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?