The difference between a professional carpenter and an amateur isn’t some big, sweeping talent. It’s the combination of dozens of tiny improvements that make the joints clean, the cuts precise, and the work quick. It’s better to get a lawyer to defend you in court compared to trying to defend yourself because he knows the little tricks and nuances that can save you.
It’s the same with writing.
You’re not as successful as Stephen King or MK Jemesin (yet), but that’s not because either one has been imbued with some mega-talent you can never reproduce. It’s because they’ve honed their craft to sharpness with small, incremental improvements to their craft.
Put another way: great books aren’t just written as books. They’re built of sentences, paragraphs, chapters, phrases, and well-placed punctuation. The details make a great book.
Last week, we provided 101 writing prompts to juice your creativity. Here are 18 details you can work on this week. Some you’ll already have pretty well mastered. Others will be weaknesses you know about and are working on. Still others will come as a surprise.
18 Writing Skills to Start Improving Today
1. Effective Practice
Getting better at writing, like getting better at anything, means learning to practice something well. Repetition can help grow skills, but repetition alone is the slowest road to mastery. Focused, effective practice will get you where you want to go much faster.
For focused, effective practice, choose a weakness you want to tighten up or a strength you want to hone. Spend dedicated time working on that, then after some weeks check for improvement. Create a new practice plan based on the results.
2. Critical Reading
It’s hard to excel at anything if you don’t see what other people are doing. Good examples show us how it’s done right, while bad examples warn us what to stay away from. Reading critically in classics, groundbreakers, pulp, and stinkers gives us those examples.
Take time to learn how to read critically here. There’s a difference between reading a story passively and dissecting its pieces and parts to learn how it works, just like there’s a difference between driving a car and working on the engine. Read inside your genre to learn its rules, and outside your genre to see how you can best break them.
3. Ethical Plagiarism
This is less of a skill and more of a practice method that can improve your writing exponentially in just a few weeks. Pick a piece of writing you really, really like. Start with just a page, a paragraph, or a short story. Some people go with a whole book, but that’s an advanced version you can do if the shorter exercises really work for you.
Copy the sample word for word, longhand, so you spend extra time with each part of it. Then rewrite it, making small changes. Do this two or three times, then write a new piece that uses the best concepts from your chosen sample but is also entirely your own.
You must take risks. Those risks might be entirely literary: experimenting with new genres, getting deeper with emotional content, using techniques you’ve avoided so far. They might be professional: submitting more to publications despite fear of rejection, hosting your first reading event, making business cards that call you a writer. They might be financial: going part-time at work to focus on your writing, spending money on publicity or marketing, hiring a lawyer or accountant.
Getting better at taking risks makes you a better writer, and makes you more likely to professionally succeed in your writing. The only way to improve your risk-taking skills is to practice taking risks.
5. Audience Profiling
Writing lands best when the reader feels it was written specifically for them. You can make this happen by effectively profiling your audience. Imagine a person who most resembles the “average” reader of your work. What do they like? What do they hate? What do they fear? What shows, movies, and music do they like? Where do they shop? A book that changes a 19-year-old art major’s life won’t mean much to a middle aged, blue collar veteran, and vice-versa.
Learn this skill by reading and even taking courses on customer profiling. It’s a well-established marketing concept that applies directly to what you’re doing here. Pay special attention to material about writing content for specific customer profiles.
6. Effective Outlining
It doesn’t matter if you’re a pantser or a planner, everybody outlines. Even if you have just a dim idea of where the story is going, that’s an outline. It’s just not a very effective one. You don’t need a formal I, II, IIIa, IIIb, IV style outline like they taught you in middle school, but your pacing and story threads will be better if you have some sort of roadmap for the journey of your story.
Practice outlining by writing down the outlines for books you read, short stories you enjoy, and films you watch. If you do enough of it, you will develop an intuitive sense for how outlines work…and how they don’t work. With that intuitive sense, you will be able to pace your stories better whether you use a full outline or just an internal sense of how things should move.
7. Opening With Flair
The first sentence of your story must grab the reader firmly. It’s how you earn their attention for the entire first paragraph. An excellent first paragraph is how you earn their attention for the whole first page. The first page earns you the rest of the chapter, and so it goes until the reader has stuck with you to the last word. Strong openings don’t mean strong books, but weak openings mean the reader won’t stick around long enough to see how good your middle and end are.
Learn good openings by studying the ones that grabbed you: the opening paragraphs you stopped and read again, or read out loud to other people in the room, or remember years later. What do they have in common? How do they accomplish their job of grabbing attention? You can read plenty of blog posts and lessons about how to craft gripping openings, but taking examples from the openings you love will help you write great openings that match your personality and writing style.
8. Starting Late
One of the most common flaws in unpolished writing is to put too much fluff and lead-up in their stories. This loses readers and creates a slack pace to the opening, which we just saw is the wrong way to go. Instead, an opening should give only enough information for the reader to not be confused in the beginning moments of the story.
Practice this skill by looking at your earlier works, and at your work in progress. Read through it and figure out the absolute latest paragraph where you could begin the story without disorienting the reader. Everything before it goes. Some you move deeper into your manuscript, but only the essential stuff. Everything else gets deleted.
9. Leaving Early
Another common flaw is including too much wrap-up, cogitation, and general faffing at the end of the story. Once you’ve completed the climax and resolved its action, you have at most a page count equal to 5 percent of the total manuscript. Even that’s pushing it. The quicker you resolve your denouement, the better.
