Several readers recently emailed me asking: “How can I become a better writer?”
The right answer to how to become a better writer (or even a good writer), depends on what level you’re at, what you write, and what becoming a better writer means for you.
For example, Stephen King may think success means topping the New York Times best-seller list.
(Suffice to say, Mr. King did not email me.)
Success for a new writer could mean winning getting published in a magazine for the first time.
Years ago, success for me meant writing pretty little sentences.
These days my answer to how to become a better writer means helping readers (more on that in a moment).
But first, here’s what I recommend:
1. Decide What Type of Writer You Are
For years, I wondered:
Should I write fiction or non-fiction?
What types of fiction should I write?
And how do I balance both types of writing?
(I even tried writing erotic fiction.. the less said about that the better.)
In 2015, I published a novella, but these days I only write non-fiction.
That same year, I attended a class by the writing coach Robert McKee. I asked him: ‘How do I decide what to write?” and he told me:
Write what you love to read.
I went home and opened up my Kindle library. It was full of creative non-fiction, memoirs, self-help and business books.
Since then, I haven’t looked back.
Now, I’m not saying you must pick between fiction and non-fiction.
That’s my choice.
What genre do you love reading?
Because what you read and write go hand-in-hand.
If it’s fiction…
Do you read thrillers, romance novels, science-fiction or some other genre?
If it’s non-fiction…
Do you read self-help, memoirs, business books or some other genre?
Each genre has conventions.
And to become a good writer within a genre, you must master them.
While you can write across genres, it’s easier to master one genre first before trying a second or a third.
2. Set a Realistic Short-Term Goal
Recently, I coached a new writer in his early twenties. He was struggling to balance writing with the rest of his college work.
He told me, “I just can’t seem to make time for writing.”
I get it. I didn’t make much time for writing either while I was in college.
I was too busy avoiding lectures, going to the pub and sleeping off hangovers.
Now for this new writer, cultivating a daily writing habit is a realistic short-term goal.
So, he could decide:
Every Monday to Friday at eight a.m., I will sit down at my desk and write for fifteen minutes about a single topic.
On the other hand, a more experienced writer may not have trouble getting motivated to write. Instead, she may be struggling with perfectionism.
She may think:
My ideas aren’t good enough. Nobody will ever want to read this. I still need to get this chapter right.
I’ve been guilty of that one too.
So for her, a realistic writing goal could be:
I will find an editor to work with by the end of this month, and I will send him/her my drafts as I finish them.
3. Publish Your Work Early and Often
It’s not enough to send your writing to your wife, husband or admiring best friend. They’ll probably tell you they love it.
Instead, get feedback from potential readers and other writers. It’s the quickest way to improve and become a good writer.
If you write non-fiction, you could become a better writer by:
- Starting a blog
- Publishish your articles on Medium
- Writing guest blog posts for other sites related to your niche
If you write fiction, you could become a better writer by:
- Publishing chapters or stories on the social media network Wattpad
- Joining a local creative group
- Entering a fiction writing competition
4. Combine Writing With Another Skill
I hate to break it to you but:
There’s little chance we’re going to become Stephen King, J.K. Rowling or Malcolm Gladwell successful.
Those writers are in the top 1%, and there’s not much room up there for anyone else.
That doesn’t mean you can’t become a better writer and find success.
In Tools of the Titans, Tim Ferriss interviews the creator of Dilbert Scott Adams.
(I did say I love non-fiction)
Capitalism rewards things that are both rare and valuable. You make yourself rare by combining two or more “pretty goods” until no one else has your mix. … At least one of the skills in your mixture should involve communication, either written or verbal. And it could be as simple as learning how to sell more effectively than 75% of the world.
As a writer, you’ve got the ‘communication’ part down… so combine it with learning the basics of marketing.
It’s easier than it sounds too.
Figure out what your readers want and what they are willing to pay for.
Well, get on the phone with them and ask.
Study the book charts within your genre on Amazon.
Publish extracts of your work online and gauge the reaction.
Then, write something that combines what readers want with what you’re passionate about.
5. Learn the Different Elements of Your Craft
For years, I used to think becoming a good writer meant lining up pretty little sentence in a row.
I spent hours reading print-outs of my short-stories. I wondered if I’d picked the right verbs, learnt basic grammar rules, and killed enough adjectives.
Oh, the horror.
One day, I’ll atone for all the paper I wasted by planting a small forest.
I still self-edit, but I often ask a line-editor to fix my drafts.
Depending on your genre and who you’re writing for, you may need to:
- Write a compelling headline or book title
- Tell a captivating story
- Write a spell-binding introduction or conclusion
- Transition from one idea to the next
- Optimise your article for search engines like Google
- Break up your writing, so it’s suitable for digital readers
- Reconsider the relationship between reading and writing
Learning how (and when) to do all of these things takes time, which brings me to…
6. Get the Professionals In
If you’re an amateur writer with no intentions of earning an income from your craft, write for yourself.
Professional writers – i.e. those who get paid because they’re good– work with editors.
They know the answer to the question “Do I need an editor” is almost always a resounding YES!
It costs several hundred dollars to hire an editor to work on a draft of a book. Their critical feedback will help you fix problems in your book faster than trying to do it alone.
They’ll also help you improve your writing style.
Stephen Pinker, the author of The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, writes:
I often find that when a ruthless editor forces me to trim an article to fit into a certain number of column-inches, the quality of my prose improves as if by magic. Brevity is the soul of wit, and of many other virtues in writing.
Now, if you can’t afford to hire an editor, reframe the expense as an investment in your business or in your education.
If that doesn’t work, offer to critique another writer’s story in exchange for a critique of yours.
Or work out an agreement with an editor whereby they review your work on a chapter-by-chapter basis.
(If you write non-fiction, Kibin is a useful service for this).
If you to know how can I become a better writer, the biggest tip I can give you is to “practice writing”.
So, how do writers “practice” writing?
Write journal entries.
Write blog posts.
Write awful erotic stories that you’re embarrassed to bring up in articles like this.
Write for money.
Write for yourself.
Write because it hurts.
Write for the hell of it.
Practicing your craft daily will help you find answers to your burning questions and becmoabout writing.
Time in the chair will help you gain mastery over your craft and get your technique down.
And that’s all there is to it.
What does becoming a good writer mean to you? Share your answer in the comments section below.
I read every one.
- Scott Adams: SF Gate
- Stephen Pinker: By Steven Pinker (Rebecca Goldstein) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons