another time. The important thing to know is that you learn things from explaining what works and doesn't work about someone else's story, and you learn other things from hearing different opinions about the same story. You also, of course, can learn a lot from hearing a few opinions about your own story and then deciding which opinions to work from while revising, and how to incorporate them.

  • 4. Brainstorm
  • Make idea lists. There's a thing called divergent thinking that's very important for writers. One example: you take any object, such as a brick, and set a timer, and then try to list as many uses for a brick as possible, no matter how non-traditional. Regularly pushing to come up with more creative uses of objects will give your mind experience with inventing unexpected ideas.
  • Place imaginary bets. I got this idea from a talk given by Tim Powers. He likes to get his story ideas together by writing in stream-of-consciousness style in a computer document, asking a lot of "what if" questions. When he has an idea he likes, he'll ask himself why that would happen in a story, and then he asks again, "No, why REALLY?" With that last question, he's pushing to look beyond the obvious "first approximation" that anyone would think of immediately, and go deeper into the ideas that only he would produce. He calls this process "imaginary bets" because it's like going to a craps table and betting with imaginary money to clear away your bad luck before gambling with real money.* You get the bad ideas out and then work with the good ones!

  • *(Not recommended for actual gambling.)

    5. Practice
  • Practice in specific areas of writing. In addition to the brainstorming practice above, you can do exercises designed to strengthen your skills in a single area. If you rarely use dialogue in your stories, or people tell you that your dialogue needs work, write 500-word stories that consist of only dialogue, with no narration around it. The advanced level of this is to use dialogue with no names attached (no "Emily said" or even "she said"). Write it so that a reader can recognize each character without being told who's talking. Whether you're using names or not, start with two characters, but then maybe see if you can pull it off with three. You can devise exercises for other elements that you want to improve, too. I'm sure there must be writing prompt books that would help with this.

  • 6. Experiment
  • Change methods. Switch between handwriting and typing, doing whichever you don't usually do. Change location, Write at a different time of day. See what you create under different conditions.
  • Switch format or length. If you usually write prose, try poetry for a while, or vice versa. Whatever length of fiction you usually write, try going a category shorter (novels to novellas, short stories to flash fiction). Going longer is fine, too, but I believe that squeezing down to a shorter format can teach you more about tight, effective prose. You're also more likely to finish the experiment in a reasonable amount of time.
  • Try a different process or starting point. Go from outlining to spontaneous writing with no plan, or the other way around. If you usually start your stories by thinking of a character, try starting from something else, like a setting or a series of events (aka "plot").

  • 7. Revise
  • Try the 10% Solution. For learning about cutting unnecessary words out of your stories, to my mind there is no better book than The 10% Solution by Ken Rand. He shows you a method for cutting out 10% of the words in your draft, and explains why that's important. I use his process for every story I write.
  • Do a complete rewrite of a trunked story. Stories we've given up on go into the "trunk"—whatever storage facility you use for stories that aren't going anywhere. If you have a story that's been sitting, broken, in a trunk, get it out. Instead of trying to do another revision on it, write it again from a different angle. Switch from first person to third, or write from a different character's viewpoint. Have the story play out in a different setting. Exploring different possibilities can improve your writing skills while giving a dead story new life.
  • Some people think that writing's a talent you either have or you don't, but I disagree! I believe that anyone can get better at writing if they use the right methods.


    1. Excellent post, Nayad. Great information. After reading the last tip, I suddenly hear muted screams coming from my short story graveyard. I may have buried a few who still have some life... :D


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