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What are you doing to improve your writing?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Devor, Jul 19, 2019.

  1. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    Over the years here I've seen a lot of the same advice.

    Write, keep writing, take a break and then write, write short stories, write longer stories. Follow a story structure. Track your progress. Plan out the scenes. Pants. Plan out the ending. Worldbuild. Don't worldbuild. Don't worry about this stuff. Just get your butt in your seat and write.

    But I very seldom see advice on how to push yourself. How to move past your limits and grow in your writing.

    What do you do to improve?

    I don't mean writing exercises. I don't mean writing short stories. I don't mean "I give it to a beta reader and try to fix stuff" or "I save the editing until the end." Editing is about improving the work. And we have to find ways to grow without spending all our time doing exercises like an English student. So what do you do to improve your skills?

    For example, when I write a scene, I often pick out a spot or two in the scene that really needs to hit those emotional chords. And right away I try and type something for them. And (because I dialogue, and then write, and may take a few sittings for one scene), I'll try to return to this spot and expand on or out-do what I've already written. I'll do it several times over the course of each scene, just quickly trying to push myself to do better on this one important spot.

    What about you? How are you pushing yourself to improve?
  2. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    Let's take the basic things first.
    1. Finish things.
    2. Leave them for a while and then go back and re-read them to find where there's room for improvement. Try to figure out why, and try to learn something for it.

    The above is kind of in the vein of things you said you didn't mean, though, so I'll try again...

    One thing that's fascinating to me is how readers process the words on the page, and turn them into impressions and stories. How does that work? I've wouldn't say I've studied it at any depth, but I believe that just thinking about it has been very helpful. It might be a bit backwards, but it works for me.
    At first, it was just about the actual text. Wordcrafting.
    How or why does one word work better than another?
    How much information is needed to create an image in the mind of the reader?
    When is an image needed, and when can it be skipped?

    Stuff like that. It's an ongoing process, but it's definitely had an impact on the way I write.

    Later on, I started thinking about storytelling in the same way.
    Mostly. what does a reader expect?
    When is it right to give them what they want, and when can I swap it out for something better?

    I've read about story structure and suchlike, and I understand the concept and the logic behind it, but I have a very hard time putting it into practice. It's like I'm missing some vital piece of the puzzle. Approaching it from "the other side" helped me get a better idea of how to tell a decent story, though.
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  3. I mean, what you're doing kind of is a writing exercise, it's just relevant to your actual story.

    And I'm mostly a pantser. I don't sweat the minutiae of the writing when I'm first putting it down. (And I usually write late at night so the errors and awkward sentences that creep in can be...bonkers.) My process of learning about writing is an unending wheel of write, reread, ask self what works and what doesn't, write more, repeat. I get annoyed by something, I spend the next couple chapters figuring out how to do better. There is *always* something that annoys me about what I wrote a month ago and so I will spend a while overcompensating for whatever it is. Constant self-correction. Sometimes just swinging gently back and forth between stylistic quirks that aren't necessarily good or bad. Both Red Nights and Zacharias Wanders Dies Again got *noticeably* cleaner and better in style from the first chapter to the last.

    My writing style gets knocked around a lot by stuff i read as well. Unending chaos.

    And I know this specifically isn't what you're looking for, but...poetry. In the past year and a half I've written probably...at least a couple hundred poems. Doing stuff like that will force you to grow immensely. Painting forever changed the way I conceptualize three-dimensional space when drawing. Similar thing here. It's kind of like in martial arts: you can practice kicks a lot, but the muscles of your entire body are engaged throughout that activity so that doing seemingly unrelated exercises (e.g. planks) will help you.

    Recently I've been cutting a bunch of old paperbacks to pieces and pasting them into a planner I found under my bed to make poems. I have a pile of clippings from those books with single words or phrases on them and I spend hours trying to arrange them into something totally different from the source material and getting eyestrain from looking at the tiny type. Breaking down the writing process *this much* is doing...something. And also...I'm so terribly, terribly well acquainted with C.S. Lewis's writing style and vocabulary. I especially find it interesting how the Narnia books differ from The Screwtape Letters.
    Devor likes this.
  4. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    Another thing I do, which I only just realized is relevant to this discussion is to go outside my comfort zone.
    I don't actively seek to go there, and it's not a goal in itself.

