8 Ways Writers Can Push Themselves To Grow

I’m always surprised when I run across other writers who turn up their noses at the idea of learning more about the basics of fiction-writing. Yes, I definitely think that we grow by writing—and in fact, can’t grow without LOTS and LOTS of writing.

But. . . we could complete book after book and still not take our writing skill to the next level. We could quite possibly fill our shelves with stories that never exhibit any significant growth from one book to the next. In other words, the process of writing itself is never a guarantee that we'll grow.

If we go back to the writing-college analogy I used in the last post, turning up our noses at learning would be like saying we want to remain a freshman year after year. I’m convinced that if we want to get to graduation-level writing, we have to intentionally find areas where we’re weak, consciously look for new skills we can incorporate, and challenge ourselves to painful growth. It’s out of determined efforts to stretch ourselves that we eventually begin to move toward publishable-quality writing.

Sometimes writers get frustrated with traditional publication and the doors that keep closing on them. Instead of persevering toward maturity in their writing skills and pushing themselves to grow, they may seek out self-publication. Now, I'm not saying that's why everyone chooses to self-publish or that all self-published authors have immature writing skills. But I am saying we need to take a closer look at why traditional doors are closing, and it's often because our writing isn't ready.

Here are 8 ways we can challenge ourselves to grow. (The first five have helped me the most.)

1. Get quality critiques. Every critique helps me get a glimpse of my weaknesses. For example after one critique, I learned I was weak in adding sensory details to every scene. Another helped me realize I needed to improve in maximizing scene tension. A good critique will show us something—usually many things—that we can work on. I try to pick several key techniques to practice in my next novel.

2. Read and study books within our genres. Most writers read voraciously. We can try to get a feel for what’s popular within our genres and particularly with authors we admire. But we can also look at what makes those stories work. What draws us in? What makes us like the characters? What holds us to the end?

3. Devour writing craft books. This is probably the way I’ve grown the most over the years. I read book after book, borrowing most through the library. When I wanted to learn how to write by scenes, I read those books. To learn to plot better, I scoured plot books. As I attempted to write better dialog, I checked out dialog books. Some writing books provide inspiration. But we have to delve into technique if we want to grow. That doesn’t mean we have to agree with everything we read, but we can always discover new ideas to try. (Check out my sidebar for my favorites and the Helpful Writing Books link.)

4. Take lots of notes and review them frequently. I keep notes on index cards. When I read something helpful on a blog post, I jot it down on a card. When I find something in a book that I want to practice, I make a note. I pull out those cards, review them regularly, and they remind me of the things I need to work on most.

5. Discipline ourselves to write consistently. And practice what we're learning. Sometimes we have to slow our writing process down, at least temporarily, while we add in a new skill or two. For some writers, maybe the conscious learning happens in the rewrite process. But the point is, we eventually have to take that head knowledge and let it shape the words we write.

6. Read writing-related blogs. Most writers reading this post are probably already well on their way to searching out helpful blogs. We can learn a tremendous amount, but sometimes it’s also downright overwhelming. Several bloggers do weekly round-ups summarizing the best blog posts of the week. One of the most thorough, with links to dozens of articles for every type of writer, is by Adventures In Children's Publishing. (Check out their round-up every Friday.)

7. Take online writing courses. There are great webinars to choose from, classes, conferences—some for free and all from the comfort of our homes. Writer’s consistently offers a variety of courses. My agent, Rachelle Gardner, led a WD's webinar last week about how to hook an agent or editor with a query. Take a look at their online events page for future webinars.

8. Attend a local or national conference. Conferences are a great place to connect with other writers and to build important friendships. But because of the socializing, I have a hard time focusing on workshops and learning. That’s not to say writers can’t learn at conferences, but I’ve found I can learn the same information in books most of the time. I love conferences, don’t get me wrong! But if the top reason for going is to grow in writing skills, there are much cheaper ways to learn.

From the list I've given, what would you say has helped you to grow the most? Are there other ways writers can grow that I’ve missed? Please share!


  1. A very helpful post. While I do agree with all of them (especially 'getting quality critiques'), I have a slight reservation to writing-craft books.

    I do understand that they're useful, but part of what makes a writer enjoyable to read is her quirkiness and her personality. A lot of times too many writers conform to a mould. When this happens, no one's unique and everyone starts to sound alike.

    I like to read a book and see a different approach. I love writers do do not give up their individuality to do what everyone says they should.

  2. Oh I agree Jody. I used to think writing craft books were for those who need a formula, but I was wrong. Craft books are there because there are some things that just plain work in writing and others that just plain DO NOT. I'd rather learn from someone else's mistakes than an agent rejection ANY day.

  3. One of the things that has really helped me is to take one technique from a writing book I love and then practice that technique in my blog posts.

    In other words I use the blog posts as a sort of writing class. Sometimes I discuss what I did in a post with someone whose opinion I trust.

    I look at my blog as a place to grow and experiment. I know, I know, this goes against conventional wisdom -- that the blog is the place where we advertise ourselves to the outside world. But my thinking is that I'm not ready for publication anyway and I can always go back and delete posts which are less effective.

