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New Writer: how do I develop basic writing skills?


New Member
TL:DR I'm am interested in learning to write but feel I don't have the skills to do so yet (describing setting, dialogue, creating conflict and resolving). What are some ways I can practice them or develop these skills.

I just recently started listening to Writing Excuses and have started to consider writing as a hobby. I have been an avid reader since elementary school, but never thought about the writing in the books I read, only the plot and characters that swept me up. I have always had great ideas pop into my mine for stories or worlds (just like everyone else here I am sure), but now I would like to explore those ideas with a focus on novel writing. The problem is that I don't have much of a skill set in writing or a large amount of time to devote to writing. I have heard and seen people recommend that you sit down and write for an hour minimum up to three hours when doing discovery writing, but as I am a graduate student in a biological field and married, most of my time is spent in the lab or with my wife. THe writing experience I do have has most been in the academic area describing the results of an experiment or the monetary system of Rome and how it developed--very fact based.

When I have had the chance to sit down and start writing some sample scenes to get myself moving on gaining experience, I quickly hit a wall where I realize so much is missing from my writing. I don't describe the setting or characters much, I struggle with knowing where I'm going with the scene, etc. I know that I should be showing rather than telling and it freezes up my mind. I realize this partially has to do with a lack of planning. I should at least have an idea that I want a certain conflict to arise and be handled in this scene, for example. But I also don't have experience describing setting, working dialogue, presenting and navigating conflict.

Therefore, I am asking for input from you on how I can develop the skills to write and actually what those skills are. Also, I have come up with a few ideas on what I can do, and I would love to hear your thoughts on them.

1. Take a look at the writers I enjoy reading (Robert Jordan, George RR Martin, Douglas Preston, Lincoln Child, and Michael Crichton are my favorites). Focus on trying to see what they are doing in their writing. How do they balance and flow between dialogue, setting and character description, and plot.
2. Compartmentalize those skills to work on them and see improvement. Would it be good to take images or scenes from movies/life and try to write out a description as if it were a setting in my books? After I develop these skills, maybe I will be more comfortable inserting them into my writing.

I see people often say, "Just write!" which I'm sure is always recommended, but I think I may lack some of the skills to enable me to just write and write often/everyday. Writing challenges would surely help, but again, I'm not sure if at the point to complete one yet.

Your thoughts?


Felis amatus
1. Read. A lot.
2. Write. A lot.

Apart from those things, which you may already be doing, read analytically and critically to see how the writers are accomplishing what they set out to do. But you can't limit yourself to that. A book has a certain character and style as a complete work as well, and if you focus too much on the narrowly-focused specifics you might get good at them but be unable to achieve the successful bigger picture that is necessary to get a reader to buy into and care about your story.


Myth Weaver
1. Write something.
2. Edit it to the best of your ability.
3. Seek feedback. There's a Showcase forum here, and many other places like it on the web. Or, join a writing group.
4. Be aware that people are going to tear your writing to shreads. If you harbor illusion that someone is going to say: that's awesome, continue what you're doing, get rid of them now.
5. Consider the advice. Fix what you can.
6. Go back for more.
7. Keep repeating steps 3 - 6 until you feel you're up to a standard where you can continue.

That's what worked for me.


My advice? Start on smaller pieces. Write out scenes. They do not have to be long. Before you worry about what to write, you must first learn how to write. Find your writing style. Find your strengths and weaknesses. If you have a hard time with showing, not telling, then write a paragraph describing a landscape or a haunted house. Just get some practice in.

If planning is your problem, I would recommend dabbling in short stories. As my professor once said, "The best short stories you can write are the ones you don't know where they're going." From my experience, I am horrible at short stories. However, they do help in finding style and help with short term planning. They're short and easy to edit.

By the way, you can also showcase your works here and your fellow scribes will be more than happy to lend a hand. As a new writer, having people who know what you're going through and can support you are critical. Be aware that you are your worst enemy. What you may think is complete crap, others might find it brilliant.

I wish good luck to you. And I hope you enjoy writing.

Guru Coyote

I'd chime in with what others have said here before me: start small.
Right now it seems you feel overwhelmed by the vastness of skills you think you do not yet possess.
So, in that sense, "just write", to the best of your current ability. Keep it short. Then look at it and try to improve what you have written. Too much 'telling'? Try to re-write it with nore showing. Try to let the characters in your scene talk about things instead of just describing things.

Small steps. Many small steps.


Research too. There are loads of good blogs from Indie writers willing to share a wealth of talent in tip form. You'll be suprised how quickly you can pick things up when you know what you are looking for.

Good Luck!
In no particular order:

-Read books that you enjoy and try to figure them out. You are going to have to be very analytical about this. Learn to see how stories are constructed, and try to understand why you enjoy them. You have to enjoy your own writing. That may seem obvious, but it can take a while to figure out exactly where your true preferences lie.

-Immitate. Oh, it's okay to try to be original, but still: Immitate as much as you can. Take everything you particularly like about a certain writer's style and assimilate it into your own writing. Eventually it should all fuse into a unique personal style that is unlike that of any one other writer.

