J.M. Williams

A home for all things fantasy and sci-fi.

3 Ways to Become a Better Writer

Jan
27

Most writers know two simple ways to get better at writing. They are the basic tips of any professional writing program or class. Stephen King summed it up quite well in his great treatise of the craft On Writing, suggesting “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

The writing part is obvious. As with any skill, you get better the more you do it. Reading is less intuitive, but still relatively straight forward–getting better at language requires exposure to language, becoming a better storyteller requires exposure to stories. King goes on to suggest that “reading is the creative center of a writer’s life,” meaning the place you decide what you want to create. He even claims to read 70-80 books a year.

But there is a third thing you can do to help you become a better writer. In addition to reading and writing, writing about writing is extremely helpful in improving your skills. This is much the same as when professional athletes and coaches watch other teams play, examining their strengths and weaknesses. By identifying someone else’s strengths, you can adopt them and make them your own.

Much of what I do with this blog is writing about writing. And to be perfectly honest, I do it mostly for myself. I don’t really have enough followers to honestly believe that I have a large effect on the public. But I don’t need to. Every piece I write, every analysis I do, helps to make me a better writer. That’s why I do it.

I often share stories and articles I like, but I also add my own analysis or point of view. By interacting with other authors’ work, I can tease out what I like–or don’t like–and examine what makes it so. Then I can utilize the skills I like, and avoid the habits I don’t.

Also, discussing writing techniques reinforces them in your own mind. We all forget the basics from time to time. Taking them out of your head, or away from the story, allows you to focus on them more clearly.

You do not need to be a language or writing major to do this sort of textual analysis. All it requires is focus enough to decide what parts you like or dislike, and a little effort to examine why. If you like a piece of writing, there is certainly a technical reason for it. The better you grasp that reason, the better you can emulate it. And in the end, writing is mostly emulation.

I started this blog several months ago, intending primarily to post my own short stories here. Over time, I started sharing other writers’ work and articles on writing techniques. Once I started sharing other authors’ work and doing some analysis, I found myself becoming much better. Even in the few months, I can look back at my first stories and see how far I have come (Go on, compare “The Adventures of Iric” volume 1 to volume 12 and try to tell me I’m not the slightest bit better). I am sure that writing about writing has contributed to that significantly.

Becoming a better writer takes time and investment. King is pretty rough on the point when he suggests “If you feel you must have the news analyst blowhards on CNN while you exercise…it’s time for you to question how serious you really are about becoming a writer….Reading takes time and the glass teat takes too much of it.” It’s harsh, but true. You need to devote time and effort to improving your craft, otherwise you won’t.

In the end, it comes down to three basic methods: reading, writing, and writing about writing. The more you do those, the better you will become.

 

10 Responses to 3 Ways to Become a Better Writer

  1. I feel the same way about critiquing. It’s easier to see the weaknesses and problems in someone else’s story, somehow; you’re more distant from them. And yet, when giving my critique/beta-read partners feedback on why some aspect of their story isn’t working for me and brainstorming about how to address it, it always seems to set off a light for me about something wrong with my own novel-in-progress that I hadn’t seen as clearly before.

    • Yes. Or you might notice something that works really well and…well steal it, to be honest. In peer review groups in college, I think I learned more from critiquing than from getting feedback on my work. But part of that was poor feedback in general, a lot of folks got hung up on what I was writing rather than how I was writing.

      • I get plenty of seeing good stuff in my reading, much more so than when critiquing. But then, I’m reading fabulous writers and I’m critiquing people more on my own level, so that makes sense. But you’re right, you have to look for what works, not just what doesn’t. Like, when I’m watching TV or movies, I’ll stop and ask myself, “What important things did they just show us about that character in the first minute?”

        I’m lucky to have found a few good critique partners that give me great feedback, and an online community where at least some of what I get is useful (Critters — have you tried it?) But it’s like online dating; you end up trying out a bunch of schlubs before you find the ones you really click with.

        • Never heard of Critters. I should check that out. You can even gain by critiquing fabulous writers. Every writers has flaws, and one thing that really comes out when you read big name authors is differences in style. I just read Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere” and did not like it. But I can parse out why I don’t like it, what bits didn’t work for me. Those are things I am never going to do myself. So in the end, my style is being tuned by reading and analyzing the work. It’s not all about the technical aspects of writing.

          • Interesting. I loved Neverwhere, but then, I read it a long time ago, and I’ll admit that I’ve been hooked on Gaiman ever since Sandman, so I might give him more leeway than you do. I often wonder how I would interpret an old favorite book now, if I was reading it for the first time and didn’t have the same context. If you do consider joining Critters, email me; I’d be happy to tell you more about my experience and give you tips.

          • I’m thinking about Critters. I looked at the site. Seems interesting. I’d like to have a piece to send first though. Regarding Neverwhere, I was planning to write a review but lost interest. Another bit of trouble with that was I used the audio book, so looking back and referencing would be near impossible. From what I remember, I hated the overly passive protagonist and there were bits with the plot and some of the writing that came off amateurish. But maybe that’s just me.

          • Let me know if you want to know more about Critters; we can talk off-line.

  2. man! Damn interesting coming across.

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