I was recently asked if I could share some thoughts on how to improve writing skills. That’s something I’m usually asking other writers, so it got me thinking about what I’ve learned so far. Here are ten tips. I hope you find them useful.
- Set realistic writing goals
Last November I participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) for the first time. The aim was to write a novel of 50,000 words in a month. A wonderful idea, but within a week I was already falling behind. 1667 words a day wasn’t realistic for me. I felt like I was back at university, the night before a big essay was due. Sitting down to complete my daily word count became something of an ordeal.
Goals and deadlines are vital for getting things done, but I prefer to break them down in different ways. I’ll aim to get up to a certain scene or event in my story by a particular time, rather than reach a word count. Everyone’s lifestyle and commitments are different. Set writing goals that are achievable for you.
- Write regularly
NaNoWriMo helped me a lot with this one. If you write once a week on a Sunday evening, you’ll lose momentum and waste time each week getting back into the right mindset.
- Plan before you write
This is one of the reasons I didn’t ‘win’ NaNoWriMo. I had a vague story premise in my head that needed a lot more development before I started writing. For me, planning saves time and helps me produce better writing. Having said that, there are a lot of great writers out there who don’t even do a rough outline before they start a book.
- Write outside your comfort zone
A lot of people say you should write what you know but I don’t think that’s always true. As far as we know, H.G. Wells never travelled back in time. Nor did Kate Grenville live in nineteenth century Australia. Writing in different genres is one of the best things you can do to improve your writing because it challenges you by stretching your imagination. You might even discover a new interest. The Story Mint are always looking for new writers to contribute to their multi-author serials that cover a range of genres. Since writing for them, I’ve tried my hand at sci-fi and magical realism, two genres I had never considered before.
- Read and learn
If you’re not a passionate reader, how can you be a passionate writer? Many authors suggest reading as widely as you can. Excellent advice, but it’s not enough to just to lose yourself in a good story. Why did you lose yourself? Which scenes left a big impression on you? What did the author do to achieve this effect? Go back and take a look. Do you struggle with writing dialogue? Study the best conversation scenes in the novel.
At the moment, I’m very interested in story structure, so when I’ve finished a book I ask myself a series of questions about the story arc. What was the Inciting Incident? What was the First Plot Point? What was the Midpoint?
- Ask the experts
The Internet is full of fantastic resources to help writers develop their skills. Make the most of them! Two of my favourite writing websites are:
- Find beta-readers
Let’s be honest – writing is not the most social occupation in the world. For your own sanity, make connections with other writers, whether it’s a physical writing group that meets regularly or an online community. These groups are also great places to find beta-readers who can give you invaluable feedback on your writing.
- Learn another language
This might sound like an odd piece of advice, but I think studying Spanish has helped me to improve my writing in English. I’m much more aware of speech patterns and how words fit together now.
- Imitate your favourite authors
Are you a fan of J.K. Rowling? Or perhaps you prefer Stieg Larsson? Think of your favourite authors and imagine you are writing an extra scene for one of their novels. How closely can you match their style? This is not meant to be an exercise in plagiarism. Write for yourself and discover what makes a writer’s style and voice distinctive. Do your favourite authors use longer or shorter sentences? How far inside a character’s head do they go? Is their writing lyrical or chatty?
- Understand that self-doubt is normal
All writers have moments when they doubt their abilities. Steven King is a famous example of this. In a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone, he admits that he still fears that he won’t be able to finish writing a story, even after years of success. You can read the full interview here.
Be kind to yourself. If something isn’t working, take a break and write something else for a bit. You can always come back to it.
What about you? What do you do to improve your writing skills?