The most frequent question I get on Wattpad is, “How do I become a better writer?” My opinion on the matter is as follows:
There are six ways one can improve one’s writing. While it is preferable to excel at all six, focusing on as few as one of these will improve one’s writing. I will list each focus point with a short description.
First, you need to read books, and often. This is likely the most common advice one gives. Believe it or not, many of those who ask me how to be a better writer have admitted to reading only one to two books a year!
Stephen King reads 70-80 books per year. I average about 8 novels per month (that's on top of working a full time engineering job, helping run a house hold, and running a successful author buisness) I simply do not believe someone can expect improvements in writing without frequent reading. If they claim such, I must doubt the quality of what they write. Reading allows you to see how words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters are structured. Moreover, it allows you to see how a plot is developed. So much can be learned by example. When you read, choose books across the spectrum, not simply in your favored genre of writing. Also, choose books at various levels of quality. Best sellers, contemporary literature, independently published, and even amateur. By reading books of various levels of quality, you can begin to pick out what “good storytelling” is. Furthermore, you will find yourself critiquing the books that aren’t so well written. That’s a learning experience.
Second, perfect your grammar.
This is probably the most important rule. No one wants to read a story with poor grammar. Reading for enjoyment will help with this. Moreover, there are gobs of grammar books out there. Pick a couple, and begin reading them (boring, I know). My favorite grammar book is one I used throughout high school and during my college writing courses. It was a required book on our book lists by my English professors.
It is called, The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. This little book has been wonderful to me. It’s a quick, short read, and I often refer to it when writing.
Think of a grammar book as your tool box. Most professionals in their various careers have their own toolbox (in one form or another). Add this to your writer’s toolbox. Keep it on your desk beside you while you write and edit. Refer to it often. You will be happy you did.
Third, improve your creativity.
There are some blessed with creative minds. For everyone else, creativity must be learned. This is your opportunity to watch television shows and movies as an excuse for becoming a better writer. Immerse yourself in stories. Don’t restrict yourself to a specific genre, because all stories at their most fundamental level have a base line plot. Enhancing your creativity also ties back into frequent reading. You gain inspiration from stories (whether you read them or watch them or hear them). Hold on to ideas that move you, and find your own way to re-create them in writing.
Creativity is one of the most challenging aspects to conquer in writing. Why? Because it’s not simply about having the ideas, but how you portray them. Any idea can be presented in a number of creative ways. You, the writer, must pick what works best.
So how does one hone creativity? For me, some of my most creative moments are conceived in the shower. When one’s mind is allowed to be alone and quiet, thoughts take on new life. If you are busy all the time, if your mind is constantly pre-occupied, you will struggle to come up with ideas for a story. The more time alone you give yourself, the easier it will be to think.
One of my favorite “thinking spots” is a porch swing out in my back yard. It lives on a wooden deck at the back of my one-acre lot, surrounded by lush greenery, trees and shrubs, and a wooded grove to the back. I can sit swinging, listening to nature, watching my dogs peruse the smells in the grass, and all sorts of ideas swim into my mind. The smell of the wood from the deck helps relax my mind and calm my spirit. Find that happy place for yourself, somewhere you can sit and simply be, then let your ideas flow forth.
“Solitude is creativity’s best friend, and solitude is refreshment for our souls.” -Naomi Judd
Fourth, learn the mechanics of constructing a story.
Have you ever read a book that seems to go on forever and ever, and never moves anywhere? That’s what happens when there is a problem with the plot. Learn how to construct a good story. One of the most famous books about story construction, is Joseph Campbell’s, The Hero with A Thousand Faces.
This book has been utilized by filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. The idea is, every story possesses the same fundamental set of building blocks. Campbell gathered ideas together from various myths around the world, and he discovered that they were all essentially the same story. He outlines the stages of the hero into twelve steps. Follow this recipe, and you’ve got yourself a winning plot.
I will outline the short form of the Hero's Journey here:
The hero is introduced in their ordinary world. They then receives a call to adventure (introduce some sort of conflict he must solve). They are reluctant at first, but they are encouraged by a wise old woman or man to cross the first threshold, where they encounter tests and helpers. They reach the innermost cave, where they endure the supreme ordeal. They seize the sword or the treasure and are pursued on the road back to their world. They are resurrected and transformed by their experience. They return to their ordinary world with a treasure, boon, or elixir to benefit their world.
There are various variations to this story, but this is the basic gist.
Fifth, read books on becoming a better writer.
Whenever one delves into a new hobby, one often reads “How to” books. Writing is no different. You cannot learn everything on your own by trial and error. Okay, you can, but it’s going to take much longer. There are many great books out there on how to be a better writer. I’m currently reading one, Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose.
This book is FANTASTIC. I feel as though I’m in an English class, learning how to break down word choice, sentence structure, paragraph arrangement, etc. while I read it. I’ve already gained a great deal. I've got a blog HERE on some books I recommend.
Sixth and finally, to be a better writer, you must practice.
I recommend writing every day. If you’re busy, take just fifteen to twenty minutes for yourself to write. Even if it’s a single paragraph, you’re exercising the writing part of your brain. You cannot be a good writer if you don’t write story after story. This piece of advice is rather generic, but no less necessary. While you can read about improving, and learn about improving, you won’t ever improve until you try it yourself.
I go through phases. I absolutely write on my weekends (I have 3 days weekends). I write every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. During certain periods of my story process, I will write during weekdays too. But not always. During Nanowrimo, i've been known to get up an hour early every day to write in order to meet my goals.
Make sure you set time aside to write. It doesn't have to be long periods. Do word sprints if you must. Those are great and you feel productive.
Well, that's about the gist of it. I hope these six tips help you! They are all things I've implemented that have helped me. I'll leave you with this: Stephen King claims to spend 4-6 hours a day on his craft, split between reading and writing. He claims to have done this when he was working as a full time teacher. Let that sink in a little bit. He was married, supporting a family, and still carving out 4-6 hours a day for the craft. Obviously he eventually became a full time writer, but not without some significant effort on his part. If he can do it, and I can do it, YOU can do it too!
My balance changes but currently it is as follows: I almost only write on the weekends. About 6-10 hours of writing split over 3 days, with a minimum of 2 hours per day in the morning while I have my coffee. Usually an additional 2 hours of editing one one of those days. Every day, I read between 3-4 hours per day (both weekend and week days). Every night be it weekend or week night, I reserve my evening after dinner to read. I generally read from about 7:30PM until about 11PM.
So, i'm not quite Stephen King level, but I try.