Ernest Hemingway once observed of writers,
We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.
No matter where you are in your writing journey (maybe you’re just starting out or maybe you’re already a published author), there is always more to learn in order to improve your skills and inspire more people with your words.
In today’s post, I’m sharing eight ways you can become a better writer in the New Year.
These are the same steps I followed in 2019 and that I plan to implement again in 2020.
Let’s dive in.
1. Read Writing Craft Books
Writing craft books are a fantastic way to learn story structure, copywriting techniques, and editing strategies.
They help you sharpen your writing and storytelling skills so you can more effectively express yourself in words and spread your ideas.
I put together a list of my twelve favorite writing craft books in this post. The list includes books on nonfiction, copywriting, and fiction because I love to improve my writing skills in all three areas. There’s a book for you no matter if you’re writing a blog post, a sales page, a memoir, a novel, or a short story.
This past year, I created a Google Doc where I collected quotes from each writing craft book I read. Above each quote, I typed in bold a heading for what the quote was about: for example, “rules for writing headlines”. That way once I finished the book, I could still go back and review the material and have the techniques at my fingertips.
I try to find at least one takeaway in each chapter that I can implement right away in my writing.
2. Study Great Writers in Your Field
Once you’ve read writing craft books, you’ll have a deeper understanding of how to structure and edit your writing so it will effectively communicate your message.
Now you can use an “active reading” strategy to study the work of great writers in your field and see those principles in action.
William Faulkner wrote,
Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write.
Here’s how the “active reading” strategy works:
First, determine what you want to write. Short stories? Memoir essays? Blog posts? Search out the best writers who write in that genre and add their work to your reading list.
Second, read their work actively, not passively. That means that you won’t just be reading their work for enjoyment, but you’ll also be paying attention to how they implement storytelling principles, how they handle transitions, how they craft their opening sentence, etc.
Are you having trouble writing a conclusion? See how your favorite writers craft theirs.
Not sure how to make your dialogue sound realistic? Read a conversation in a famous novel.
Struggling to write the beginning paragraphs of a sales page? Study one from a successful marketer you admire.
This past year, I wanted to write memoir essays so I studied many by famous writers, and it helped my writing tremendously.
3. Read Widely
Yes, another step that involves reading. Stephen King once noted,
If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.
In step 2, I recommended studying the types of books or articles or stories you want to write, but you can also improve your writing by reading for enjoyment in a wide range of different genres.
Ray Bradbury advised in his book Zen in the Art of Writing that writers should read one poem, one essay, and one short story each day. (You could substitute a chapter in a novel for a short story.)
Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough. Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition.
He explained that he often found ideas for short stories from images in poems. Additionally, poems can help you learn how to write more descriptively and craft vivid metaphors.
Not sure where to start with poetry? You could read through poetry anthologies, books with titles like 100 Famous Poems. I had a book like that as a kid, and it literally fell apart because I read it so much.
Now, I find I often forget to fit poetry into my daily reading routine so I’ve signed up for Poetry Foundation’s poem of the day. They send a poem to my email inbox every morning.
Additionally, Bradbury recommended reading one essay a day. He explained,
Here again, pick and choose, amble along the centuries…You can never tell when you might want to know the finer points of being a pedestrian, keeping bees, carving headstones, or rolling hoops…In your reading, find books to improve your color sense, your sense of shape and size in the world…Why all this insistence on the senses? Because in order to convince your reader that he is there, you must assault each of his senses, in turn, with color, sound, taste, and texture.
Again, you could substitute reading through a nonfiction book rather than reading an essay.
Finally, Bradbury recommends reading fiction. Even if you’re not writing fiction, well-written novels and short stories can help you become a better writer. They teach you great storytelling: how to paint pictures with your words and captivate your readers.
And, second, they’re like getting a crash course in human psychology. In order to write compelling words that connect with your audience, it’s vital to understand their frustrations, hopes, and dreams. You have to empathize with them.
Fiction, especially the classics, gets into the minds of the characters and shows you how varied people’s motivations can be. It allows you to look through the eyes of another person. Researchers at The New School in New York City actually found that reading literary fiction in particular increases your capacity for empathy. Pretty cool, right?
So read widely this year. Dive into poetry and see how words can dance and sing. Expand your knowledge of the world with essays and nonfiction books. And devour novels and short stories to experience events that never happened but can sometimes seem more real than real life.
4. Get Your Writing Critiqued
Many writers throughout the ages have formed mastermind groups where they could share their writing with fellow authors and get feedback on their work.
C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their friends formed The Inklings. Robert Frost formed the Dymock Poets. Benjamin Franklin formed The Junto.
Lewis’ brother, Warren, said of The Inklings,
We were no mutual admiration society: praise for good work was unstinted, but censure for bad work — or even not-so-good work — was often brutally frank.
Of course, not all famous writers have formed clubs with fellow authors, but many of them found an editor who they could work closely with and who would give them an unbiased opinion of their work.
Getting your writing critiqued, especially by an expert writer, is invaluable for improving your skills. An expert writer can tell you what works and doesn’t work in your writing, what skills are your weakest and how to improve them, how to make your writing more concise or more descriptive, etc.
