In order to be a writer, there is one thing that you must do: write.
Really, that’s all there is to it. Sit down and write. You’ll be a writer.
What’s a little more difficult is to write something that others enjoy reading. I found that out the hard way. Just because I’d written something, it didn’t mean everyone else automatically enjoyed it.
A few years ago (maybe five or six), I posted an excerpt of a chapter from the first draft of my would-be debut novel. I expected to receive praise and adoration for my beautifully flowing prose, and for my intriguing world-building – or, well, at least some positive comments.
This did not happen.
Instead, I received a few remarks about things I didn’t know what they were, and didn’t understand, but which seemed important. Passive prose. Tension. Telling instead of showing. I also received a bunch of helpful advice and suggestions, and slowly, I came to the realisation that I might not be quite the literary genius I imagined myself to be.
In this article, I’ll share some of the things I did in order to try and become a better writer. What I won’t do, is tell you how to be a better writer, or even what it means to be a good writer.
1. Admit there’s room for improvement.
The first thing I did, I already described above. I really was convinced I was an awesome writer, and while I haven’t quite gotten that notion out of my head, I’m somewhat more humble about it these days.
It was an important step though. In order to get better, I had to admit to myself I wasn’t perfect.
The feedback I received on that first excerpt wasn’t the result of others not understanding my genius. Rather, it was the advice of more experienced writers who took the time to read and analyse my work. Their comments weren’t designed to bring me down, but rather to try and help me understand concepts I’d never heard about before.
2. Learn the language of writers.
I was going to call this section “learn the rules of writing” but decided against it. There’s a very strong sentiment in the writing community about how there are no rules for writing. The idea is that you can do whatever you want as long as it works – which is true.
That said, it’s important to not reject the “rules” on pure principle. Instead: consider them, understand them, and then decide whether they’re useful for what you’re trying to do, or not.
At first, I blindly followed the “rules” and I removed all of my adverbs, and I never used the word was in a sentence. It was part of the advice I’d been given, and I interpreted it as rules. Since I wanted to be a better writer, I decided to follow these rules.
These days, when I talk about “rules” I really mean “more or less well-meaning advice which may or may not be worth considering, but which it probably won’t hurt to be familiar with.”
That’s a bit long though, so I just write “rules” with quotation marks around.
The way I like to think about it, the “rules” are shortcuts to the kind of intuition that comes with practice and experience.
If you’ve read a lot, chances are you’ll have an intuitive sense for the way prose and stories flow, even if you can’t quite put your finger on why or how. In this case, the “rules” may help put your intuition into words. This in turn, is something that can be helpful when talking to other writers about what you’ve written.
3. Ask for feedback, and learn to understand the feedback.
I know of only a few writers who publish their work without asking for feedback from others.
Going back to that first excerpt I shared, I can tell you I was very proud of what I’d written. I’d worked hard on it, and I’d put a lot of effort into making it perfect. It was my baby, and I loved it. I had a real difficult time admitting it had issues.
The amount of time I’d spent on the story created an emotional attachment that blinded me to its shortcomings.
This is why I began to ask for feedback regularly. I needed the input of someone who wasn’t as invested in my writing as I was.
What I learned from this is that the idea of what’s good writing, or good story, varies a lot from person to person.
I found that the feedback I received was very often focused on different things. Some people I asked were good at wordcraft. Others were good at storytelling. Some people just repeated the “rules” back at me.
Pretty soon I realized that just because someone had an opinion on my work, didn’t mean I ought to listen to them. I had to figure out where the feedback came from, and what its intent was. Someone who enjoys stories featuring shark-mounted, sentient laser guns may not be the best at providing feedback for my idyllic fantasy romance.
4. Finish what you start.
Beautiful prose is important to me as a writer, but if my reader doesn’t care about the story I’m telling, then what’s the point? Stories, for better and for worse, aren’t just a series of words, and they’re not just a beginning and a promise of adventure.
Before the end comes everything else, and first of all that, comes the beginning.
In order to get feedback on a story, and become a better storyteller, I need to have written the entire thing. It’s not enough that I just write the first few chapters. That’ll just teach me to be a beginner (pun intended).
The fact that I’ve mostly written short form fiction has helped a lot with this. At the very start, I just wrote short stories. Little slice-of-life tales that were more about exploring the fantasy world I’d created than about telling an actual story. This helped me iron out a lot of the wrinkles in my prose and it helped me find my voice.
Writing that first full length novel I mentioned earlier taught me a lot about writing, and I don’t regret the time I spent doing it (140k words, in a year and a half). However, I could have learned a lot of the same things in less time if I’d written a shorter piece. In the end, I shelved it, wrote something else, and today, six years later, it’s still not done.
That said, if you want to write novels: write novels.
You won’t learn to tell a novel length story by just writing short stories (unless you’re Steven Eriksson).
By the time I got into writing, I was a hardcore gamer. I worked as a customer support agent in the gaming industry, and I spent the majority of my free time playing computer games. I read a handful of books a year, if that.
However, I read in my youth, a lot – both in English and in Swedish – and I believe that helped me tremendously when I started out writing. It wasn’t until my late twenties that my reading habit started to die down. I’ve begun to pick it up again, but it’s slow going, and it’s taken a long time to rediscover the joy of reading.
The reason reading helps, is that it creates a comfortable familiarity with words and stories.
It doesn’t matter what you read, whether its the fancy classics or the trashy pulps or anything in between. Find the stuff you enjoy reading, and read it. Over time, you’ll get used to the way the words work and play with each other, and you’ll benefit from it in your own writing.
If you want to read books on writing, do that, but don’t feel like you have to.
6. Give feedback to others.
There’s a saying about how one of the best ways to learn something, is to teach it to others.
This can be applied to writing as well. Just like asking for feedback on my own writing, I find it helpful to analyse and comment on stories written by others.
Reading in order to provide feedback forces me to consider the words in a different way than if I’m just reading for enjoyment.
If I find that I don’t enjoy something, I’ll have to figure out why, and I have to articulate it in a way that the other writer can understand – and ideally without hurting their feelings. I don’t personally mind receiving blunt feedback, as long as it’s justified, but I’m not entirely comfortable being blunt myself.
7. Spend time with other writers.
Writing can be lonely, especially if you make it so. You’re the one who puts the words on the page, and no one else can do that for you. Being a writer doesn’t have to be lonely though. By hanging out with other writers, whether online or in the real world, you’ll meet people in the same situation as yourself. People who will be able to relate to the joys and frustration of being a writer, in ways that many non-writers cannot.
It’s a way to keep sane (relatively speaking, sane-ish), and you may pick up a thing or two from others that you might not have learned simply by reading about it.
The above steps have taken me to where I am now. I’ve written and published a several novellas, and I’m confident enough in my writing to be proud of it.
I could have skipped all of it, and just kept writing for my own sake. I’d probably have enjoyed that too.
For me though, being read is important. I want to provide a pleasant reading experience to people, and looking back at that first draft of that first novel… Well, let’s just say it could do with a bit more polish.
To sum things up, this is my advice for how to learn to become a better writer.
- Admit there’s room for improvement.
- Do not reject the “rules” out of pure principle.
- Ask for feedback, but don’t accept it blindly.
- Finish what you start.
- Give feedback to others.
- Meet other writers.
- Write more.
Now, how about yourself, what have you done to become a better writer? What’s your own best tip?
Note: the comment about Steven Eriksson is from his blog, here. The exact quote is (fourth paragraph): “All my creative writing schooling was on the short-story form.”