Several readers recently emailed me, asking: “How can I become a better writer?”
Learning 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, great writers like 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 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
- 2. Set a Realistic Short-Term Goal
- 3. Publish Your Work Early and Often
- 4. Combine Writing With Another Skill
- 5. Learn the Different Elements of Your Craft
- 6. Get the Professionals In
- 7. Practice!
- 8. Take on Different Types of Writing Projects
- 9. Grammar Check and Proofread Your Work
- 10. Track Your Word-count
- The Final Word: How to Become a Better Writer
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 for the first time, 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? What types of books are you excited about reading?
Because what you read and write go hand-in-hand.
If it’s fiction or creative writing…
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 my own 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.
Finish more first drafts. Spend a little time polishing them up and rewriting the awkward and clumsy parts. Condense, remove, and clarify what you can. But don't spend months working and revising the same piece.
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
- Publishing 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 sentences in a row.
I spent hours reading print-outs of my short stories. I wondered if I’d picked the right verbs, learned 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.
Sure these writing tips are effective, and I still self-edit first drafts, but I often ask a line-editor for help.
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
- Optimize 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
- Combine writing with an understanding of SEO so people can find your work
Learning how (and when) to do all of these things is hard work. Thankfully, you can choose from a plethora of online writing courses and hone your craft from the comfort of your house or apartment.
I also recommend the various creative courses on Masterclass and CreativeLive.
That brings me too…
6. Get the Professionals In
If you’re an amateur writer with no intention 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. The best writing emerges from the work of many, rather than one individual.
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 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 want to know how to become a better writer, the biggest tip I can give you is “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 consistently is key to improving.
Time in the chair will help you gain mastery over your craft and get your technique down.
8. Take on Different Types of Writing Projects
If you write in the same genre or medium all the time, you'll inevitably improve. However, writing outside of your comfort zone is instructive because you can combine lessons from different genres or mediums and create something more original.
Professional writers rarely confine themselves to a single genre or medium, despite what their marketing teams would have you believe.
Stephen King writes everything from science-fiction to horror to thrillers. Ernest Hemingway wrote short stories, literary fiction, and personal essays.
Say you want to get into blogging. Well, learning how to write web copy will help with capturing the attention of readers. Similarly, if you want to improve your communication skills, learning how to write speeches will help a lot.
9. Grammar Check and Proofread Your Work
… or get help from someone who can.
Typos are annoying, yes, but it's easier than ever to fix them today. You can always republish a blog post or upload a new copy of your book to Amazon. I also like using good grammar checker so I can find and fix errors more easily.
That said, if you've written something longer, work with a professional proofreader and copyeditor as they will spot mistakes you've probably missed.
10. Track Your Word-count
The business author Peter Drucker said:
What gets measured gets managed
Although he described the situation in many businesses, writing isn't any different (especially if you want to get paid to write).
Set a target word-count goal each day and track your progress in a spreadsheet. Don't worry too much about typos and other common grammar mistakes at this stage; you can fix them later.
Tracking your word-count will help you see if you're progressing or not. This information will help you hold yourself to account.
When you get to the self-editing stage, revising and writing well is more important than aiming for a word-count. So, track how many hours you spend working on a piece rather than a specific word-count goal.
The Final Word: How to Become a Better Writer
Work hard at your craft every day.
Write every single day if you can.
Learn from your creative heroes.
Publish your own work and get feedback from readers.
Learning how to become a better writer isn't easy, but it's worth it.
I like studying the approaches of other writers and authors I admire to learn more about their style and approach to the craft of writing. I discovered that learning how to become a better writer takes time and discipline. Writing apps help too!
However, if you put the hours in on the chair and spend mental energy on your craft, you'll get better at telling stories, writing non-fiction, and sell your books or articles.
Do the work.
That’s all there is to it.
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