How to become a better writer. It’s an ambitious title given that my blog posts are a thousand words or less. If you type this title into Google, you will find 124 million links. Some of these posts cover topics like show don’t tell, remove adverbs, write in active voice, outline, establish a routine etc. If you dig a little deeper, you will find articles about voice, structure, pacing, and plot. Further down the writing craft hole, you will uncover articles about literary devices whose names you can’t quite pronounce and romantic quotes about bleeding veins. Below is my contribution to the conversation. Most writing advice should be preceded with the word sometimes. Sometimes showing is better than telling. Sometimes an alternative structure is innovative. Sometimes it is important to have likable characters. Sometimes. However, there are three fundamental staples few would argue against. If you want to become a better writer, if you want to become an active participant in your own improvement, follow the below practices without exception.
This may seem simple or obvious, but aspiring writers can never hear this advice enough. If you want to become a better writer, then one of the best ways to do that is to read more. Despite the myriad of online courses, how to books and advice blogs (present platform included), it is through reading that a writer will learn how to turn words into images, names into people and imagined heartbreak into real empathy.
There is only one apprenticeship available to writers and the course’s requirements are simple: read and write. It’s a cheap apprenticeship, but the determination and willpower required for these tasks are immense.
Reading more also means reading widely. If you regularly find yourself in the science fiction section of your local independent, consider checking out the biography, romance, young adult, general, literary or classic sections. Why stop there? If your Sunday morning breakfast revolves around pulpy lifestyle articles, challenge yourself to read a scholarly essay, a feature article in the local paper, or a carefully constructed opinion piece online.
It’s important that you read within your genre, but if you ONLY read science fiction, then your novel may be nothing more than a mediocre regurgitation of stories that already exist. Part of the fun of writing is the challenging of pushing yourself and your story into new places. By reading widely, you may discover a literary device or story structure that would work well for your story. You may find inspiration through an experiment discussed in a scientific journal, an interview with a worker from a little-known profession, or a shocking story reported by a reputable news outlet. Inspiration is everywhere. Indulge your curiosity and push through your resistance. Read content that doesn’t immediately appeal to you. Read articles that challenge you intellectually. Read stories about different people from different countries with different problems. Read. Read. Read. Then write.
The second component of a writer’s apprenticeship is writing. You don’t have to write every day (though I think it’s great if you can), but you do have to write with some regularity. If you don’t have a regular writing practice, your confidence in your abilities will start to weaken. You will resist the blank page. You will see your word document or notebook as a barren landscape rather than a canvas brimming with potential. If you decide to write every day, it doesn’t have to be for long. In fact, smaller goals are better goals. Setting the intention of writing 500 words a day or writing for fifteen minutes each morning is way more doable then lofty and unspecific goals like, “I’ll write a novel this year.” It’s important that you be realistic and set yourself up for success. More often than not, you will find yourself exceeding these small goals. Your fifteen-minute window may stretch into an hour and 500 words can quickly turn into a thousand or two. This is a good feeling; chase that feeling.
Again, you don’t have to write every day, but you do have to have a set routine. Maybe you can write every Tuesday between 8-9pm and every Saturday morning from 10-11am. Mess around with your schedule and see what works best for you. It doesn’t matter when you write, it doesn’t matter how much you write, but it does matter that you write.
The link between reading and writing is critical thinking. Though your subconscious may absorb some lesson through passive reading, a writer who is determined to better their craft needs to reflect and think critically about what they have read. You don’t have to give yourself an aneurysm, but you do have to go under the hood. Ask yourself what that novel was really about. What themes was the author exploring, why did they structure the novel in that way, did the structure support the narrative or not, how did the voice or perspective affect the telling of the story, did they apply or use devices in an innovative way, was the story plausible, did it move you, did you learn something about yourself or the world?
The only writing “hack” that exists is critical thinking. By reading widely and thinking critically, a writer can avoid the pitfalls made by other writers while adopting the devices, structures, and ideas that make for effective storytelling. Of course, you will still make mistakes. That is unavoidable. However, if a writer can actively engage with what they have read and if they can apply those lessons to their own writing, then they are giving themselves and their stories the very best chance of success. If you have chosen to live the life of an artist, then there are no guarantees. What you can choose, however, is to be an active participant in your own evolution. To read because you want to learn, to think about what you have read because discernment is invaluable, and to write because someone else needs to know what you know.
The world may not need another book, but it needs books. I hope you find the courage and tenacity to pen the stories that are housed within you because there is someone out there that needs to read the story that only you can tell.