Whether you’re writing fiction, non-fiction or something in between, approaching your writing as a professional requires a bit of strategy and a lot of tenacity.
Being a good writer isn’t something you ‘arrive at’ and tick off the To-Do list at the end of the week. Whether you’re an award-winning novelist or a just-starting-out dabbler, you should always seek ways to improve your writing skills.
The good news is that this doesn’t have to be at the expense of pricey degrees or writing retreats (although there’s nothing wrong with either of those, if you have the time and the means).
Honing your craft and sharpening your writing skills can be approached through many simple but highly effective ways. Read on to discover 10 methods you can implement right away.
1. Start with (or brush up on) the basics.
Whether you’re just getting started with writing, or you’re a seasoned veteran, there’s no harm in revisiting some of the basics of genre, style, grammar and syntax.
Focus on the genre or format of writing you’re aspiring to or currently working on, and seek out resources to help you build a solid foundation of knowledge you can take forward into your writing practice.
Every writer needs to know the basics of grammar – and sometimes just beyond the basics if they want to get playful and experimental with their writing.
The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is heralded as a complete essential for writers everywhere. Although the book itself is short, it’s a comprehensive resource on the effective use of grammar and other helpful topics many writers will benefit from.
Having resources like this to hand that you can study and review regularly is an inexpensive way to be continually working on your writing skills.
2. Learn the difference between active and passive voice like a pro.
Active voice means a sentence has a subject that acts upon its verb. Passive voice means a subject is a recipient of a verb’s action.
Simple, right? Not necessarily!
Many writers still get tied up about which is which and when they need to use one or the other.
Honing your craft means taking core concepts like active versus passive voice and mastering them to a point where you can artfully play with them to create nuance in your writing.
Spending some time reading, researching and practising applying both voices in your work is a great way to develop your core skills.
3. Master the art of tenses.
Similar to learning the difference between active and passive voice, mastering the art of tenses is another great writing skill to hone.
There are three main tenses you’ll use as a writer: past, present and future.
Each of these tenses contains four aspects: simple, perfect, progressive and perfect progressive. The perfect aspect uses the verb to have, while the progressive aspect uses the verb to be.
If none of that made any sense, you’ve just found your next writing lesson to spend some time with. Try getting started with this basic guide from MasterClass.
4. Treat writing like a job.
In most industries, professional development and skills development for your role are actively encouraged. This is a great concept to take into your work as a writer.
It could also involve joining professional associations (which are fantastic sources of knowledge and support) and getting along to a writing conference or two when you can, either in person or digitally.
All of these activities help you learn more about your craft and figure out the individual areas where you might need to develop or explore your skills further.
5. Analyse the writing you admire the most.
We all have favourite writers we enjoy reading. We might read certain works and find ourselves thinking, ‘I wish I could write like this.’ These are the books to turn to and analyse.
Pick the work apart, make a list of its best aspects, and use this as a starting point from which to focus on improving your own writing.
Ask yourself: what do I need to do next to develop my skills to this standard?
6. Join a writing group.
As John Donne ascertains, ‘no man is an island’. Sometimes the best way to become better at our skills is to hear from other people about them.
Writing groups are a brilliant way to meet other writers, get feedback on your work, and learn more about how you can develop your skills.
Sharing your work is an opportunity to see how other people react to it – and to see if your writing is delivering what you set out for it to do.
Do your readers laugh at the right moments? How do they react to or interpret your characters? What’s not working? What do you need more or less of?
You’ll never know until you get feedback.
You can join a writing group in person within your local community or online via social media groups. A quick search should help you discover a treasure trove of potential.
7. Find a writing partner or mentor.
If a writing group doesn’t feel like your sort of thing, finding a critique partner or writing mentor could be the next best step.
A writing partner or mentor is someone who can get to know you and your work on a personal level and offer feedback and guidance on areas for improvement.
This kind of input is invaluable for identifying any skills gaps and giving you a clear focus on how to proactively move forward with honing your craft.
8. Attend an online workshop or short course.
Workshops or short courses are a great way to learn about a specific component of writing in more depth.
Many online platforms offer classes and workshops for free or at minimal cost. There are also more in-depth programs that you can treat as an investment in your writing career.
Classes are generally run through writing centres in the local community, dedicated sites for writers, or at local TAFEs/community colleges, libraries and community groups.
A quick Google search should bring up opportunities in your local area. Aussies can also check out the Australian Writer’s Centre, which has courses on topics ranging from writing children’s books to editing your novel.
9. Accept that there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ first draft.
The fear of the blank page or of not ‘telling the story right’ often prevents writers from getting started with their craft.
But the truth is: you can’t improve your writing if you never write to begin with.
Accept that there is no such thing as the ‘perfect’ first draft and start writing anyway. Once you get words down on paper, you can begin the process of cleaning it up.
Writing is an iterative process. You will learn as you go, and starting is the first step.
10. Take a break.
This one might sound a bit odd, but taking a break from your writing can be a vital step to honing it.
Allow your brain some breathing space to think about other things. Sometimes we are too close to our work and cannot see its flaws; we become precious about certain passages or characters.
Taking a break gives you the chance to gain some perspective about your work so you can come back to it at a later date – maybe a few days, maybe a few months – and rework it in new ways that improve it.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the many different aspects of writing, and to find yourself feeling lost as to how to become a better writer.
But some aspects of the craft will develop naturally as you keep writing: dialogue, character development, plot structure.
As you revise and edit, your writing will improve, and you’ll take those skills forward into your next piece of work. Over time, these skills will begin to feel more natural.
Honing your craft does require you to show up regularly for your writing practice, but it does not always require you to be writing.
There are so many ways to sharpen your writing skills: from reading more to dissecting the work of writers you love, from observing others to seeking direct feedback.
As you make space for all these smaller developments, they will cumulatively lead to the steady improvement of your writing.