-Listen to other writers. Listen to all the Writing Excuses. Read Stephen King's On Writing. Maybe swing by TV Tropes. Ask for advice when needed. But -and this is important- don't believe everything you hear. If something makes sense to you, go for it. If not, you can do without it. Don't let your thinking be boxed in by rules, because there are no rules. If you write a story people enjoy writing, that means you did it right.

-Write a lot, and keep writing even if what you write isn't very good. Writing requires tenacity and a certain degree of overconfidence. Convince yourself that all your stories are sure-fire winners.

-Always try to finish your first draft, no matter how flawed it is, but don't force yourself to write a story you have grown to hate. Accept that most of your stories are doomed to be shoved into a desk drawer and forgotten.

-Accept that you are in for some hard work. This will take time and effort. No, seriously, we're talking years of practice. Writing is not easy. It has never been easy. It will never be easy. The sooner you accept that, the better.

-Learn to be as objective as possible. That is to say, learn to see both your flaws and your strenghts. At some point you will reach the stage where you are good enough to recognize how bad your writing is, yet not good enough to meet your own standards. At that point it is vital that you are able to like your writing in some regard. A lot of people break once they get that far and either give up or become depressed.

-When it comes to ideas, don't be in a hurry. While you are inexperienced, really good ideas may seem very hard to come by. (Mediocre and bad ideas will be all over the place.) Don't try to force it. Let inspiration come to you naturally.

Sheriff Woody

1. Read. A lot.
2. Write. A lot.

Beat me to it.

The more you read and the more you write, the better you will become.

Also, get feedback from knowledgeable sources you can trust to be honest, and listen carefully to what they have to say. Don't get angry at their feedback - use it to learn and better yourself. You need to be fully prepared to take a few punches in order to grow.
(Can we Sticky this thread? it's a marvelous short list of basics.)

Don't get hung up on "good ideas" or "bad ideas." Every so-called idea is just how well one point combines with the other thoughts you put with it and how you learn to execute them together. Great-sounding concepts can stall out as you develop them, mediocre ones can start to really touch every base well.


Check out the challenge section, Ankari is leading the Iron Pen challenge which is not only really fun, but also a great prompt for short stories. As a new writer, the challenges here have helped me out quite a bit. You have the chance to write, but without the pressure of having that one 'great' idea that you spend months perfecting.

Guru Coyote

I second what FatCat said. The beauty of those challenges is that you get detailed feedback even if you do not "win."


Felis amatus
On another site I was on years ago, every challenge entrant and the person running the challenge commented on every entry. Those were very good.


On another site I was on years ago, every challenge entrant and the person running the challenge commented on every entry. Those were very good.

Legendary Sidekick has run a few challenges that way. I liked them, but the complaint was that writing a bunch of reviews was too time consuming. I never saw what the big deal was, but whatever.

Getting back to the subject at hand, Anders pointed out reading Stephen King's On Writing. I second that wholeheartedly, and I also recommend picking up a copy of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. Some people don't like it, but it does have some great advice for grammar.


Felis amatus
Legendary Sidekick has run a few challenges that way. I liked them, but the complaint was that writing a bunch of reviews was too time consuming. I never saw what the big deal was, but whatever.

Yeah, that's silly. If you don't have time to read the other entries and write a few words about them, you shouldn't enter the challenge, that's my view :)

I agree that On Writing is an excellent book.


I would also suggest making sure your basics are where they need to be.
Sentence structure, spelling, grammar etc.

You have to speel write to get pubwishers to reed what you rote.

This was...and possibly is still a weakness in me.
(Basics, not advanced college classes. Education is good, but doesn't necessarily mean interesting.)

But definately read,write, write, read, look at the forums for problems others are having.

Philosophy: You don't pick up a guitar expecting to play perfectly the first week. Like any other art, this will take time to perfect skills, to get the words to come together.

Attitude: If you write to be the next best selling author of world renown, you will fail alot. If you write to the best of your ability to entertain yourself, you win everytime. Write to please yourself first, then share it with others and see if they might like it too. If they don't, try to figure out how to do it better. Always seek to improve, even if you do become the world renown writer. Thats what makes it an artform.

Oh, forgot my favorite. Find every chance to live it, rather then just research it in books.
No book will ever show you how it feels to drive a lance through a quintain while on horseback, watch as scores of armored men clash in battle(even with cushioned batons), throwing a spear from horseback, riding a trail for eight hours(the pains that will be felt(not saddle sores either), standing in front of scores of people in front of royalty being honored.
Life experiences can be told so much better then just second hand information. Live it.
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New Member
Wow, thank you so much everyone for your helpful replies. I agree with many of you who compare writing to any other skill such as playing the guitar. You need to learn the basics (chords) and practice them first before you can tackle the larger songs. Obviously it is very different from a lot of skills in that we have been taught all through school on vocabulary, spelling, grammar, and writing in general. Now it is time to hone those skills and apply them toward novel writing.

I have continued to listen to Writing Excuses both to learn more about the writing process and also because I find it very entertaining. I have been doing some writing of my own when I can find a little time. It has mainly been some work to describe a setting, but I will start to work on dialogue and character stuff to learn how to make my characters seem both real and unique from one another. As I gain confidence in what I am writing and the ability to sit down and come up with something fairly quick for a challenge or showcase, I will submit some work for feedback. I am also excited to go back to some of my old fantasy novels to look at them from a writing perspective.