Whether you’re an aspiring author or a prolific journal-er, you can always improve your writing. The most important thing, I tell my students at New Degree Press/Creator Institute, is developing good habits and a regular practice. Schedule writing time into your routine. Not everyone can find time to write every day, though that’s a great goal, if it’s reasonable for you. That’s another thing I tell my students: set small, reasonable goals you know you can achieve if you work hard.
While aiming high can be motivating, it can also thwart progress if you constantly feel defeated by not reaching your goals. “High aspirations, low expectations,” a writer friend of mine says, meaning, sure, think about all the things you’d like to do, but also celebrate what you did get done and cut yourself some slack for not crossing everything off your list. Perhaps “write a book today” was a tad unrealistic. “Write a page” or “write this scene” or even “stare out my window at the birds and think of my main character” might be easier to achieve.
I had the privilege of spending the past two weeks at a writing residency at Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, VT (that’s my office space there, above – there is order in my chaos), and I got a TON done. I had the time and space to just sit and think and write and rewrite and possibly change one book idea to another. Of course, not everyone can take two weeks off from their responsibilities to focus on their art, but there are ways to integrate reading and writing into your busy life. Whether you want to write a novel or step up your letter-writing game, here are a few tips to improve your writing.
- READ. A LOT.
Prolific writer Stephen King says in his craft book, On Writing, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” Read for fun, but also remember to look at what your favorite authors are doing and how they do it. What do you love about their books? The descriptive details, the witty dialogue, their use of symbolism or metaphor, or their relatable stories? Ask yourself how you can take what you love about their writing and apply it to your own work. Read authors who are writing the kinds of things you want to write. Read what you love. Read in the grocery line or while the water’s boiling or during commercials. If you can’t find time to read, you can’t find time to write.
- WRITE. A LOT.
Masters of any craft practice all the time. I promise, it gets easier the more you do it. Before grad school, I’d wrestle with every word. Now, I can sit down and bust out five pages, no problem. They might not be great, but now I have something to work with. Give yourself permission to be terrible. Then go back and fix it. Revising is half the battle. If you can, I recommend writers try to write every day. It’s easier if you set a schedule for yourself. I’m going to write for an hour first thing in the morning before work, or I’m going to write on my lunch break, or whatever fits your life. But, keep doing it and you’ll notice your writing improving.
- WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW.
No, I don’t mean that you can’t write about a dragon who loves ballet and sno cones, even if you’re an uncoordinated non-dragon who’s never tried syrup drizzled on ice. By all means, we need more sno-cone-guzzling dragon ballerinas in our lives. But give them emotions or situations or skills that are familiar to you. Use your knowledge. If you’re a musician, integrate music into the story, use it to let your readers hear what the characters are hearing, as well as see what they see. If you’re a DIY mechanic, write a piece involving cars and give us details about them. Let the reader learn something. And guess what? You can learn something, too! Writing about a country you’ve never been to? That brings us back to #1. Read everything you can about that place, fiction and non-fiction. Learn about its people and customs and history. Then write from that informed place. Become an authority on what you’re writing, even if you know nothing about it at the onset. You can and, of course, should use your imagination, but build your characters and worlds and plots using real emotions and maybe details or situations can make them much more real to readers. Use what you know.
- BE SPECIFIC
The devil’s in the details (which reminds me, try to avoid cliches). As a reader, I want to see and hear and smell the scene, to be able to picture the people/creatures in it, to feel like I’m in the place. I had a professor in my MFA program who used to say, “Specificity is the enemy of the cliche.” In other words, give me concrete, perceptive details and you’ll have an original piece. But, be warned: there’s such a thing as going overboard in detail. No one needs to know that Alice is platinum blonde #74 with a blue crinkled chiffon dress and patent leather shoes with red bows on them that her mother bought for $9.99 at the local K-Mart on a rainy Tuesday after eating a blueberry muffin. Bored yet? I am. Give us details that matter, that let us tune into our senses to enhance the scene. Give us details that tell us things about the characters and place/situation, that tell a story.
- SHOW, DON’T TELL
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining,” author/playwright Anton Chekhov once said, “Show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Isn’t that beautiful? Don’t you want to see that glint of light? What a scene that must create! Show, don’t tell. And, if you must tell first to get your ideas down, fine, but go back and revise into something where you’re showing the reader the scene and allowing them to picture it, instead of just explaining it to them.
- THINK OF THE EMOTIONS YOU WANT YOUR READER TO FEEL.
The story isn’t just the story, right? It makes you feel something, or teaches you something important, maybe even about yourself. You probably won’t explicitly tell your reader what you want them to feel (and, in fact, you shouldn’t), but you should be aware of it as you write. What is the larger emotional point I am making here? How can I best convey those emotions? Often, my stories are inspired by real-life situations that make me think, “Huh. What must that feel like?”
- TAKE CRITICISM GRATEFULLY AND WITH A GRAIN OF SALT
Putting your writing out there in the world, even just sharing it with a family member or friend, can be nerve-wracking, especially at first (I promise you it gets easier, it really does!). And you’ll get a wide range of feedback, from “It’s perfect! Don’t change a thing! The New Yorker is going to want this right now!” or “How could you write this garbage? My kindergartener can do better.” Neither are super helpful. There’s always something to improve and even the best writers often rely on their writing communities for feedback or to get them un-stuck. Other readers can often see something in the writing that you didn’t even realize was in there. It can help spark new ideas or take you in new directions. Or it can kill your creativity. Don’t let negative feedback get you down. If you like something in your writing and it’s important to you, keep it, whatever someone else says. But, also try to listen to what your closest confidants are telling you; you might be missing the mark of the point you’re trying to make. Ultimately, it’s up to you what goes and what stays, which paragraph goes where. Take the feedback, think about it, and consider what best conveys your message. Hopefully, you can find good, honest, and encouraging readers who will give you constructive feedback without making you want to throw your computer out the window. If not, don’t listen to those people.
- REMEMBER, YOU HAVE AN IMPORTANT STORY TO TELL
You’ll question yourself and your ability and if you can even do this stupid writing thing, anyway. Everyone does. Even the most successful authors sometimes ask themselves Do I have any idea what I’m doing? This fear is usually one of the biggest stumbling blocks that my students, first-time authors, encounter. Can I do this? Am I even a “real” writer? (and, as I tell them, you write, so you’re a writer!) You’re just going to have to get over your insecurities and start putting ideas down on paper. The blank page is intimidating; use it to jot down jumbled notes and brain dumps and questions. Then start developing those into sentences and paragraphs and pages. Read over them and think about adding details, depth/meaning, and perhaps dialogue (depending on what you’re writing). Keep writing and you’ll get better.
This is what I tell all of my students who come to me crying I don’t think I’m any good: Your voice matters. You have a story to tell and the world needs to hear it. You’re the only one who can tell it. So start telling.
Erika Nichols-Frazer is a writer, the Communications Manager at the Children’s Literacy Foundation (CLiF), as well as a Developmental Editor at New Degree Press. She has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She won Noir Nation’s 2020 Golden Fedora Fiction Prize and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has been featured in Red Tree Review, HuffPost, Lunate, Literary Orphans, Please Do Not Remove: A Collection Celebrating Vermont Literature and Libraries, and elsewhere. She is currently editing an anthology of mental health recovery stories and writing a memoir and short story collection. You can find her at nicholsfrazer.com.