10 Steps to Becoming a Better Writer

glasses on book

In a world filled with creative chaos, it’s easy to feel lost and overwhelmed as a writer. There are hundreds of how-to books and step-by-step guides to choose from online, so determining your strategy can be a difficult if not daunting task.

Your process can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it, just remember that nothing is ever set in stone. This list was written with fiction writers in mind, but can also apply to other genres. If you have anything you think should be added to the list, please comment so that you can share your tips with fellow writers!

1. Read. Read again. Read some more. Repeat.
Reading is central to quality writing. To become a great writer, you need to read the work of great writers. Good writing doesn’t come out of nowhere. Make sure you’re reading every day. More importantly, read before you sit down to write. It will open your creative channels and inspire you to do better.

As you’re reading, analyze the work of other writers. What is it about their writing that you like? What don’t you like? What was their mindset when they were writing a particular scene or chapter and how can you create a similar feeling for your readers?

2. Let your words bleed
Oh yes. This is one of those things that a lot of writers are adverse to. You don’t need to be. Letting your words bleed means putting some very real and raw feeling and emotion into your work. Let your readers feel the emotions your character is going through. Pulling from your own personal experiences is one of the best ways to do this.

Letting your words bleed will allow you to connect with your readers. If you haven’t made them cry or laugh at some point then you’re probably doing something wrong.

Writing

3. Paint a picture, don’t tell your audience what they should be seeing
Avoid vagueness. Rather than saying “Carl is a shitty person” you’ll want to get into detail. Tell the audience snippets of something Carl’s done, or use actions to describe the type of person he is.

Add some meat to it that will paint a clear and specific picture of Carl:

Carl stepped outside and leaned against his doorway, the chipped paint bit into the back of his neck but he ignored it. He took a long drag from his cigarette. His ex wife’s ugly mutt slunk up the steps of the porch and stared up at him. Carl hadn’t fed the damn thing in a couple of days. He’d hoped it would run away.

“Get outta here!” Carl lurched forward and kicked the dog in its bony side. The dog yelped but stayed where it was.

A muffled version of I Wish I Was in Dixie Land played from somewhere in his house. Humming, he sucked on the cigarette one last time and flicked it at the dog. When the dog whined, he gave it another kick in the ribcage and sent the animal sprawling.”

4. Don’t use idioms unless dialogue calls for it
Have you ever read a sentence that started with “he ran like the wind” or “she wasn’t a happy camper”? This is one of the biggest amateur writing mistakes you can make. It’s embarrassing, it’s unoriginal and it’s boring. It’s a great example of terrible writing.

If you want to intrigue your readers, be original. Instead of “George had a chip on his shoulder”, try something like “George had a grudge”.

Eliminate idioms unless you’re using them in character dialogue to make them more realistic or to shed light on a character’s background. A character who says, “Don’t piss on my shoes and tell me it’s rainin” is probably a character with a Southern background. Idioms are alright in that case.

5. Cut the word fluff out
This is a struggle for beginner writers and seasoned authors. Imagine your writing as a large, juicy steak- the word fluff is the fat that needs to be trimmed from your steak before it’s served up.

Word fluff works to the detriment of your story. Three words to pay close attention to: that, just, and really. Getting rid of those words helps your writing to be straightforward and have better flow. There are other words to watch out for, but these are the worst.

Don’t do this:
– The store that he went to was empty.
– There was really no reason for her to do that.
Just keep your head down.

photo of open book

6. Don’t be vague
Instead of giving vague descriptions, explain specifics. Don’t describe a passing car as a passing car. It’s a beat up, silver Durango speeding down the street. Make sure that that chair in the room isn’t just a chair. It’s the time-weathered, creaky rocking chair that your grandmother loved so much.

Put yourself in the reader’s shoes. This will help you see what they are seeing, and will assist you in creating a vivid picture.

7. Your characters need depth
Unless you’re writing a satire, it’s best to stay away from building stereotypical characters. Instead of writing about the big dumb quarterback that all the girls love, add unexpected qualities to him that will make him human. Maybe the quarterback secretly volunteers at the local humane society, or maybe he’s extremely smart and wants to be an architect or maybe he’s a nerd at heart.

The same goes for female characters. Is the beautiful girl on the cheerleading team with straight A’s and no life problems a character that will connect with your readers?

A character that is flat, stereotypical, or too perfect, is not a character that will resonate with your audience.

Give them a past. Give them secrets. Give them unexpected traits and imperfection. Imperfection and human mistakes is what keeps stories alive.

8. Don’t be afraid to focus on shocking or uncomfortable subjects
This doesn’t mean you should go out of your way to sicken or anger your audience, but don’t be afraid to talk about things that are considered “too taboo” to speak of.  Sometimes all you need to do is break the ice. Make sure you don’t overdo it.

It’s the raw grit of life that appeals to readers, not broad, overgeneralized topics.

Make your audience think by asking thought provoking questions regarding an uncomfortable topic.

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9. Be ready to back up what you say with facts
Do your research. Whether you’re writing sci-fi, a memoir or a historical romance, you need to do it. The last thing an author wants is to lose credibility with their fan base.

Research your topic and topics surrounding your topic. Research until you’re dizzy and your eyes hurt. Your readers might know more about your subject than you, or perhaps they’re intimately familiar with it. This shouldn’t shock you. They probably decided to read your piece because there was something familiar about it.

You can’t bullshit the facts and get away with it. At least not for very long.

GIS technology might be useful for your work. It covers just about any statistic or group that you can imagine. Maybe you’re writing a book from a gang member’s perspective- you might want to implement GIS to do some crime mapping or even a demographic study.

FYI: Wikipedia is not considered a reliable source, but it is a great place to find sources that can lead to trustworthy information.

10. Your characters should have some sort of inward change
This is the paradigm shift that keeps readers interested and it also makes them more human. The paradigm shift shouldn’t be specific to positive or negative change. It should never be an outward or physical change (although you can use physical or outside changes to emphasize the paradigm shift). And it doesn’t need to be a dramatic change.

The tiniest switch of consciousness or change in your character’s pattern of thinking can go a long way.
For example, writing about a young woman who has worked in the same office for ten years, you might have her passed over for a promotion because her boss decided to promote her co-worker, who he’s been having an affair with.

You can subtly and slowly change her thoughts over time, changing her from a motivated, happy employee to a cynical, ambitious person who does everything she can to climb the ladder. She might have been someone who believed in helping others and teamwork in the beginning, but by the middle to end of your novel, she’s become self-absorbed and so determined to be the best that she stops interacting with her co-workers.

Great examples are The Last Samurai, the TV show Breaking Bad or The Hobbit.

As writers, we all have room for improvement. There’s no such thing as a writer who doesn’t need to hone their craft. If this piece doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t mean nothing else will. Go out and find what fits you personally. No one else will do it for you.

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