The Most Useful Advice I’ve Heard to Improving Your Writing

I was reading some of my early-on writing (the dark days), and I realize there are some things early-writer-me needed to hear/read/know that I did not hear/read/know back in those days. So I’d like to share.

It starts with this: Every word an experienced writer puts down on the page is carefully chosen.

Every. Word.

When I first started writing, I thought I was pretty good. I had always excelled at English, read widely (or so I thought), and loved languages and writing in general. I could do wonderful descriptions and turn a phrase. I could make beautiful new worlds. I could imagine cool, sassy characters who spouted cool, sassy lines.

But I didn’t realize that there was so much still missing from my writing.

I’d heard it before, but I hadn’t heeded it: every word an experienced writer writes is carefully chosen.

That’s impossible, I had thought, snorting. Surely writers just write. They make pretty phrases, great characters and awesome worlds, and that’s it! Surely nobody chooses every word they write unless you’re Albert Camus or one of those otherworldly, super-literary authors.

Nope. I was wrong.

Good writers, experienced writers, position every one of their words carefully, craft phrases with very specific meanings and connotations that will create very specific effects.

Now, having sold my trilogy at auction and sitting down to write my sequel, I can feel it. The different standards I hold myself to. The way I craft intentionally and immaculately, literally picking each word. Whereas before, I had been a kid playing with a sword and imitating moves, thinking I looked good, my writing muscles have undergone hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours of training, and every one of my moves is whittled down to sharp precision, every cut of my sword intentional. I have had teachers, masters, mentors, and fellow pupils along the way, critiquing my moves and telling me where I could improve and where I did well.

And now, I have had acknowledgement from the writing industry.

I have passed the test.

Every single craft requires training. No one is born a natural writer, just as no one is born a natural painter or singer or martial artist. Yes, there are some with more skies-endowed talents, but without honing those skills, even the natural talents are unrefined and raw.

If you are a new writer starting out, or even one who has been writing for a while, stop and ask yourself: have you ever sat down to analyze your favorite authors’ works, and why they are successful? Do you ever pause after a heart-pounding page, and re-read it, carefully scrutinizing each and every word and every single phrase and sentence to understand how the author crafted such a beautiful scene?

One of the most useful pieces of advice that one of my former critique partners gave me — and that I continue to pass on and advocate — is this: sit down, and read, and study your favorite authors’ works, and what makes them work. Because there is so much to be learned. All those techniques you learned about in your high school/college English class and thought obsolete? Nope, writers employ them every single day. Diction and sentence structure and atmosphere and connotations and foreshadowing and all those aspects you thought were only for literary snobs? Nope, we use them. On every. Single. Page. And we use them well, in a way that can be digested by most people.

It is no accident that some writers get agents, get book deals, and get published. I’ve received a few comments telling me how I’ve been “lucky,” how publishing is a “lottery” and I’ve won it while most of the rest of the writers lost out.

I won’t deny that. Sure, I’ve been lucky. Lucky that my story falls into a hot-selling genre, lucky that I had a good-enough premise that hasn’t been overdone and can still sell, lucky that my concept was in-sync with the market demand. And, yes, a lot of publishing relies on luck; perhaps your book was just the concept a specific publisher was looking for; perhaps your book just happened to click with one editor who was looking to add that type of work to her portfolio; perhaps your book is just what the market needs at this time.

But those are all external factors that we cannot control, just as we cannot control weather or the stock markets or the job market.

The best thing you can do is focus on yourself. Focus on developing your talents and your skills, because those are the foundation to your qualifications as a writer. My father used to tell me: “If it is gold, it will shine.” If you are a good writer, you will shine. It might not be today, or tomorrow, or even this year, but you will be recognized based on your skills. It’s like applying for jobs. Maybe this year is a crappy year on the job market, but if you have worked hard on your skills and your resume and are a great candidate, sooner or later, you’ll shine.

The reverse is also true: if you’re a bad candidate, if your writing skills are just not up to par yet, then you need to work on yourself before you jump to blaming the market or complaining about luck.

So, back to the fundamentals. Focus on what you can control: your craft. Make it gold. Study all the literary techniques, all the storytelling techniques, and most importantly, study how published authors write, and try to dissect their craft. There is something to be learned from every book, so even if it’s one you don’t like, study it to see why it’s so popular.

And get readers. When I started out, I had nobody but my sister and two friends read my writing. But get others who are also practicing their craft to read your work, and get them to pick out what works and what doesn’t. Even if it’s a writer whom you think is not as experienced as you, they can generally point out things like, “This isn’t working for me” or “this beat doesn’t hit home.” And it’s up to you to figure out why it doesn’t work.

That was literally my process, for about three to four years. I got a really great beta reader who sat me down and gave me the cold, harsh truth: that I was still a fledgling writer who lacked control over her writing and execution, and that I needed to sit down and study other authors’ works to understand their craft.

That’s what I did. That’s how I started my website, about a year ago: by dissecting and analyzing the craft of my favorite authors.

I got beta readers, and in turn, I gave feedback, which also helped me hone my craft — that’s a double-win, right there. And as my writing developed, so did the skill level of my beta readers. I got my agent, got my book deal, and the rest is history.

But I started as a fledgling, as regular rusty metal, and the above process has really changed my life. I hadn’t realized it until today, when I was talking with a longtime friend and critique partner: now, I can truly say that every word I put down on the page is carefully chosen.

2 thoughts on “The Most Useful Advice I’ve Heard to Improving Your Writing

  1. vanessawolfe says:

    This was such an incredible way of putting things! I will remember this post for a very long time. I especially loved this metaphor: “Whereas before, I had been a kid playing with a sword and imitating moves, thinking I looked good, my writing muscles have undergone hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours of training, and every one of my moves is whittled down to sharp precision, every cut of my sword intentional.”

    That’s very powerful. I didn’t realize the importance to making every “move” intentional as a professional. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The Story Sponge says:

    It’s so important to be intentional! As an avid reader, I thirst for books that are well crafted. I have read a lot of books that seem to have been thrown together. The author was just plowing through the words to get to the story, almost as if the words themselves were in the way, instead of using the words to their fullest potential. I love it when I discover a book that has had a lot of thought put into it. I’m not saying that the other books weren’t hard work, but there is something about certain books that makes them stand out from the crowd, and I think it’s that intention. The words themselves are beautiful and the author has a daunting mastery of them. The words enhance the story, rather than just being the road you use to get to it.
    This is an important point to make, and I really appreciate this post!


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