Writing skills: How to improve them, make your writing sing? It takes knowing the canvas of grammar, plus having the many colours, brushes and techniques of a robust vocabulary and imagination. Try these 10 ways to get better:
Level up your writing skills: How to improve now
- Use top resources to improve writing skills
- Appraise your writing ability now
- Keep a journal and play
- Build a treasure trove of great lines
- Learn by giving feedback
- Get constructive feedback, too
- Be a copycat like Bach
- Set yourself challenges
- Play with constraints
- Allow yourself dud days
Use top resources to improve writing skills
To start, don’t be disheartened by your current writing skills. How to improve starts with recognizing the work you need to do.
Toni Morrison wasn’t born ‘Toni Morrison, Nobel-winnning author’. Everyone starts somewhere (as clichéd as it may be to say).
Whether you want to be a literary titan or just want to write the best romance or action epic you ever could, the resources are the same.
Find resources to improve your writing that focus on:
- The bedrock of language: Basics, such as understanding how to use the parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives, and so on).
- The foundations of story: After mastering the basics, it’s easier to focus on the fundamental ingredients of what makes a story good (narration, description, vivid characters – shape, colour, movement).
- Building the best story you can: Once you know basics and foundations, it’s easier to pay attention to subtleties of style, description, momentum, connection – what you need to construct an engaging story.
If some parts of your writing skills are hazy, invest in manuals such as The Oxford Essential Guide to Writing and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft.
Dictionaries, encyclopedias and thesauruses are essential tools.
There are easy ways to hone your writing skills, every day:
Appraise your writing ability now
Take stock of your writing skills, now.
What do you find easy? What do you find hard?
It could be you are excellent at characterful dialogue but struggle to bring in story settings and write description in general. Or else you may have a more fundamental challenge. Frequent tense drift. Unclear narrative logic.
Write two bullet lists. For the first, list writing skills you’re happy with. For example:
- My descriptions are vivid
- I have an ear for believable dialogue
- I’m good at keeping the pace flowing
In the second, write down everything you want to improve, e.g.
- My characters all seem the same
- My scenes are too choppy/disjointed
- I struggle to keep events interesting
The first step of developing any skill is deciding what you know so far, and thus where it would benefit you most to start.
Keep a journal and play
A journal is a fantastic, free way to improve your writing skills.
Daily writing practice in simply describing what’s happened, funny events or exchanges (or internal or interpersonal struggles) will help you expand your powers of description and recollection.
Play with this process, too.
Maybe nothing terribly exciting happened today. So fabricate, for fun. Make up an event that never happened. Write a day’s entry in the third or second person.
Treat journalling as a creative exercise, a playground to write what you like.
Build a treasure trove of great lines
Building a collection of great lines you write down in your reading is an easy way to develop writing skills.
Each time you pause to pay attention to what an author you love is doing, you gain a deeper insight.
If you have a collector’s impulse, you could categorize the lines you find.
Try keeping a tabbed journal with sections for description, dialogue, scene transitions and other story elements.
For example, here is a found description from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera:
He was what he seemed: a useful and serious old man. His body was bony and erect, his skin dark and clean-shaven, his eyes avid behind round spectacles in silver frames, and he wore a romantic, old-fashioned moustache with waxed tips. He combed the last tufts of hair at his temples upward and plastered them with brilliantine to the middle of his shining skull as a solution to total baldness.Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), p. 48.
See how completely Marquez uses almost exclusively the old man’s head (barring the description of his posture) to create a vivid portrait? It’s a masterclass in detail and specificity.
Collecting the lines you love is a great way to discover how and why they work and assimilate writing skills they employ. In so doing, you’ll develop your writing voice.
Learn by giving feedback
You might think that getting feedback would come first as advice for expanding writing skills. After all, fresh eyes can see clearer what’s working in your story (and what could perhaps be done to make it better).
Giving feedback is a vital way to improve writing skills, too, though. Luminaries of fiction such as the late Toni Morrison have developed strong voices (and the driving impulses in their own work) partially by engaging deeply with the writing of others as editors.