Practice this skill like you practice starting late. Look at your earlier works, and your works in progress. Find the absolute earliest paragraph where you could end the story without leaving essential plot and character points unresolved. Everything else goes. Delete some. Move some into compelling scenes before your climax. Leave others to form plot and character seeds for your sequel.
10. Killing Your Darlings
Many authors make the mistake of including things they find really cool, but which don’t serve the story in any meaningful way. Sometimes these are scenes. Sometimes they’re quirks of specific characters. Sometimes they’re entire characters. Whatever it is, your job as a writer is to eliminate the stuff that you love, but that doesn’t serve your readers.
This is tricky to practice, because you’re the least qualified person to spot darlings that need to be killed. Instead, trust your beta readers on this. When you get back consistent feedback that some aspect of your story needs to go, trust that feedback. Some of it will have to go entirely. Other things you can put in a separate document file, to use later in a project it’s more appropriate for. Either way, you need to evict it from the work in progress.
11. Word Pair Problems
Sometimes it pays to get back to basics. Although most aspiring writers are on top of most grammar, spelling, and other technical issues, a handful of grammatical squeaky wheels still plague many drafts. Near the top of the list is word pairs. Sure, you know the difference between their/they’re, to/too, and seen/scene…but what about affect vs. effect, farther vs. further, and lie vs. lay? How about hanged vs. hung?
Learning science tells us there are two different ways to manage this, depending on your genetic makeup. People are either born with the ability to do this easily, or they aren’t. If you’re one of the lucky ones, just pay attention to your editors. Trust them, and remember for text time. If you’re not, open a file and make a list. Each time your editor brings one to your attention, add the word pairs to your list. You won’t easily memorize them, but you will have an easily available resource to check your work with.
Solid, snappy, character-informed dialogue can make a good book great. It can even make a mediocre book good. (Lookin’ at you, Elmore Leonard). Stilted or rambling dialogue can do the opposite. One of the challenges to writing good dialogue is that people don’t talk the way we want them to talk in books. Written dialogue is its own thing, and a skill we have to learn on its own.
Like so many other things on this list, the key to improving your dialogue chops is to look at examples of excellent dialogue. Reading helps here, but watching shows and listening to radio helps even more. Those mediums rely on dialogue to make things happen, so the quality is often much better. Watch inside and outside of your genre, then try to replicate the best techniques on your pages.
14. Subdividing Tasks
This isn’t exactly a writing skill, but it is a skill many writers need to learn before they can fully emerge as successful professionals. You may have heard the old joke. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
Subdividing tasks is the skill of slicing large, sometimes intimidating or overwhelming, tasks into manageable bites you can eat one at a time. Professional authors never write a novel. They write a series of scenes or chapters. Excellent publicity isn’t a monolithic task. It’s a series of posts, interviews, and appearances.
Learn how to subdivide tasks from any number of business and management resources. Getting Things Done by David Alan is a great starting point. Once you get the basics, start applying it to different personal tasks until you get the hang of it. You will soon have it down well enough to apply it to your writing.
15. Mastering Passive Voice
There are two ways to do passive voice wrong. The first is to be unaware of how it weakens prose, and use it indiscriminately. The second is to overcorrect and think you have to avoid altogether. Both mistakes weaken books in different ways.
The truth is that we should avoid passive voice most of the time, but keep it when it’s appropriate. Learning how is a trick, but one you can learn. Use coaching, courses, or manuals to see where it works and where it doesn’t, then go over your various drafts and work them over for passive voice until you have an intuitive grasp of how best to use this construction.
16. Allegorical Language
Metaphors, similes, apologue, parable, fable, and similar techniques all make writing more colorful and accessible. They do this by borrowing from things the reader knows to create a vivid image in their minds. When done right, at least. When done wrong, they confuse the author and weigh down a manuscript with unnecessary word count.
There’s only one way to practice allegorical language: write work that uses it. Like improving your tennis stroke or your layup, over time the repetition will hone your abilities. Also like those sports skills, some coaching to help you focus your practice certainly won’t hurt.
17. People Watching
The best stories ring true because, no matter the genre, they faithfully have characters act, speak, think, move, and decide like real people would in similar circumstances. Even if the character is decidedly fictional — a wizard, an alien, or a superhero — their personhood should never be called into question by their depiction on the page.
Make certain your characters behave like people by going out to see how people behave. Listen in on coffee shop conversations. Observe kids on the playground, and adults at work. Pay attention when you’re waiting in line. The more humanity you observe, the better you will be at making your characters human.
18. Sentence & Paragraph Variation
Sentences of similar length lead to boring writing, because it creates a monotone. Don’t do that. Make sure you have long sentences that go on for a while. And short sentences. The same goes for paragraphs. In both cases, the rhythm you establish is varied enough to hold attention.
Practice by going through old work and rewriting for variation. Then do your current work. This is something a lot of early writers never hear about, but can improve your craft immensely.
Okay, So Now What?
Another thing professionals understand is that you can’t work on two things at once. If you try to tackle everything from this list at once you’ll end up discouraged and exhausted.
Instead, choose one to work on this month. Read great examples of doing it right. Do writing exercises that build that particular skill. Apply it intentionally to your work in progress. After just four weeks, you’ll have improved that skill by an order of magnitude.
Then, in the next month, pick another one.