Over the past decade of coaching writers—as a friend and peer, and also as a managing editor—I’ve found myself repeating the same advice. I summarized it on Quora, and now I’m revisiting it here. May it help you become a better writer.
#1 Write daily.
All the writing advice in the world, all the books, and classes, won’t help unless you’re writing and actively incorporating what you’re learning into your work. Not a day goes by that I’m not writing something. Every bit of writing I do, from article to novel chapter right down to this Quora answer, improves my writing bit by bit.
#2 Read obsessively and analytically.
Writers are readers. The best writers read not only to be entertained or educated but to discover why a piece of writing works or doesn’t. Because I was such a prolific reader at a young age, when I began taking college level grammar and style courses I found that I already had a tacit understanding of the mechanics – it seeps into your internal knowledge base almost as if by osmosis. The same holds true for learning the art of storytelling.
#3 Know what prepositional phrases are.
Learn to recognize and remedy instances where you’ve used prepositional phrases instead of active, less wordy sentence structures. Instead of writing, “The car came over the top of the hill,” write, “The car crested the hill.” This single piece of advice made me a dramatically better writer.
#4 Know what an adverb is.
Don’t use adverbs to shore up weak verbs. The dog didn’t whine pathetically, he whimpered.
#5 Learn grammar.
Read Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. Learn grammar and sentence structure. You can’t be an artisan without knowing and understanding your tools. It’s okay to break the rules, but only after you’ve mastered them.
#6 Don’t distance your reader from your character.
Most fiction, and even some non-fiction, works best when we connect with the characters. Watch for weak verbs like looked, felt, and seemed. They take us away from the character and make us watch from a distance. Eliminate them by using active descriptions wherever possible to create a more intimate narrative.
With weak verbs:
Catherine looked at the zombie and felt horror and revulsion.
With active, intimate description:
Catherine shuddered as the zombie shambled toward her. Her heart hammered, and her insides made a convulsive lurch.
#7 Read it out loud.
Now and then (and more now than then if you’re a new writer), read your work aloud to yourself or a friend. Nothing’s better for helping you find problems with flow and syntax. If you’re stumbling over a paragraph chances are your reader will, too.
#8 Practice whittling.
Not wood, words. Write a 500-word description. Now rewrite it to see if you can get it down to 250 words without losing meaning or diminishing the beauty of the narrative. To me, 80% of writing success is in knowing what to leave out rather than what to put in. And it’s not easy. As Mark Twain famously said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
#9 Cultivate curiosity.
Always wonder why and how and then find the answers. No one writes well in a vacuum.
#10 Be authentic.
Do you. Your voice is the only writer’s tool you own that no one else has.