    However, once in a while, I come to a situation where I have to decide if I want to play it safe, or if I want to venture out on thin ice.

    My experience is that the times I've stepped out of my comfort zone, I've grown as a writer. I can't point to anything in particular that I've learned from it, but it's made me more confident.
    I also think that my characters have grown as a result of this.
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  5. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    It started by accident, then I noticed I did it again, so now I do it on purpose: I look back over my previous project, think about what worked and what didn't work, and I consciously make some adjustments.

    Somewhat indirect but still useful is workshops. I attend them, but I also give them. I also write about writing. All these put some distance between myself and my writing. By hearing what others do, or by explaining what I do, I am forced to think more consciously and critically about the exercise of writing, the mechanics of it, the motives and goals.

    That's about it, I reckon.
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  6. Samantha England

    Samantha England Scribe

    With my writing, it's quite a bit of trial and error mixed with study of the writing process of other writers. Talking with other writers about their process is not only fascinating but a fantastic motivator as well. There are so many ways to tell a story and many more concerning how to go about it! Most of the past few years has been working out a writing process that that works for me. I may be an English student, but most of my writing - particularly creative writing - improvements have come from self-study and the aforementioned trial and error. Studying great literature can only take a writer so far, in my opinion, but studying the writing process behind those great stories provides a wealth of knowledge you can potentially apply to your own process.

    Another thing that's helped me improve my creative writing skills is learning how to self-edit: learning to recognize your common mistakes - such as unnecessary dialogue tags or overdoing a description - and fixing them during the drafting process. In doing this, along with doing a stint with my college newspaper, I learned that with more concise word choice I could get across a description far more effectively.

    All in all, I'm always looking for ways to further develop my writing process and it's a fun learning process to see what works and what doesn't.
    Devor likes this.
  7. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Maester

    I write reviews, analyzing what I like and dislike in the work of others. Putting it into words helps me understand, to look at writing logically, to know what I want to avoid and what I want to accomplish in my own work. Some of these are published, some just for my own use.

    And maybe I can look over my own past work with that same critical eye and see where I went astray and where I did things reasonably well.
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  8. FifthView

    FifthView Vala

    I thought I would answer.

    Q: What are you doing to improve your writing?
    A: Hiring a ghost writer.

    No, I mean a real ghost. Haven't decided on Tolkien, Hemingway, or this lady who died a complete unknown but has been showing me some of her excellent work.

    In seriousness, the question is difficult for me because it's a little too abstract. If this is a question between "hoping that I'll just improve naturally as the years go by" vs "doing something specifically with the intent to improve my writing in the process"...Is there a difference? Heh.

    I'll give an example.

    Step 1

    My answer would begin with an absolute first step.

    I must recognize that something is off, wrong, weak, poor, unsatisfying, mediocre. This initial step is both, rather easy and rather difficult. It is easy because...I have doubts, all the time. Except for those times when I don't, which is when this step is difficult. One day something I write might be quite satisfying; the next, when I go back, I'm horrified. Or vice versa.

    Often, this step is time dilated. I can be dissatisfied with some area of my writing for quite a long time—or with my writing in general, not having much inkling about why I'm dissatisfied.

    But this step is only the initial step, a general awareness that something's off. If it's one of those time-dilated things, I can flip back and forth between doubt and confidence many times—essentially as I use whatever has been perturbing me for a given stretch of writing. Example: description, narrative voice... At this stage, I might not know exactly what is perturbing me. Is my manner of describing things off? My narrative voice? The way I build a scene?

    Step 1 happens rather naturally for me these days, heh, but there's still some doubt. I mean, I know now there were times in the past when I simply didn't realize various particulars in my writing sucked. I still sometimes get an Aha! moment, here and there—a scary Aha.

    Step 2

    Sometimes, this stage begins midway through Step 1. I don't know precisely when it begins, but I know how it ends. This step begins with me trying to isolate what dissatisfies me—and ends when I ultimately gain confidence that I'm right: Yes, that's what's bothering me!

    This is not speculation—that occurs during Step 1 and is filled with uncertainty—but really coming to know what I dislike about my writing and having a fairly good idea of why I dislike it.

    Step 3

    This step may be what was intended in the initial question?

