Looking for ways to improve your writing skills? I am too. Constantly. Here’s why: when you’re laboring in the trenches of professional writing each day, you forget what works.
A weird problem gets you tied up in knots, and one new (or remembered) insight frees you. So let’s look at some ways to improve; one of these strategies may be just what you need. Although I’ve numbered them, they’re in no particular order.
1. “She was mugged”: hunt down your passive voice constructions.
“She was mugged.” There’s nothing wrong with passive voice constructions per se. However, if your novels’ first drafts are as messy as mine, here’s an easy way to improve your writing: hunt down all your “was” constructions and look at them. You may be doing too much telling rather than showing.
(Do a first-pass round of editing first. There’s no point in spiffing up scenes you’ll delete later.)
If you’re writing nonfiction, too many passive voice sentences signal that your writing needs punching up.
2. Write first drafts fast. Edit later.
Writing and editing are two different processes. If you try to combine them, you’ll write slowly. Paradoxically, your writing will improve if you speed up. However, speeding through a first draft means you’ll need to edit more.
Leave at least 24 hours between your first draft, and your edits. I like to leave novels and short stories for at least a month before I start editing. I can’t do this if I’m writing for a client, but it’s simple enough to do this when I write my own books.
This means that I’m editing two or three fiction pieces each day while also writing first draft material. Try this method yourself. Writing first drafts fast increases your output, as well as improving your writing.
3. Consider your ideal reader. WHY is he reading?
Let’s say you’re writing a piece on how to lose weight. Who’s your ideal reader? It’s never “everyone who’s fat”; if you don’t narrow your focus, you’ll end up with a generic weight loss piece you can sum up in six words: “eat a healthy diet; exercise more.”
Form a mental picture of your reader. What’s his lifestyle? Is he married? Children? Job? Favorite movie? Writing to someone specific subtly improves your writing.
4. Ride the horse forward.
Moving forward improves your life, as well as your writing. I learned this early because my first pony had a sense of humor. At least once a day she’d sneak in a buck which flipped me over her head. After a month or so, I got tired of hitting the ground. My father’s instructions to “ride her forward!” finally sank in.
BTW, if you’re ever stuck with a recalcitrant horse, here’s some good advice from Olympic medalist Gina Miles:
“When people have a horse that bucks, they often try to slow him down, but the best correction is always to make him go forward,” says Miles. ”If you’ve got a horse that wants to put his head down, you need to get his head up and send him forward. Horses have a harder time getting a powerful buck in when they’re moving forward.”
Writing is always a partnership between your conscious mind, and your subconscious. Your subconscious is often like a demon horse. It baulks, bucks, and sends you flying. Sometimes it bolts and runs away with a project completely.
Moving forward means moving out of your comfort zone. On a misbehaving horse, making the horse move on is counter-intuitive. Your inclination is to exert control. When you’re writing, if you try to exert too much control, you’re stomping on the brake while you’ve got your foot on the accelerator.
Whenever a student says: “I can’t…” It’s a sign he’s stopped moving forward. Write. If you need to do more research, mark the area with “XXX” and move on. If you’re not sure HOW to write something, try. Write. Then you’ve got something with which you can work.
Maybe you feel you lack confidence; move forward anyway.
Here are some ways to move forward.
- When writing fiction, leave the scene you’re with which you’re having problems. I type “TK” for “to come.” Write the next scene.
- When writing nonfiction, do a little research. Or call someone – your client, or your editor. Write down your problem. Describing what you perceive the problem to be, in writing, brings clarity. You can fix it, once you know what “it” is.
- Write something else. You may get an idea for your novel while you’re writing some Web content for a client.
5. Read it aloud.
Reading aloud always works. I often need to remind myself that it works, so I’m reminding you too. Try it. Write your first draft, leave it a day or two, then read it aloud. Make notes. You’ll immediately see how to improve your writing.
6. Write every day. Write what you LOVE.
Writing is what writers do. If you’re thinking, “Yes, but I need…” Whatever it is you think you need, you don’t need it. No time? Everyone has five minutes, no matter how packed their day happens to be. Write for five minutes today, tomorrow and every day. Writing is just a habit. Build the habit first, then look for ways to make your habit profitable, if you want to develop a professional career.
Riding your horse forward starts with writing every day, no matter what kind of mood you’re in.
If you hate what you’re writing, write something else. Write for yourself, as well as for others – write what’s fun for you. Meeting deadlines is easier when you’ve got a pet project you love. You can tell yourself: “I’ll spend 25 minutes on this, then I get to write (your pet project.)”
7. You’re a lousy judge of your own writing. (Maybe what you wrote is just fine.)
No matter how shitty you think a first draft is, you can fix it. Think nothing can fix your third draft? Get someone you trust to read it.
The big benefit (maybe the only benefit) of working with a professional editor at a major publishing house is that your editor can tell you what’s wrong with a piece. You may complete a book, and think: “there’s something wrong…”. You sense that you’re not hitting the mark, but have no idea how to fix it. Your editor will tell you.
Generally speaking however if you think “this stinks”, you’re probably wrong. You write the way you write. Your despair over a single day’s output is misplaced. I used to obsess over my output. I’ve learned just to write. What you write on a particular day is just what you wrote. Fix it tomorrow… and consider that it may not even need fixing. You may just be in a mood.
So, there you have it – seven quick ways to improve your writing skills today. Keep writing.