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9 Ways to Grow in Writing Skills

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Can a writer improve through writing ALONE? Or does it take MORE than actual writing to become a better writer?

I definitely think that we become better writers by the act of writing. In fact I'd even go as far as saying I don't think a writer can truly grow without LOTS and LOTS of writing.

But . . . we could write 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.

After writing over 15 books, I can testify to the power of prolific writing. It's absolutely essential to becoming a better writer. But I have always coupled my writing with learning. I intentionally find areas where I'm weak, I consciously look for new skills to incorporate into my stories, and I challenge myself to painful growth.

It’s out of massive writing PLUS determined efforts to stretch ourselves to grow in writing techniques that we eventually begin to move toward publishable-quality writing.

Here are 9 ways we can challenge ourselves to grow.

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 maximize scene tension. A good critique will show us something—usually many things—that we can work on. I try to pick several key techniques from each critique to practice.

2. Read and study books INSIDE 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. Read and study books OUTSIDE our genres.

Over the past couple of years, I've stretched myself by reading books that I might not normally gravitate toward. I've challenged myself to be a bit more eclectic. As I've done so, I've realized that I'm constantly picking up really good ideas from these non-genre books, techniques that I can apply to my genre (with a little tweaking). Sometimes the fresh perspective of a new genre can add freshness to our genre.

4. Devour writing craft books.

This is probably the way I’ve grown the most over the years. I've 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 dialogue, I checked out dialogue 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.

5. 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.

6. Discipline ourselves to write consistently.

Discipline and consistency help us become prolific. But then we need to take it one step further and actually practice what we're learning. Sometimes we have to slow down our writing process, at least temporarily, while we add in a new skill or two. For some writers, maybe the conscious application 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.

7. 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 from one another in the writing community. I find almost all my links to writing related posts on Twitter, especially because I follow a couple of writers, @elizabethscraig and @thecreativepenn, who share great writing-related links.

8. 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 Digest.com consistently offers a variety of courses. Take a look at Writer's Digest University for all of their online workshops, tutorials, and resources.

9. Attend a local or national conference.

Conferences are an ideal time to rub shoulders with other authors, to talk about the craft, to brainstorm, and to glean ideas. In addition, we have the opportunity to sit under the teaching of some of the best authors out there, ask questions, and soak in their wisdom.

Besides the actual writing, what else has helped you to grow the most in your writing skill? 

10 comments:

  1. #6 is my downfall. For all the learning I do, I don't always focus on its application. I write from a place inside my head and during revisions discover so many things I should have done differently. The conscious and unconscious me don't cooperate on the page! LOL!

    During revisions I go through a mental checklist for each page, asking myself first if the scene and/or dialogue is vital to the story, then if everything is in the right POV, tenses are consistent, have I included conflict/tension, sensory descriptions, and other important elements. I annoy myself at how often a scene requires a repair, and how often my critique group discovers things I've missed! I think it's part of the growth process to be able to recognize when my writing is lacking something.

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    1. Hi Carol,
      I think that application aspect is going to look different for each of us. But the point is that we actually do take the time to practice new techniques (and perhaps that is during the rewrite phase for some writers.) I liken the process of practicing and drilling to basketball (which both of my boys play). I always tell them they can't improve through games alone, that they have to get out there between times and during the summer and practice technique. What happens off the court is what makes the difference on the court. And I think we can apply that to our writing too! :-)

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  2. You nailed it. Everything I could think of anyway.
    I'd expand to say, I get reviews/critiques from readers. They offer a different perspective.
    I have a writer group I am meeting in person.
    I also have a writing group I meet online.

    I'm writing for Nano right now, but will keep this post in mind to link to it from my blog. Great stuff list in a single place!

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    1. Good point. Taking into account reader thoughts can be helpful to a degree as well. And Nano has been a great way to challenge me to stretch my writing muscles (which is growth in a different way!) :-)

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  3. As someone who's looking to ameliorate her writing in general, I enjoyed reading this post. Great thoughts, Jody. This fueled my desire to enrich the texts I write.

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  4. Jody, I love your idea of writing new lessons on cards. I take notes but rarely go back and read through them.

    Plot & Structure has helped me the most. And I found out about Bell's book from this blog :)

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  5. Thanks for posting the article...its really a good tip....http://www.manjugroups.com....villas in chennai,real estate in chennai,plots in chennai

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  6. Hi Jody - great post
    I think I struggle most with No.3. At the moment I'm writing a novel set in France during WW2 so for the past year I've been reading novels of this genre. I like to immerse myself in the 'feel' of the war years so struggle to choose other books in case I snap out of era. I will endeavour to choose outside my preferred genres when my book's finished though - hopefully in a month or two.
    Ange

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  7. You make some excellent points, Jody!! I need to follow these more and learn from them. I often note things I learn from you and others but I don't go over them regularly, I'll change that.

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  8. I discovered your blog through Pinterest and enjoyed the list especially learning the craft and learning what my weaknesses are. Actually, I'm right at the beginning of starting a story and finding my way. As an aspiring fantasy writer/science fiction writer, I am searching for what skills I need to create the story I want. Thank you.

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