    I included those first two steps because, for me, they are essential. I could say books, podcasts, forum discussions, analyzing various movies and books in my head....But those things actually can and do happen in Step 1 and Step 2 for me also. I suppose in those cases, I'm on a kind of fishing expedition, hoping to figure out whether my approach truly sucks (answer pressing upon me in Step 1) or what, specifically, about my writing sucks (answer for Step 2.)

    I don't want to knock those things, because 1 & 2 are still essential, and almost anything can inspire or prod me to improve. But on the other hand, I do wonder sometimes if obsessive analysis, studying, discussion, experiencing what others have said and done on any given subject might be a distraction—a more pleasant fishing expedition than actually trying to land a big one. I've done lots of that for years...heh so why am I still so dissatisfied with aspects of my writing?

    But if I've managed to make it through Step 2, then finding some guidance and further inspiration, once I've narrowed down what so dissatisfies me, is a great help. Step 3 is that narrowed search, the seeking out of such guidance and inspiration.

    A recent example:

    I've actually begun writing on my latest project, if not much. And I ran into a sort of very familiar wall involving a) description and b) how to open a tale. I already know I'm dissatisfied (it's a quite familiar feeling) and I know why (the opening page or two feel like they meander too much; also, some white roomishness in it; and there's more to it but this parenthetical is already going on tooooo long, perhaps as an analogue heh.)

    I've recently been re-listening to some episodes of the sixth season of the Writing Excuses podcast. A couple days ago, I'd listened to an episode about making your descriptions do more than one thing. It's good, but I was listening idly. It was familiar, in the abstract for me at the time, a sort of fishing expedition. Then last night, I saw the title of the next episode in the season and thought, Hmmmmm. So I listened to it—Writing Excuses 6.12: Revising For Description—and a good Aha! happened. In the episode, the group took a look at a manuscript Howard Tayler wrote about twenty years ago, revising his early sentences to make the descriptions in them do more than one thing, and this helped me think more solid thoughts about how I might fix my own problem. Making sentences do more than one thing? Yes, but the examples here narrowed down what ought to be done in the first sentences and paragraphs of a story. And more importantly, the idea of blocking, i.e. giving the reader the necessary context, for various bits of description, aspects of character, and activities happening in the opening. It's economy of words, and might kill meander, heh.

    So...Step 3 can be a fishing expedition for me, because I didn't know that episode would have that Aha! moment, and I think I had probably chosen to listen to the previous podcast because I wondered whether it might help. I don't always know which source will be the best. I can say that I almost never go to writing books anymore, and prefer podcasts or discussions here for helping me sort things about my own writing.

    Step 4

    This would be the actual application of whatever guidance I've found in Step 3. Actually applying it to my own writing. Trying the fix.

    But for me personally, the amount of time I've spent on each step, during the last six or seven years when I've been serious about writing fiction, would look vaguely like this: 11111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111 2222222222222222 333333333 4444.

    But I'm a very iterative person. Someone mentioned a trial and error approach, and that describes many aspects of my life, including my pursuit of writing. I usually chip away at it, doing various things, figuring out what seems to work for me and what doesn't. I know I've improved in many ways that now, years later, seem inconsequential but really weren't. And I may have cycled through these steps a lot without doing so in a very directed way. Lately, as I run into those too-familiar walls, I've been realizing I need to stop fishing wildly. Then again, perhaps I've run that metaphor into the ground heh.

    Last edited: Jul 21, 2019
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  9. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    For me, I just try to make sure I'm always pushing myself to try things that make me uncomfortable in terms of not knowing if I can pull it off or if it's the right thing to do. If I fail, I learn. If I don't, I push harder next time. I also constantly revisit books I've read on writing. I'm always discovering new things/new understanding when I read them.
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  10. Helen

    Helen Inkling

    It's just never ending, constant learning and refining the craft. Through analysis and writing.
    Devor likes this.
  11. pmmg

    pmmg Auror

    I fear I have been so removed from writing for a long enough period of time, that I may have to just put up a saying 'on Hiatus'. Somehow I've just entered a period of my life which requires me to spend a lot of energy on other stuff, and I cant get to the end of it. Least another year of it, cause I started up in college again, and classes should be over by then...blah....

