6 Ways to Become a Better Writer

When I was a teenager, my goal in life was to become a published writer. I’ve always considered myself very lucky that I achieved that goal well before the age of 30. Since publishing my first novel, Eddie’s Bastard, in 1999, I’ve published 13 more books, won or been nominated for multiple awards, and seen my work translated into 15 languages. How did all this happen? Because I worked very hard to become a good writer, and I followed the tips that older, more experienced writers taught me. Save yourself lots of time, and reach audiences faster, by following some of these same tricks yourself. Think of them as calisthenics to make your writing muscles stronger.

Table of Contents

1. Practice copying passages by highly skilled writers, word for word.
2. Practice style imitation.
3. Scan your writing for advertising language, cliches, repetitions, and unoriginal thoughts.
4. Print out your story and edit it on paper.
5. Learn to analyze the themes in your own work.
6. Set aside 30 to 60 minutes each day for writing without distractions.

Practice, practice, practice. That’s really all there is to say.

1. Practice copying passages by highly skilled writers, word for word.

When we learn to play the piano, we typically learn via two methods: practicing scales, and playing sheet music. We aren’t placed in front of the keyboard and told to start improvising immediately. We haven’t got the skills yet, and we might find this exercise to be frustrating enough that it turns us off from the piano altogether.

Something similar can happen when we are learning to master the writing craft. So, this is what I recommend: Pick a passage by your favorite writer. It would be ideal if it was something a little longer, maybe a couple of pages, and including descriptions of characters and settings, plus some dialogue. Then, simply copy it, word for word, by hand, onto a piece of paper.

Why would you do this? What’s the point? The point is to help you learn how other writers form the flow of words. When you do it this way, you are forced to consider everything about their writing style in a way that you aren’t when you are simply reading it. You will find yourself asking, Why did they choose this word? Why did they say it this way? What were they thinking when they wrote this? How different were they from me in terms of background, sense of humor, reading interests, et cetera?

The point of this is not to force you to try to write like other writers. The point is to help you discover your own unique voice by analyzing the voices of the writers who have come before you. Let’s return to the piano analogy. Your teacher doesn’t give you a Beethoven piece because she wants you to sound like Beethoven, but because it will make you a better piano player. The same holds true for this exercise.

2. Practice style imitation.

This is a similar exercise as the one above, but now, instead of copying word for word, you’re going to replace all nouns and adjectives with your own choices. You’re going to keep the sentence structure and the verbs.

Again, the point of this exercise is to attempt to understand the way more experienced writers approach their craft. It’s not to get you to try to sound like someone else. Don’t worry! If anything, it will eventually make your voice sound more unique, not less.

So, let’s look at this passage from one of my favorite books, One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time, Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs.

We’re going to keep the overall structure but change the story. I’m going to do this by replacing the names of people, places, and things:

Many years later, as he faced the board of directors, CEO Anthony Jacobs was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him fishing. At that time, Erie was a hamlet of twenty shacks, built on the shores of a lake of mud that ran along a shelf of cracked shale, which was leafed and crumbling, like old paper.

This is only two sentences long, but there’s a lot going on here, so let’s look at it.

First, I replaced the firing squad with the board of directors. This meant I was committing myself to a corporate setting, so it made sense to replace the character of the Colonel with a business executive… might as well make him the CEO. I changed ice to fishing. I changed Macondo to Erie, the name of the city where I grew up. The geography of Erie includes a lot of shale, which often struck me as the rock version of paper and which came up easily and crumbled in my hands.

I enjoyed doing this exercise just now, thirty years after it was first introduced to me by a writing instructor at Emerson College. Even today, it forces me to adopt the thinking patterns of another writer whom I admire greatly. Although One Hundred Years of Solitude is over fifty years old now, in my opinion it will always be at the top of my list of favorite reads–a feat made all the more amazing by the fact that I’m reading it in translation. In fact, it’s one of the very few books I’ve read multiple times.

3. Scan your writing for advertising language, cliches, repetitions, and unoriginal thoughts.

We all suffer from unoriginal thought sometimes. We repeat things because we heard other people say them. We use cliches that have been said ten million times before. We say the same things over and over, and most of the time, believe it or not, a lot of us are thinking about the same things, in very similar ways.

There is nothing wrong with any of this as it applies to our daily life. Writing, however, is supposed to be something special and unique. It is intended to help transport your readers to another world, even if that world looks exactly like this world, and in order for that to happen, you must be in complete command of the language. This means never using words without clear intention. Always know why you are using a particular word, or expressing a particular thought in a certain way. Don’t do things unconsciously. Examine everything. And you must try never to express an unoriginal thought on the page.

Advertising is the most pernicious influence on your language. I can say that without even knowing you, because you and I live in the same culture, more or less, and advertising is everywhere. This has been the case for over a century now. When I was growing up, I was exposed to repetitive phrases, jingles, and slogans thousands of times, because the television was always running in the background. At the age of 48, I find myself still mentally repeating phrases that pop into my head out of nowhere, like “Take out his spare ribs for one hundred dollars!” (This is something a kid says in a commercial for the game Operation, which has always stuck in my head for some reason.) So, if you catch yourself writing phrases that you’ve heard in a commercial, take it out and replace it with something you came up with yourself.

