Updated April 13, 2018
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’ve summarized 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 to answering a question on Quora, 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—they seep into your internal knowledge base 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. This advice will also advance your writing skills in profound ways. Remember what Stephen King said: “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
Yes, go ahead and use the occasional adverb as your style dictates. Just treat adverbs as spice—a little goes a long way.
#5 Learn grammar.
Read Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style and other books and blogs to help you polish your writing skills. You need to understand grammar and sentence structure. You can’t be an artisan without deep knowledge of your tools. It’s okay to break the rules, but only after you’ve mastered them. Need a little proofreading help? Try a free tool like Grammarly. You’ll still need to proofread, but the app will help you spot your mistakes and guide you through fixing them. Resist the urge to let the app fix everything for you, though. Make sure you understand what it’s fixing and why. Make conscious style choices. Learn, so you’ll have fewer mistakes to correct next time.
#6 Don’t distance your reader from your character.
Most fiction, and even 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:
Kate felt excited to greet her new puppy.
With active, intimate description:
Kate crouched, arms extended, eyes wide. The puppy tumbled into her arms, and she squealed as it covered her cheeks with slobbery kisses. “Who’s my good boy?” she cried, hugging the furry bundle.
Yes, the second version is longer, but it paints a picture in the reader’s mind. Which description would you rather read?
#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 stumble 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.”
To me, 80% of writing success is in knowing what to leave out rather than what to put in.
#9 Cultivate curiosity.
Always wonder why and how and then find the answers. No one writes well in a vacuum. Use an app like Evernote or Pocket to store clips you find interesting. After all, what is life if you can’t make art from it?
#10 Be authentic.
Do you. Write conversationally and honestly. Although learning to imitate other writers is a fun way to practice, ultimately you must find your own style and stop trying to write like someone you’re not. Your voice is the only writer’s tool you own that no one else has.