    When I blog, I am writing for a specific audience. This has helped me grow as a writer, too. I think sometimes writers are too quick to move to posting less often. Regular posting, with immediate feedback, and readers so close, can be a virtual goldmine of learning opportunities.

  4. Again, your advice is spot on. I personally find that often, writers who aren't trying to grow in their craft are still stuck in defense mode, unwilling to hear that they may not already be there. I've never thought of writing as an activity with an end goal, so to speak. I just hope to always evolve and learn, from myself and other writers.

    Finding the community of writers online has really opened my eyes and given me new resources (thanks for the book list! I was overwhelmed at Barnes and Nobles the other day).


  5. Woo to the Hoo! I'm 8 for 8. This right here is my favorite thing in life--growing. Learning! The theme of the writing workshop I'm teaching to 2nd-6th graders this week is to 1. Feed your imagination 2. Learn to be disciplined.

    Love your link for writing books!
    ~ Wendy

  6. I attend my first crit group and it did more for me than months of other things. God's timing was perfect! :O)

  7. Great article, Jody. So very true on every point, and I have to say that many of these steps feed into each other. I don't keep overall notes though, and I should. That's a fantastic tip!

    Thank you so much for mentioning the blog, too! We love it when people recognize that the majority of what we post is about improving craft in every genre and not just children's lit! The basics are all the same.

  8. I love writing craft books. I had purchased a few and read them, thinking they offered what most books on this subject would, and I'd learn everything I'd need to. But I've recently learned that even though some of the same subjects are covered in a multitude of books, each author brings his/her experience to the table which adds spice and life to my learning.

  9. Hi Jody! I think the way I've grown the most is by working with other writers in critique. Others can always see my writing more clearly and know what needs to be cleaned up.

  10. To be honest, I don't like writing craft books. I think when I'm restricted by rules, my writing loses colour, because it makes me think and um and ah too much. I find it better just to write what comes naturally, and THEN fix that so that it is publishable and marketable. I find I learn a lot better that way. That way I can relate the 'rules' to something that is vivid in my mind.

    Are you a writer? Then you MUST enter this CONTEST!

  11. Great tips. I put everything in binders. It's easier for me than index cards.


  12. The deliberate learning is key!! Great suggestions.

  13. There are only three writing craft books that worked for me: Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg, Bird by Bird, by Annie Lamott, and Voice of the Muse, by Mark David Gerson. None of them have rules a writer must follow. Otherwise, I'm right with you on your list, Jody.

  14. There are some really great ideas in here. I've thought about going to conferences but some online writing courses might prove worthwhile. And, I'll be checking out your list of writing books. Thanks!

  15. What a wonderful list, Jody. While I've not made use of the seventh, I've learned a great deal from the others.

    I agree with you on the eighth item. Although I've learned valuable lessons at conferences, I see them primarily as a place to make connections. The material that's taught is often available other places for a much lower price. However, the connections I make can be priceless. =)

  16. Thanks for this post! I am always searching for ways to improve my writing. Right now I am reading "Plot and Structure" by James Scott Bell. It is a must read for all authors. He says in his book that writing can be taught. The big lie is that you have to be born with the gift. IT CAN BE TAUGHT! Thanks so much for taking the time in your busy schedule to post blogs. God Bless Heather

  17. These are all great tips! I would have to say that has been most helpful to me, especially within the past year, is reading writing-related blogs. There is a wealth of information out there in blogs like your's, Rachelle's, and Seekerville.

    I'm always, always reading books in my genre and I am so poised to begin taking some online classes (which I am so excited about!)

  18. This is a great list! As I move through the stages of writing, then editing, querying, etc. I find that reading information regarding that particular stage to be very helpful. Between some really great books and the blogs, there's a ton of info ready just when I need it.

  19. Great tips! I have one more to add.

    Reading in our genres is important, but we should also read writers who are just *good*.

    I find that there are certain writers whose voices really help me prime the pump and keep my style fresh, even though they're not in my 'genre.' Not all classic writers do this for me. George Eliot is a fabulous stylist, but her voice is so different from mine that it doesn't help as much as some others. (The weird thing is that I feel kind of private about those specific others, as if they are my secret pals!) Ha!

  20. Writing a lot! I think that's the most important thing. You can read and attend conferences forever, but you'll never truly grow, improve, and move forward if you don't apply what you're learning.

    I love reading books on writing. I also like writing prompts and exercises. I haven't been to any writing conferences yet (other than WriteOnCon!) but hopefully I will in the near future!

    Great tips, Jody!

  21. What a great post, as usual.

    Then, as Nike says, JUST DO IT!@!


  22. Patrice KavanaughAugust 18, 2010 12:17 PM

    I think getting quality critiques is key. And that can mean PAYING a freelance editor to do a thorough read/review of your work. I'm convinced that's why my book is now regularly finalling (and so far, even placing 1st) in contests. Having fellow writers read/critique can be a great start, but unless they are a "better" writer than you are, how can they highlight needed improvements? Also, for me, watching TV shows/movies in my genre (romantic suspense) is a great way to get ideas for plots.

