Writing often feels like taking two steps forward and one step back (or worse, one forward and two back). As if that weren’t hard enough, naysayers keep claiming that writing is an in-born talent, rather than a transferable skill.
I firmly believe that as long as you’re willing to put in the work and play the long game, you can improve your writing – just like you can improve any other skill – and grow into a great writer. Here are some areas you might want to focus on…
Widen Your Reading
One of the duties of literature and creative writing tutors is to bring new and unusual texts to their students’ attention, and to demonstrate their relevance.
I take this responsibility very seriously! It’s true, my tastes can be a bit obscure, literary and old-fashioned, but I feel that is all the more reason to share my discoveries with you. For example, have you read about 19th century women botanists, or descriptions of steam engines in poetry?
- If you’ve never encountered Literary Theory before, now’s the time! Litcrit will open your eyes to a whole new way of viewing texts you thought you knew intimately.
- Read more widely within your genre. A deeper familiarity with your genre will help you please your audience, while avoiding clichés.
- Read about writing. Oh hey, you’re doing that already!
- Read poetry too. You’ll be grateful when you’re searching for an epigraph! ;)
Imitation is one of the first steps to learning anything. We all imitate unconsciously, but a more aware, methodical imitation of your favourite writer can teach you a lot, especially about their writing and thinking process. By the way, a literary piece mimicking the style of another writer is called a pastiche.
- Steal from authors you love.
- Make a list of things you love in literature.
- If you could get all of your favourite authors (dead or alive) to help you, what would you ask them for help with, and what advice would they give you?
Clarify Your Vision
If you aren’t sure exactly what you’re striving towards, you’ll never know when you reach it. You’ll feel lost because you’ll blindly follow the paths that other writers tell you to follow, instead of finding your own way. Also, you’ll feel as if you aren’t making any progress, even while you work really hard. Get clear!
- When will you know you’ve become a writer?
- Are you a neophyte, apprentice, journeyman or master writer?
- Craft your writer’s statement.
Study Your Craft
You know how important this is, or you wouldn’t be reading this post! Of course, study is no substitute for writing, but I personally think that learning techniques that have worked for other writers, and adapting them to suit you, is the quickest and most effective way to solve your writing problems.
- Study plot structure.
- Study storytelling.
- Discover new tools.
- Study poetry. Poetry isn’t just for poets. Prose writers can learn a lot from poetry, including:
- How to develop a sense of rhythm
- How to use language economically
- How to create powerful imagery
- How to write within tight formal constraints.
When you’re learning, quantity always comes before quality. This is obvious if you think about it. If you don’t actually write, it’s impossible for you to write better.
- What are some stories you need to tell?
- Incorporate writing into your morning routine.
- Develop a writing addiction.
Thinking of “writing” and “finishing writing” as two separate skills can really help if you’re the sort of person who starts lots of projects but never gets to write, “the end”, or edit a manuscript to the point where it can be shared with other sentient beings.
It’s harder to enjoy the process of finishing, but it often brings greater rewards than even the great joy of writing. Finishing is that final hurdle that writers put off, and it’s essential for growth.
- How to finally finish your first novel or novella.
- An editing checklist to help you or your beta readers.
- Find ways to get unstuck.
- How to reconnect with a story that has been lying fallow for some time.
Short, intense challenges are the surest way to expand beyond your (imaginary) limitations. NaNoWriMo is a must, but you don’t have to wait until November; why not invent your own challenge right now?
- Try writing a novel in a month.
- Take the 30 Day Flash Fiction Challenge.
- What is everyone else doing? Challenge yourself to be different.
Develop sound judgement
I know that it’s important to silence the inner critic while writing, but developing “good taste” (for lack of a better phrase) is vital if you want to reach the dizzying heights of your favourite authors. Hemingway, in his usual verbose, roundabout way, calls this “a shock-proof shit detector”. This means learning to recognise when you aren’t being true to yourself; when you stray into meaningless cliché or write in a certain way simply for effect (or affectation).
- If you were to start an artistic movement, what would it be? Taking a broader view and thinking about your place in literature can help you view your own writing in a more impartial light.
- Are you a hack or an artist? How do you tread the middle ground?
- Assess yourself.
Learn a new Language
I know this might seem like a lot of work, but I find that nothing makes me more aware of my skill (or lack thereof) with words, than the perspective that another language affords. Foreign languages show you the limitations of your native tongue, and the malleable nature of meaning itself.
- How to read a novel in a language you don’t know
- Latin learning resources
- Russian learning resources
Find someone like you (you like)
Writing buddies can help you improve your writing by keeping you accountable, but even more vitalising is the joy of talking to someone who understands you because they’re on the same page. That can change you overnight!
- Take part in a Twitter chat (my favourite = #storycrafter!)
- Post a message in the Lady Writers League Drawing Room.
Just because you take your writing seriously, doesn’t mean you can’t have fun! Change up your style, experiment with new forms, write complete nonsense for a few days in order to cleanse your palate. I’m game if you are!