Some members of Now Novel when polled described apprehension about giving others feedback, saying they felt unqualified.
Yet when you read a story, regardless of your own skill, you have a reader response. That response is often useful to the author, regardless of your experience level.
More importantly, helping others solve their story challenges is great editorial practice. Many accomplished authors (e.g. Toni Morrison at Random House) were professional editors before they found publishing success for their own stories.
Get constructive feedback, too
Your writing skills will develop over time if you put writing out there, for others’ feedback.
This is a scary prospect for many aspiring authors, understandably. The right writing community will be constructive.
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The ideal space for constructive feedback is:
- Honest: Nobody blows smoke (or brings you down out of jealousy or competitive mean-spiritedness)
- Mutual: Writers help each other, and give feedback as much as they get
Constructive feedback includes actionable examples (not just saying ‘Don’t do this’, but ‘This doesn’t work, here’s why, and here’s how you could fix it.’).
Be a copycat like Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach is considered one of the great masters of Western Classical music.
Hundreds of years after he lived, he forms a fundamental part of every Western Classical music student’s training.
One of the reason Bach endures is he learned to assimilate the best from other composers. His prolific copying of other composers’ scores would have developed a comparative sense of what engaged the listener’s ear better than the next piece. In a word, style. Taste.
It would have developed a deep understanding of harmony, melody, and other fundamental aspects of music.
As Alex Ross says in The New Yorker:
The towns and cities where he spent his career—Arnstadt, Mühlhausen, Weimar, Cöthen, and Leipzig—can be seen in a few hours’ driving around central and eastern Germany. But his lifelong habit of studying and copying scores allowed him to roam the Europe of the mind. In his later years, he copied everything from a Renaissance mass by Palestrina to the up-to-date Italianate lyricism of Pergolesi. Bach became an absolute master of his art by never ceasing to be a student of it.Alex Ross, in ‘Bach’s Holy Dread’, The New Yorker, January 2017.
This is key to better writing skills. Never cease being a dedicated student of writing, as Bach never ceased to be a dedicated student of music.
Writing skills development exercise: Copycat
Pick up a book by an author you like.
Flip through and scan pages for a line that grabs your attention. Read the full paragraph, then put the book down for a few minutes.
Now try to write the paragraph from memory. Don’t peek. Make up any part you can’t remember. At the end, compare your version to the original, word by word.
This is a great way to really pick apart sentence structure, narrative devices and more. Seeing where you departed from the original is illuminating.
Set yourself challenges
One reason skill in anything stagnates is complacency. We practice the same scale, or read the same genre exclusively. And so we start to regurgitate the same old thing. Yet you can avoid this happening to your writing skills.
What if a romance author were to try write a hardboiled detective novel, or vice versa? What if you set your story in a location you don’t have clue about rather than a town you know well?
Setting yourself creative challenges that take you out of your comfort zone is a great way to be that tireless student of storytelling.
Play with constraints
Much like writing in a genre you don’t normally attempt, creative constraints provide a playpen with a purpose. Parameters in which to play, test and stretch your writing skills.
What if, for example, you wrote an entire short story without using a specific letter in the alphabet?
The French author Georges Perec did this in his novel La Disparition (translated to English as ‘A Void’, though literally meaning ‘the disappearance’).
Perec leaves out the letter ‘e’ (the most common in the French language). The plot of the book also revolves around the letter’s disappearance.
A constraint such as this is helpful for shaking you out of habit. You could compare it to a pianist improvising in a specific rhythm and key to avoid finding the notes and patterns they usually do by habit.
Allow dud days
As you develop your writing skills, there will be days you feel as though you’re the worst writer on earth (unless you have supreme confidence).
An important part of any apprenticeship or learning process is to allow yourself rest, off days, cheat days, and also days where you simply produce work you know you can do better.
After all, knowing you can do better is a good sign you are getting better, as you’re aware of the range that awaits beyond further practice, play and fun.
Want to improve your writing? Take a free email course or get a guide to craft for practical exercises with videos and examples.