  23. One of the many mistakes I made as a writer starting out was to shun books on craft. I felt that they would stifle my creativity. Ha! I've learned so much from reading books on craft, and now I feel that I'm at least inching closer to writing something publishable.

    I agree with all of your suggestions, and I would add, 9) Critique Other Writers. I have learned so much from critiquing others work, and it's given me a chance to put into practice what I've learned from all of your listed resources.

    Thanks as always for a great post.

  24. Remember the short story compo I ran earlier this year? I promised a critique to every single entrant (massive time-drain for me, but I felt that I could give them something back, what with having just finished a PhD in critical theory!). I got a couple of entrants saying that I don't bother with the critique as they weren't interested. Gosh, it's always refreshing to come across writers to know too much for their own good.

  25. Critiques and craft books, FOR SURE!!! I've grown the most as a writer from these two things.

    I've been to one conference, and while I learned some valuable things, I loved it for the socialization/networking, not because it made me grow leaps and bounds in my writing.

    as far as reading in my it bizarre that I don't read a whole lot of contemporary romance novels?? I feel like there aren't that many out there that hook me. maybe that's why I write them. Because I LOVE romance and writing it is even better than reading it.

    Not sure. But I do read lots. I read a lot of literary fiction and women's fiction.

  26. Hi Jody -

    Thanks for the suggestions.

    I've learned a lot from blogs, as well as critiques. The Genesis Contest was a great investment because I received three detailed evaluations.

    Conferences are important to my growth. I appreciate the interaction with a teacher.

    Susan :)

  27. Awesome, Jody. Every writer--budding or experienced--should print this out and keep it on hand.

  28. Great post, Jody. We should never stop learning and growing. I adore Craft Mastery books and take away something new from each one I've read.

    Thanks for the advice.

  29. These tips are all wonderful. I'm reminded that I like to take lots of notes, but I don't always refer back to them!

    Thanks for the great information.

  30. Critiques have definitely helped me a lot. I have so much to learn. I haven't been able to go to conferences, but I do hope to save up enough to download the ACFW conference when they get that posted online. I've learned from listening to writers speak.

    One thing I was taught in college is to read the masters and then try to write a piece with a similiar style. Does this squash style? I'll bet some would say yes. But I would say it was a helpful exercise and helped me to be more critical about what I read. I think we would all like to think our style is highly original but I would be willing to bet many writing styles are very heavily influenced by who we read. So I highly agree with your point on reading great literature.

  31. YAH ! I've done them all and agree with you totally!! They work:)

  32. You go girl! Another EXCELLENT post, my friend. I can only add that giving critiques has helped me the most. Besides my blog buds. Namely YOU. But giving crits has really shaped my writing. As I read other writers stories and crit them, I see my mistakes more clearly. It really has helped me to become the writer I dreamed I'd become.

    I love your blog, because you are giving back. I want to do that, too. I love ya Jody. Can't wait to get my grubby little fingers on that book. *hugs* friend.

  33. Awesome advice as always--and LOVE the new look of the blog!

  34. As usual, your blog is so wonderful! :) 4 more weeks! :)
    ACFW here we come!

  35. Thanks Jody, as usual a very helpful post.I think for me critiquing and teaching is helping me polish my writing. Its making me more perceptive to my own mistakes.

  36. My wife often asks why I spend so much money on conferences (and I've only attended ones where I can go home at night to sleep). The connections I can make at a workshop are the primary reason I go.

    However, even though I can learn a lot from reading craft books or on-line, I really enjoy the increased level of interaction that comes with an in-person workshop.

  37. Love this list, Jody. The things I've succeeded at most in life are because of the work I was willing to put in. Writing is no different. We must be willing to put forth the effort to achieve the greatness God wants us to have.

    I'm predicting that I'm going to grow the most from having my book professionally edited. That growth process should start later today. I'll keep you posted.

  38. Excellent advice, Jody. I'm working on the consistency part. Once school starts, I'll have my routine back.

  39. That is really helpful, something I hadnt really considered.

  40. Love this post, Jody.

    I try to zero in on one aspect of writing. For a while it was my fiction. When I saw major improvement there, I went on to something else. Like plotting. Then transitions, etc.

    Like you said, we can always improve. So in time we can hit those same topics and find even more ways to improve, more ways to be creative.

  41. I like this list a lot, especially in light of people who say "You should be writing instead of spending time on other things." That's like saying an electrician should only wire circuits instead of reading up on electricity. The more you study and learn in tandem with actively doing it, the deeper an understanding you will have.

  42. I agree I love books on the writing craft and have found several useful. I've taken a couple of online writing classes. Didn't really get a good critique from my fellow classmates and felt very disappointed from the 2nd class. The first was better. Also with the
    2nd class the instructor was a romance novelist and it seemed she kept trying to steer me in that direction. While my ms does have love in it I'm not going for romance novel. Not that it isn't a valid genre.But I did come away from both classes with growth and a different perspective.
    Perhaps you can address how to go about locating a decent critique group?

  43. Terri, that's a great question! I've jotted it down and will keep it in mind for a future post!


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