I will not make assumptions about your habits and desires, especially when it comes to writing. As for my own, few things rank as high on my list as “improve my writing.” It feels like an unfinished task. One I’m never close to achieving no matter how much time and effort I put in. As soon as I’ve surmounted one hurdle, I’ve created hundreds more in front of me, all while trying to enjoy the journey along the way.
So how do you do become a better writer? And without spending more time and money than you have available to you in the process?
One way is to live intentionally. To go out and find experiences that inspire your writing. Things you can take back to the page and weave magically into your stories so that your audience doesn’t know where any of it came from.
That means, of course, that you have to be careful about separating your life from your stories (because readers will know when a story is a thinly veiled version of you). That you have to know how to weave those experiences onto the page. And, that you have to have enough time, money, and resources sustaining you outside of your writing life.
Sure, you can (and should) do some of that without a passport:
- Try getting outside of your comfort zone
- Make a point to leave your writing space at least once a day
- Interact with people
But, what else can you do when you can’t pack a suitcase and catch the next flight to New Zealand to see the Lord of the Rings filming locations in real life?
You could hire an editor
Developmental editors, like the Story Grid editors, who know what they’re doing are an invaluable resource. I make no guarantees, but we can effectively shorten the amount of time it takes you to learn your craft. And a well-crafted novel will do better in the long-run than one you push out in a month.*
Developmental editors can tell you what’s working, and give you specific ways to improve what isn’t. We can dissect stories and provide you with a language on how to talk about them.
But we cannot do the work for you.
Nothing will replace the time you spend with your butt in the chair practicing writing a scene over and over again until you can no longer tell what’s good anymore. Until that much needed break when you read the revised versions compared to previous drafts and you’ll see how far you’ve really come.
What if you don’t have the money for an editor? Or, you’re as stubborn as I am and want the satisfaction (and many, many years) under your belt proving you can teach yourself?
Well, so long as it’s not Resistance (and only you can be the true judge of that), I think the quickest way to teach yourself craft is to read.
Reading is my go-to for anything.
Want to learn guitar? There’s a book for that. Cooking? Get a cookbook by your favorite chef. Meditation? Of course. Saving money? There’s tons. How to knit your own boyfriend? You better believe it.
You get the idea.
Anything you could possibly want to learn, there’s a book someone somewhere wrote for the sole purpose of helping others learn to do the same. Why would writing be any different?
The cool thing is that there are more than just books trying to teach you craft.
- Sure, you can learn how to write a scene
- To write a book in a month
- To edit your novel
- Or anything else you could possibly want to discover
But you also have access to the millions of books that have come before yours. The ones that people continue to read despite their age, financial situation, location on earth, etc. Books that are successful because they move their audiences into feeling something different than when they started reading. Ones that let us escape our boring, everyday world and dive into something fantastic.
Those are the books I’m talking about. The ones you have access to with a library card (not that you don’t have access to others, but you know what I mean). The ones that you want to emulate. That you read and say to yourself, “I want to create something that makes other people feel the way this book made me feel.”
And I’m giving you full permission to use some (not all!) of your writing time solely dedicated to reading. After all, we’re readers before we are writers. (At least, we should be.)
How Can Reading Better Improve Your Writing?
In our fast paced world where everything fights for our attention, reading (and reading we enjoy) is more important than ever. Yes, watching long-form TV and a good movie can teach you about story. But, learning to write the scene down in a way that works on the page, no matter the ultimate medium, is immensely important.
Careful study of books, especially those in your chosen genre, gives you a feel for pacing, the types of characters needed to fill out your cast, scenes that you need to include, and the cliches you should avoid.
Not that there are “rules” you can follow to spit out the perfect novel, but it’s easy to give you a list of what’s important. You’ve probably heard most of it before. Show don’t tell. Include the 5 Commandments (inciting incident, complications, crisis, climax, and resolution). Don’t forget the obligatory scenes and conventions. And any of the other topics that create the books filling the shelves of the writing section of bookstores everywhere.
In fact, you probably already have a feeling about what makes you keep reading the books you chose to pick up. What makes reading books that work different from studying those on craft is that they show you an active example of putting those principles to work. And doing so will improve your ability to articulate what works and what doesn’t.
Hopefully, that will leave you better equipped to critique your own writing in a way that is neither too harsh nor too gentle.
But reading goes beyond all that, too. I believe that reading is fundamental not only to writing, but to any subject you could possibly want to study.
Being able to understand something from context clues is for more than just the last English test you took. And seeing how it’s done in a book that works reinforces the idea that the audience is smarter than you (something all writers should remember). Readers don’t want to be told that a character really loves their dog. They want to figure it out for themselves. Better yet, they want to know it’s true even if the character doesn’t believe it themselves.
That’s what inference is: coming to a conclusion based on evidence and reasoning. It keeps audiences actively interested in the material on the page. Makes them feel privy to information others might not know. And is vital to showing vs. telling.
Though it’s hard to teach, watching others break down a scene or novel will improve your ability to pick up on context clues. The more you practice, the better you’ll get. And, the better your are, the more your writing will improve. Instead of telling the audience everything you think they need to know, you’ll have learned how to let them figure it out for themselves.
Writing a beautiful sentence isn’t vital to producing a well-selling book (hello, 50 Shades). It is important if you want quotes of your book all over pinterest, but it’s not the first thing I would focus on if you want to improve your writing. It’s not even the second. In fact, it’s close to last on the list.
But I include it because it’s something I appreciate as a reader.
And writing a beautiful sentence, one that sounds great even when read aloud, is best learned studying books that do it well. Ingraining the sounds inside your own head is easier than studying the correct order of multiple adjectives in a sentence. By all means study the intricacies of grammar, but I think reading sentences, even aloud, is a lot more fun.
More importantly, reading can teach you Story Structure. Didn’t Tim want his first book to be loosely based off of Harry Potter? That’s the kind of thing you can learn from studying books that work. How to hit the right events in the right order to cause the audience to react in the way you want them to to your writing.
Structure varies the mood. It defines the change that takes place (the scenes in any other order wouldn’t be the same after all). Therefore, it is partly responsible for the genre. Or rather, the genre dictates the structure in many ways.
And knowing the rules, by studying the books that came before yours, will help inform your work. It will give you insight into when it’s ok to bend, or even break, the rules. And, it will help you set up your story so that your audience reacts how you want them to. Careful reading teaches you how to do that effectively.
Conventions and Obligatory scenes
Reading in your genre will show you the obligatory scenes and conventions, so you can stop furiously searching the internet for all the answers. Instead, pick up the top 10 books you want to see your book next to on the shelves. Pay attention to the scenes that move you and the common elements. Those are what you need to include in your own work.
Of course I mean that not as a formula, but as a form within which to work. You still have to bring your own originality and flair to the story. But, give yourself a leg up on the types of scenes and elements you have to include. Read.
The Last Point on Reading
Reading gives you taste. You learn what you do and do not like by reading. Therefore, you learn what it is you want to write by first reading about it in other stories. Reading gives you ideas on what to steal and weave into your own work. It lets you experience without the plane ticket. And, it provides you with all the tools you’ll ever need to craft something you yourself want to read.
Be patient with yourself though. It will take time and effort to develop your craft. Reading alone will not get you where you want to go. Writing alone won’t either. And, for that matter, not leaving your desk to experience things for yourself isn’t something I’d recommend either. In fact, I believe that living and reading intentionally will improve your writing in ways you cannot imagine. Just make sure to do the writing. You’ve got this.
*This is of course, an opinion I personally hold. It’s why I study Shawn Coyne and Robert McKee, etc. and study craft each and every day.
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