Soooo… you’ve been writing for a while. Maybe you seriously got into writing fiction a year ago; maybe you’ve been a freelance writer for three or four years now. Maybe you started writing a book and it didn’t go anywhere.
You know you want to improve your writing, but you don’t know HOW. What do you need to do to take your writing to the next level? Are there practical, actionable steps you can take to get your writing from GOOD to GREAT?
YES. Writing, like everything else, can benefit from what is called deliberate practice — a focused, disciplined attempt at identifying areas of improvement (and then, of course, improving them).
Here’s how to improve your writing skills — in three (or maybe four) easy steps.
Step 1: Evaluate your work.
Before you can start improving your writing skills, you need to evaluate your work — which means taking an honest assessment of what you’re doing well, what you could do better and which aspects of your writing have stalled at “good enough.”
(Remember, you’ll never get to GREAT if you’re satisfied with GOOD ENOUGH.)
This is the hardest part of the process, because writers aren’t always good at self-evaluation. Sometimes we don’t know where our work can improve, but there are two good ways to find out:
Ask a writer/editor/teacher you trust
Read writing by people you admire, in the genre/beat you’re currently writing in, and do an honest comparison of your work against theirs
If you want to go the first route, there are plenty of ways to connect with other writers and make the kinds of friends who can help you make your work better.
Joining a community like the Freelance Writers Den, for example, can put you in touch with other freelancers and industry professionals — and that’s before you factor in the job boards, writer website reviews, and online bootcamps you’ll be able to access as a Den member.
And don’t forget to read, read, READ. The more you read other writers’ work — especially writers who are doing the same kind of work you’d like to do — the more you’ll understand what it takes to make a piece of writing truly excellent.
Then, you can use what you’ve learned to improve your writing.
Step 2: Identify one area in which to improve your writing.
Going from good to great is an incremental process. Don’t try to change everything you’re doing at once, especially if what you’re doing is already getting you some writing success. If editors are saying yes to your freelance writing pitches, for example, keep pitching. If you just got a short story published, start writing another one.
While you’re continuing the work that’s currently helping you move forward, pick ONE AREA in which to improve your writing skills. Otherwise, your next piece is going to be just as good as your first one — and while that might qualify as “good enough,” it won’t help you take your writing from GOOD to GREAT.
If you don’t know where to begin, go back to that first step and do an honest self-assessment of your writing — or find someone who can help you assess your work and identify one aspect of your writing that could benefit from a little skill-building.
Let’s say, for example, that you have trouble writing an opening sentence. If you want to improve your writing skills, you could set yourself the goal of understanding the difference between GOOD ENOUGH OPENING SENTENCES and GREAT OPENING SENTENCES. Then, you can use that information to get your opening sentences to GREAT.
If you want to improve your writing, this kind of incremental improvement is one of the best ways to get started — but how do you do it?
That’s where Step 3 comes in.
Step 3: Begin practicing. Deliberately.
Much has been said about the writing practice, but not enough has been said about the deliberate writing practice.
Deliberate practice is a term created by Anders Ericsson and popularized by Ericsson and Robert Pool in their book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Here’s how they define it:
Deliberate practice involves well-defined, specific goals and often involves improving some aspect of the target performance; it is not aimed at some vague overall improvement. […] Deliberate practice nearly always involves building or modifying previously acquired skills by focusing on particular aspects of those skills and working to improve them specifically; over time this step-by-step improvement will eventually lead to expert performance.
Using step-by-step improvement to build skills and gain expertise sounds like a worthy goal for any writer, but what does deliberate practice look like in practice?
Well — if you were a writer who wanted to focus on improving your opening sentences, you’d use part of your writing practice time to break down the differences between your opening sentences and excellent opening sentences.
What, exactly, is going on with Jane Austen’s famous opening sentence “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”? What kind of information is being communicated to the reader, and what does the reader know about what to expect from the rest of Pride and Prejudice?
What about a classic essay like Joan Didion’s Goodbye to All That, which begins “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends”? What’s Didion specifically doing with her word choice, with her rhythms, with her parallel structure and use of the repeated “S”?
Then you’ll write opening sentences that do the same things. In your own words, of course. This isn’t about copying Didion or Austen. This is about understanding why those sentences resonate with readers, and learning how to create equally resonant sentences that serve your own purposes and your own voice.
Until you’re no longer guessing at what a good opening sentence should be, because you already know how to write an excellent one.
Step 4: Repeat steps 1–3.
The process of writing well takes a lifetime, but the process of improving one incremental aspect of your craft can go a lot more quickly than you realize. You may only need to devote a week — or even a few days — to opening sentences, and then you might want to move on to dialogue tags.
Or whatever it is you’re hoping to improve in your own writing.
Remember, this kind of work requires you to successfully identify not only what you aren’t currently doing well, but what you’re currently doing JUST WELL ENOUGH — so make sure you’re ready to evaluate and re-evaluate your writing as you continue to improve your writing skills.
This is where a writing accountability team can help, both in terms of ensuring that you’re focusing on areas of improvement and that you’re actually improving your work.
You could also use a tool like ProWritingAid to get an in-depth report of what you do well and what you could do better — and then work your way down the list of suggested improvements, tackling one issue at a time.
Because that kind of deliberate, focused practice is how you take your work from GOOD to GREAT.
Soooo… what tiny, incremental aspect of your craft do you want to address first, and how are you going to use these steps to improve your writing?
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