All authors are on a lifelong journey to improve their writing, but how does this happen? While there is no single strategy that will work for all authors, there are a few things you can do to vastly improve the quality of your writing. Learning to avoid common pitfalls takes time, but, with the strategies outlined below, is completely manageable.
The first step to becoming a good writer is to read as much as possible. You do not need to stay in the genre you typically write in, either. Read everything from books about how to become a better writer to books about anything you find interesting. If you have always stuck to a single type of book, try picking up something new. To become a better writer, it is important to read both examples of good and bad writing. Good writing shows what is possible. Bad writing teaches what to avoid.
As you read, analyze what you like and dislike about each different style. If you skip the reflection, you are only doing half the work. This reading will help you refine your style into something that you and potential readers will find engaging.
Like a concert pianist must spend hours in front of the keys to become better, a writer must spend time writing to improve. Instead of waiting for that flash of inspiration to strike before sitting down to write, set a routine. As you carve a place for writing in your schedule, set a goal for yourself. That goal can be anything from a set number of pages to a specific number of words to be completed each day. Whatever you choose, your goal will need to be something quantifiable.
It is also important to manage expectations. As you practice, do not be discouraged if what you are writing does not seem very good. Remember that the first draft is almost always discarded and that a finished first draft is much better than a blank page.
Many authors either rigorously outline their projects or are vehemently opposed to outlining. Regardless of which camp you fall in, outlining is an important step to refining your ideas as it gives your writing direction. While more important in nonfiction than fiction, outlining tells your words where to go.
Outlining is often compared to reading a roadmap to plan a trip. While some authors may prefer to just get out on the highway and drive without a predetermined destination, you still need to be able to find the road. A project without an outline is like off-roading – you never know when you will get stuck in the mud. Because an outline is a guide, do not be afraid to change your outline as you go along.
One of the biggest mistakes writers make is failing to understand. You need to research to have a good working knowledge of your subject matter. While this applies more to nonfiction, it is still an important concept in fiction as well. If one of your main characters is a tailor, you, as the author, need to know what a thimble is.
Some of your readers may come to your book with little to no knowledge of a concept, and your writing should be able to explain it quickly, simply, and easily without distracting from the story. If you do not feel you could explain even a simplified version of a concept to a child, you might need to do additional research.
As words flow from your mind, remember that you are writing for the reader, not yourself. This means removing yourself as the author as much as possible from the story you are telling. If a simple word will work better than a many-syllabled behemoth, choose the simple word. Anything else is showing off and is distracting.
Part of writing for your reader is to focus on showing instead of telling. Good writers provide evidence and let the readers act as judges. Here are some examples that illustrate the important distinction between telling and showing.
Example of telling: "He did not care about his appearance."
Example of showing: "His shirt was on backward."
Maybe getting your voice right is what you are struggling most with. A few strategies to help you find your voice are to write exactly as you talk. With sophisticated voice-to-text technology readily accessible, this is an easy experiment.
If that strategy does not work for you, try reading your day's practice aloud. Because this strategy shows where your writing is lacking, it is one of the fastest ways to improve as a writer.
Fiction writers have a more difficult job finding a voice, as fiction often involves finding your voice as well as different characters' voices. The best way to learn to switch between these varying voices is to practice.
English is blessed with a wealth of words, and picking the right ones to fill your blank page can seem like a daunting task. However, it is easy to improve your writing simply by choosing better words. Do more talking with descriptive nouns and verbs than adjectives and adverbs. Instead of saying that a character "walked angrily," say "stomped," "charged," or "stormed." Charged with connotation, these words illustrate a character's emotion.
If a prepositional phrase does not need to be in a sentence, get rid of it. For example, saying, "She sat down in the chair" is needlessly complex when you could say, "She sat." Even if a writer does not specify that there are chairs in a room, readers are smart enough to assume that characters generally do not sit on the floor. Retrain your writing style to eliminate any unnecessary or self-explanatory prepositional phrases. You may be surprised by how much better your writing sounds.
While there is no single correct style, there are some general best-practice ideas on how to achieve an engaging style. Varying sentence length is one of these. A mixture of short and long sentences can help hold a reader's interest.
Another is to avoid using the passive voice. However, rules are made to be broken, and 0% passive voice might be wrong for your style. Figure out the perfect ratio for our writing, and work on keeping it there.
To become a better writer, keep it simple. It may be tempting to use lots of big words, but the best writing is achieved when you allow the reader's imagination to do most of the work. Start by looking at every single word. If it adds value, keep it. If it does not advance the story, delete it.
Embracing simplicity can be difficult at first. After all, as a writer, you want to show off your grasp of difficult grammar and flaunt your fancy vocabulary. If it fits a fictional character's mindset, a convoluted style might be right. However, for most writing, the simpler you can keep your writing, the easier it is for readers to understand and enjoy.
From word choice to practice, there are many ways to approach becoming a better writer. Implement these strategies one at a time to figure out which works best for you, or try them all at once. Every author's journey is different, and it is very rare for a writer to wake up one day and announce, "Today, I am a good writer." Instead, progress is slow and comes with practice. However, receiving and acting on feedback, using these strategies, and lots of practice can transform mediocre writing into something truly magnificent.