Writing skills: 9 ways to level up yours

Writing skills: 9 ways to level up yours

Developing writing skills means knowing the canvas of grammar, plus the many colours a robust vocabulary and imagination yield. Where do you start? Try these 9 ways to get better:

Content

Resources to develop writing skills
9 ways to get better at writing all the time
1. Appraise your writing skills now
2. Keep a journal and play
3. Build a treasure trove of great lines
4. Learn by giving feedback
5. Get constructive feedback, too
6. Be a copycat like Bach
7. Set yourself challenges
8. Play with constraints
9. Allow yourself dud days

What you need: Resources to develop writing skills

To start, remember that 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 medical romance or action epic you ever could, the resources are the same:

  1. The bedrock of language: Basics, such as understanding how to use the parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives, and so on), come first.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.

The first book focuses on the bedrock – grammar, punctuation, narrative devices. It is a little outdated (as Amazon reviews attest) but still packed with helpful examples and explanations.

The second is Le Guin’s precise book about the habit and art of storytelling. It includes exercises and helpful information about moods of the verb and other technical devices.

Dictionaries, encyclopedias and thesauruses are essential tools.

There are easy ways to hone your writing skills, every day:

1. Appraise your writing skills 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

Writing skills and peer groups - Ursula K Le Guin | Now Novel

5. 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. [Join the Now Novel community to get constructive writing feedback.]

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.’).

6. 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.

7. 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.

Earning writing skills - Ursula K Le Guin quote | Now Novel

8. 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.

9. 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.

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