How to Become a Better Writer

frustrated woman at computer

Writing is like a sport. If you don’t practice, you don’t get any better.

Rick Riordan

We were all taught how to write at some point. But what most of us learned was centered around grammar, sentence structure, and how to write a term paper. It’s dull stuff, and it doesn’t translate readily to the art of writing a lively, compelling book.

So how do you catch up? Just like Rick says, above, it all comes down to practice, practice, practice. And perhaps a few more tips, outlined below.

Read

Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.

Ray Bradbury

You learned to walk not by instruction (“first, shift your weight to your left leg and thrust your right heel forward”) but by imitating others. Learning to write is really no different. One of the best ways to improve your writing is to be a voracious reader and learn how to write by observation. How did the novelist tell you that the moon was shining without writing “the moon was shining”?  Do non-fiction books have a narrative structure, and if so, how did that historical biography pull it off? Read, and don’t be shy about imitating, at least at first. It’s how you learned to walk, ride a bike, and, thanks to YouTube videos, change your oil.

Get Started

Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.

Louis L’Amour

All the observation and advice in the world won’t help you if you never actually sit down and write. And yet wannabe writers get stuck on this step more often than any other. Don’t worry about achieving literary genius or even mediocrity. Be willing, in fact, to outright suck. The infamous “shitty first draft” is so called for a reason. Your first job is to get something out of your head and onto a page. You can’t create a sculpture until you’ve dumped all the clay out on the table. Get your clay out where you can see it and work with it.

Make a Commitment

The best way to be a writer is to be a writer.

Augusten Burroughs

Professionals write every single day. Some write to a specific word count, some for a specified number of hours. All of them know that their writing will not happen without making space in their day and in their lives to do so.

Don’t handicap yourself by picking a time of day when you’re low-energy, or answering to other responsibilities and commitments. Find time that is yours alone – even if it’s only 15 minutes before the kids get up, or that half-hour between the end of your workday and when you need to brave rush-hour traffic. Making the time commitment and holding boundaries around your writing time is far more important than what you actually write during it.

Keep Going

This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard.

Neil Gaiman

Writing sounds simple – just assemble a string of words and keep going – but it’s also deceptively challenging. Those words, you hope, will convey complex ideas, characters, and circumstances. Ernest Hemingway counseled to “write the truest sentence you know,” and that’s not a bad place to start, if the intimidation factor doesn’t shut you down. Beginners might get further by writing a just a sentence – any sentence. Build, rewrite, and tweak from there.

It’s impossible to change a ship’s course from the dock. It’s also impossible to rewrite a blank page. Put your writing on the page, and stay in motion. Momentum is a powerful driver.

Persist

Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.

Jane Yolen

Loss of momentum is equally powerful. No matter what, keep your writing muscles loose and limber by writing something – good, bad, indifferent – every single day. Consistency builds your craft – and your word count.

Listen

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.

Elmore Leonard

Even beginning writers can recognize prose that falls flat, rings false, and reveals the author sweating away at it. One of the best ways to avoid this is to read your writing aloud. If it feels awkward or stiff in your mouth, it’s a good bet it reads that way on paper too. This is also a great way to catch choppy transitions or confusing passages. Write the way people actually talk – not just in dialogue, but in exposition too. If you’ve ever read a business memo, you know what overblown, stilted language sounds like. Reading aloud helps you develop your ear.

Focus

Being a good writer is 3% talent, 97% not being distracted by the Internet.

Anonymous

Many a writing session has been derailed in the name of “research” that sends the writer down a rabbit hole of tangential googling. What began as an innocent attempt to nail down what your protagonist might have seen on a diner menu in 1937 can result, an hour later, in watching videos of chickens wearing handknit sweaters. Close all your other tabs, turn off your router, and stay present. You can put a blank space with an underscore, insert “TK” (“to come,” deliberately misspelled so that an editor or printer won’t confuse it for the real text), or leave yourself a margin note on anything that needs you to pull your attention away from your manuscript.

Write Until You Finish

A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.

Richard Bach

There are countless partial manuscripts languishing in the cloud or on hard drives. One of the skills writers must master is bringing their book to a satisfying close. Knowing how – and when – to make that happen is part of understanding timing, narrative structure, reader psychology, and good storytelling.

Besides, if you never finish, you’re never going to enjoy the pleasure of seeing your work published.