So how can you get your writing critiqued?
You might be able to find an in-person writing class or an online course where the teacher critiques writing assignments.
In 2019, I enrolled in an online copywriting course that included a live component where I could submit my work and an expert copywriter would give me feedback on my sales pages, emails, website copy, etc. This definitely helped me improve my copywriting skills.
You could also form a mastermind group like Tolkien and Lewis did if you have friends who are writers. I wrote more about how to form a mastermind group here. Or you could look for writing groups in your area.
If you can’t find an expert writer to critique your writing, you can still show your writing to someone who would be in your target audience and ask them for feedback on your work.
They might not be able to give you suggestions on exactly how to edit what you’ve written, but they can tell you if you have confusing sentences and dialogue, if your story doesn’t quite hook them, or if your sales page doesn’t convince them to buy.
Make sure that you ask for feedback from someone who is knowledgeable in the genre you are writing in and who will be kind with their feedback.
And remember that it’s up to you whether you follow their advice or not. Sometimes a suggested edit is completely a matter of opinion.
5. Learn How to Self-Edit Effectively
Even if you’re not self-publishing your work and prefer to traditionally publish, knowing how to edit effectively will give you a greater chance of your work surviving the slush pile.
Writing craft books are a fantastic place to find editing tips. I created an editing checklist for my narrative essays based on tips I gathered from Jack Hart’s Storycraft.
I shared my editing process in my blog post here.
Here’s one essential tip: Read your writing out loud. This will help you catch typos, grammatical errors, and confusing or difficult to read sentences.
6. Submit Your Writing to a Website, Magazine, or Contest
Submitting your writing is a fantastic way to challenge yourself as a writer. It motivates you to spend time polishing your piece because you want to submit your best work.
If your piece is accepted, you might have the opportunity to work with an editor and learn how to make your piece even more compelling.
Last year, I submitted my work to a contest and a literary journal (still waiting to hear back!) and to Medium publications.
This year, I’m challenging myself to send out even more of my work.
Give it a shot. Maybe you will get published in that magazine you’ve always dreamed of seeing your byline in or maybe you’ll successfully pitch a guest post to your favorite blog. Or maybe you start out less ambitiously and look for smaller publications.
Either way, you’ll learn a lot from the process. And you might end up reaching a new audience.
7. Write Daily
Here’s another fantastic quote from Ray Bradbury,
I know you’ve heard it a thousand times before. But it’s true — hard work pays off. If you want to be good, you have to practice, practice, practice.
If you need thousands of hours of practice to become an expert at your craft, then writing every day is the quickest way to start racking up those hours in order to become a master wordsmith.
I wrote this article sharing seven strategies that will help you write daily. If you struggle with writer’s block, writing daily will actually help you. Writer’s block is more difficult to beat if you write only sporadically because then writing is unnatural rather than being second nature.
I try to write by hand in a journal each day. I also try to set aside time each day to work on either a fiction or nonfiction project or both.
Of course, there might be days where you have to skip your daily writing session, but the bottom line is to get serious about your writing. Dedicate time each day or as often as you can to your craft.
As Stephen Pressfield observes in The War of Art,
This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.
Finally, if you want to become a better writer, don’t hide your writing away in a drawer or a computer file where no one can see it. And don’t wait for the approval of a publisher to start sharing your writing with the world.
Instead, create projects for yourself that force you to practice your skills as a writer and then find people to share those projects with.
New York Times bestselling author John Green wrote,
Every single day, I get emails from aspiring writers asking my advice about how to become a writer, and here is the only advice I can give: Don’t make stuff because you want to make money — it will never make you enough money. And don’t make stuff because you want to get famous — because you will never feel famous enough. Make gifts for people — and work hard on making those gifts in the hope that those people will notice and like the gifts.
For many writers, creating a blog and publishing articles is one of the best ways to find their audience that they can share their “gifts” with. I’ve self-published my short stories and memoir essays on Medium.
You could even experiment with self-publishing on Amazon.
Or create an email list (start out by inviting your friends to join) and send out an email once a week to your subscribers. You can get my guide to starting an email list here.
Self-publishing your work gives you a way to practice marketing and to begin building an audience so you can touch and inspire others with your words.
William Faulkner once gave this advice for how to become a great writer,
He must never be satisfied with what he does. It never is as good as it can be done…Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.
As writers, we can never sit on our laurels. Even if we think our last piece was the best we’ve written, it could still be even better. As Faulkner says, never be satisfied. Dream higher.
This year as you seek to improve your writing, use yourself as the measuring rod for judging your work. Is this piece of writing better than the last one you wrote? How can you make it better? What can you do to improve your skills?
Above all, remember to have fun and never grow discouraged. Keep writing and working to improve your craft with the expectation that there is someone out there who needs to hear your words.
What strategies will you be using this year to improve your writing skills? Let me know in the comments.
And if you enjoyed this post, please share it on social media or with a friend who you think might find it helpful too. Thanks for reading!