    Anyway...the best advice I can give for how to improve one writing is to peer review others. Particularly, bad writing. I guess it falls along the lines of trying to teach another and instead teaching yourself. I used to review a lot of bad writing, and at the very least, I gained eye for spotting it in my own writing.

    Both Actively and Passively, I feel I am still improving my writing. I am reading a lot of books (catching up on a lot of stuff I should have read way back when), and watching a lot of stories. Because I cannot turn off my writer's brain, I am always looking for the things that work in stories and the things that don't, and adding them as little notes in my brain. I am also watching the trends and evaluating my own filters constantly, trying to see where I can reach out into a story with more depth with the stories floating around in my head.

    As for actual writing, well...been doing a lot of papers, but I don't think they count other than they are re-affirming that words on page are better than words not on page, and deadlines help with getting them on a page, good, bad or ugly.
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  12. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Inkling

    I made a big step for myself this week and pushed my self to write something. It might sound like nothing to everyone else but I'd been struggling to write anything for about two years. I used to find it so easy, then my Dad died and the creativity just went out of me. So that was an achievement really.

    I try to improve by actually take the leap and putting some work up for feedback. That way others can outline what I do right and what I do wrong, then I know what needs improving. So far the feedback has been pretty much that I tell a good, interesting story but need to work more on the technical side. So I've begun learning how to show instead of tell, use grammar correctly. Got into my head the difference between "to" and "too".

    I also read to improve my own writing.
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  13. Firefly

    Firefly Troubadour

    I actually feel so psychic with you right now because I have been devoting a lot of thought lately into how I can apply the idea of deliberate practice to my writing. Although really, due to my obnoxiously analytical nature I've always kind of tackled it this way, just haven't been consciously thinking about how I do it as much.

    I think the key for me is just to choose one thing at a time to work on and then try and keep that one thing in mind as my goal when you sit down to write. Choosing to many trips me up because then I just get paralyzed and start rewriting the first half a sentence over and over, but I find trying to sit down and "just write" without anything in particular to practice is just as difficult.

    Here are a few of the things that have been focus points for me, because I feel like I'm being really vague with this:

    -Keeping things moving. Someone has to do or say something at least every third paragraph. No getting bigger down in internalization or random description.
    -Getting down basic setting and character information down as soon as possible to ground the reader.
    -Making sure each characters dialogue is something that comes from their motivation and headspace, not just something that feels like it should come next.
    -building tension.

    These are all things that are extremely basic, because I'm like 16 and still a beginner writer despite having read way too many craft books, but the more you practice one thing the more automatic it becomes and then you can move onto something else. I find the things that work best are smaller pieces of bigger craft topics that I can actually see how to apply in the moment. (Like, instead of trying to "write better characters" I might just try to have them react to things in a less expected/typical way, which gives me something to think about every time there's something they have to react too)

    I feel like I'm overcomplicating this, so here's the short version: just choose an element of writing you want to be better at and try to Do It Better. Ahgg, that sounds so obvious. I hope it's not so obvious as to be completely unhelpful.

    I also look back a lot on how books I loved do certain things when I'm trying to figure them out. How do they open new chapters, how do they make plot twists impactful, what kinds of stuff do they have happen in their scenes, etcetera, etcetera. I'm not always great at implementing this stuff so I'm not sure how much it really helps me get better, but it is really fun to think about.
  14. TWErvin2

    TWErvin2 Auror

    Reading, and paying attention to how other authors did it...dialogue, pacing, description, etc.

    Normally I read a book as a reader, and if it strikes me as exceptionally good, I re-read it and pay attention why it struck me as an exceptional read. I have a number of books with small scraps of paper for book marks for some specific examples of what I want to be able to go back to quickly. I find that seeing how others did it, I can implement using my own voice/style and story.
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  15. anotherwriter2019

    anotherwriter2019 Acolyte

    I tend to have a hard time expanding my imagery and giving enough descriptive language in my writing. I'm very straight to the point and tend to do better with writing action and dialogue than anything else. To help me become better, I rented many books on writing and after reading the different techniques to try to make myself a better writer, I found some writing prompts and used them to write short stories using as much descriptive language and imagery as possible. The more I focused on that alone, the better I became at using it in my actual novel. I guess in short, the best way for me to improve my writing is to practice, practice, practice!
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