When baby writers ask me how to be a better writer—they ask me because I've been writing a long time—my first quip is likely to be that they should become a deeper person. Or a healthier one. Developing one’s craft should be a writer’s top priority, because the better we are as writers, the better we are able to tell those stories taking shape in our heads.
So if you want to write stories that move, excite, and surprise readers, here are my tips for how to do that:
1. Become a deeper person. What we imagine, understand, think and feel and can pass on to others, is based on our own lives and whatever learning we have acquired. The more you know, the more you are, the more you can write.
2. Become a healthier person. Few writers achieve success in a state of perpetual drunkenness or other unhealthy condition. Writing by its very nature isn’t the healthiest of lifestyles to begin with. We spend way too much time inside our heads and with our asses planted in chairs. So get up, take the dog for a walk, and chances are that troublesome bit of dialogue will flow. Why? Because exercise sends oxygen to the brain and elevates your energy levels.
3. Read good writing. If all you read is lazy, uninspired, or dreadful writing, chances are good you’ll pick up some bad writing habits. Read the good stuff and your brain will pick up far better examples of how to do things.
4. Study good writing. Sure, your brain will pick up some things simply through exposure, but if you love how Amy Lane makes you feel all warm and gooey take the passage that made you feel mushy and do an autopsy. What words did she choose? How did she arrange those words to create that feeling? Why does that sentence have so much impact? There are reasons certain arrangements of words work more powerfully than others. Figure out how by studying the masters.
5. Be yourself, not a copycat. Writing that tries too hard to sound like someone else seldom succeeds in being fresh and exciting. Good writing reflects the writer’s unique voice. I challenge anyone to read To Kill A Mockingbird and say it doesn’t sound distinctive. Same with any other really good piece of writing. The writer comes through and shines. So write it your way!
6. Write a lot. Whether you’ve been writing fiction for forty years or for only a few weeks, if you don’t write something every day (not including vacations or mental health breaks…we get to have those just like everyone else) you are doing your writing a disservice. Skills can get rusty. Writing in itself is like working a muscle: it becomes easier and stronger the more we use it.
7. Learn the difference between a rough draft, a first draft, and a polished draft. A rough draft should never be seen by anyone—unless your editor or agent forces you to do so, and then you must swear them to secrecy. After revising and fixing the most glaring errors, your first draft might be worthy of seeing the light of day: aka beta readers. Better yet is to produce a polished draft, one you have let sit to cool off and have revisited with an eye to making it shine.
8. Make friends with other writers—especially if you like their work. Other writers help us become better at what we do by being advisors, supporters, and just plain good friends. Not everyone in the world can understand or empathize with the troubles and frustrations that drive writers insane. Can’t figure out how to make something happen in your story? Ask another writer. Got a touch of writer’s block? Talk it out with fellow writers.
9. Get the best beta readers possible. What you want are people whose observations about your writing you can trust. It’s also essential that their critiquing style mesh with your ability to take criticism. The “brutally honest” beta may be wonderful at what she does, but that won’t help much if her blunt tone crushes your joy in writing. The same advice goes for editors. Get the best possible, but be mindful that they are not one size fits all.
10. Write what you love. This doesn’t mean you can’t write to the market. If Belle Epoch romances are a hot sell, find something about the Belle Epoch that excites you and write a story with that kernel at its center. Your joy in writing your story will come through the words. If you hate what you’re writing, or aren’t excited by it, that comes through also and readers will notice. Always give your readers the best book or story you can deliver. That, more than anything, will make you the best writer of all.