Cliches are another thing that have to go. Again, there is nothing wrong with cliches in regular conversation, but when you’re trying to create a work of art, you either need to eliminate them or, if you are using them, make sure you’re using them on purpose.

Some examples:

  • It was hotter than the hinges of hell.
  • She was dressed to kill.
  • It was raining cats and dogs.
  • The car flew like a bat out of hell.
  • He ate until he was about to burst.
  • She was as strong as an ox.

Find original ways to say these things! Your readers will thank you for it.

4. Print out your story and edit it on paper.

The advent of the word processor was a quantum leap forward in the literary and publishing worlds, in that it represents a tremendous savings of time. Unfortunately, it also results in a certain distance from our work, because we have less sweat invested in writing and re-writing. Word choice used to be considered more carefully, I believe, in the days when writing took actual physical effort. Editing was more costly, too. We haven’t seen a dramatic increase in the quality of writing since word processors took over. If anything, the amount of bad writing has multiplied exponentially.

So, get back to basics. Whatever you’re working on, if you are working on it electronically, print it out and read it on paper. Have a pen in hand. I guarantee you will see things you didn’t notice before because you moved over them too quickly on the screen.

Better yet, take the time to write the whole piece out by hand. This is a tall order, I know. My handwriting has become so lazy and sloppy over the past 20 years I scarcely have the hand strength to write out an entire chapter. But when I do, I see things that I missed while using my computer.

5. Learn to analyze the themes in your own work.

After all this analysis of other people’s writing, when you turn your attention back to your own writing, you will see it through different eyes.

I happen to believe that we should not do things unconsciously–it’s always better to know why you’re doing what you’re doing–but the fact is, most of us spend about 90% of our time doing things without really thinking about why, so 100% consciousness is not a goal I seriously expect to achieve in my lifetime. It’s just an ideal I strive for, in my life and in my writing.

Lately, I’ve begun a new technique: I look at my word choices for a certain paragraph or passage and try to discover what sort of mood or theme I seem to be naturally establishing. Typically, this choice happens unconsciously, meaning I do it without thinking. I want to make sure nothing is happening by accident, so I’m conducting a theme analysis of my own work. It’s been interesting, to say the least.

For example, in a manuscript I’m working on currently, within the very first paragraph, I had established two themes: one was that of memory loss, and the other was political corruption. Both of these topics popped up as I was writing the first draft, and I have kept them through subsequent rewrites, so I can say at this point that they are both themes of the story.

What is the point of doing this? Because I have established these themes in the work, that means they are also going to be established in the minds of the reader. That in turn means that the reader is going to be expecting that theme to be developed somehow. That is an expectation I, the writer, have created. This then means that I have the artistic obligation to develop that theme and follow through with it. I need to make it mean something. I need to take it somewhere. I can’t just throw these things in on page 1 and never revisit them. It will be a far more interesting journey for my readers if instead I build the action and the tension over the course of the story by building on top of the foundation I laid early on.

Another note I made to myself about the main character in the book I’m working on currently:

He believes in surrendering to fate. He has never cared for the concept of creatings one’s own entire existence from nothing. He prefers instead to be swimming in the stream.

This rather cryptic jotting has to do with some thoughts my main character was having about what to do with his day. The observation above is intended to illuminate for me what kind of person he is. Once I have this established in my own mind, I can begin to develop him fully on the page over the course of the story.

For more on character development, see my posts “Understanding Character Development” and “More on Character Development”.

6. Set aside 30 to 60 minutes each day for writing without distractions.

Much has been said in just about every writing workshop, class, and seminar on the importance of a writing routine. There isn’t much to add. I just want to reinforce this notion: writing is like any other skill, in that if you want to get better at it, you need to do it often.

But what about those days when you really don’t feel like writing? Is it OK to cut yourself some slack and skip a day? Of course it is. Writing shouldn’t feel like punishment, either… especially for young writers. If you need to take some time away from a story to gain fresh perspective, by all means, do so. Sometimes you just need to recharge your batteries.

If you have the same disease I had, of course, there is no such thing as slack. As my 8th grade English teacher told my parents, “The good news is, your son’s a writer. The bad news is, your son’s a writer.” Or, as my mentor, the late W.S. “Jack” Kuniczak, told me over 30 years ago, “Fate has handed you a whip and you’re going to flog yourself with it until you drop dead. Congratulations.” By this, he meant that I couldn’t stop writing if I tried.

He was right. I have tried, and I can’t stop. I’ve spent nearly my entire life imagining situations and characters and then writing about them. I’ve often wished I could be normal, and just hang out with the other guys to talk about football or cars. I can’t. I just don’t get that world.

Oh, well! Luckily they accept me for who I am, and I accept them. And that is just how it should be. If we were all the same, the world would be a horribly boring place.

If you take the time to follow these exercises once a month, at the end of a year, I am sure you will notice an improvement in both the quality and the quantity of your work.

Did these tips work for you? Have any you’d like to add? Leave a comment below and share them with others who may read this post.