The editor scanned the first three pages of my book manuscript. Then she peered at me over her reading glasses and asked, “What are you doing to improve your craft?”
I felt like my physician had scanned my lab results and asked me, “So what are you doing to improve your health?”
Why? Is it that bad?
I honestly don’t recall how I responded. I know what went through my mind: I’m here at this writing conference to improve my craft, aren’t I?
I don’t think the editor wanted an answer. She wanted me to think about the question. How much time did I spend writing versus learning how to improve my writing? At least that’s how I interpreted her words after my initial kick in the teeth. She returned my pages. I left with a bruised ego. But I also left determined to do whatever it took to grow as a writer.
I also realized that just because I’d been successful writing devotions and articles for magazines didn’t mean I knew how to write a book. I’d say, “That’s a horse of a different color,” but a good writer doesn’t use timeworn clichés.
No matter how much experience we have in writing and publishing, we can always improve our craft. I once saw a best-selling author at a writer’s conference. She was there to learn, not teach.
The writing craft consists of the basic elements that make our story readable. It consists of strategies such as plot, characterization, dialogue, pacing, dramatic structure, and point of view. Odds are a writer doesn’t naturally excel in all these areas. Here are six suggestions to improve the writing craft.
1. Online Workshops and Courses
Professional writer’s conferences are great, but not everyone has the freedom or funds to attend them on an annual basis. More and more workshops and writing courses are being offered online. Some of them are free. While there are plenty of blogs that discuss the writing craft, podcasts are another helpful resource. I listen to them while I’m walking and driving.
2. Read Books About Craft
I’ve found books on writing at the public library and at used bookstores. Think of them as textbooks. Some books read dryer than others—unless you love reading about grammar and punctuation. After you write that draft, read books on editing and revision. Do you struggle to “show versus tell” when you write? There are books written strictly about that subject. Do you write for children? Find a book that addresses that genre. Many books include writing exercises at the end of each chapter. Take time to do them and apply the lessons.
3. Study Good Authors
Notice I said study rather than read. If you write mystery novels, read your favorite mysteries from a student point of view. Study how the author created suspense. If you write for YA (Young Adult), read the popular books that your intended audience reads. How is that writing style different from adult novels? I buy used books by my favorite authors and study what I enjoy about that person’s writing. I highlight deep point of view (DPOV), unusual metaphors, and strong verbs. I highlight how the author shows a character’s emotions through body language, words, and action. I look for phrases that incorporate the senses. I consider how the author opens and closes each chapter.
4. Practice Writing
A violinist rehearses for countless hours to perfect his skill. So write every day even if it’s a short writing exercise. We learn by doing. A chef can read recipes and watch the Food Network, but the chef has to filet a fish and cook a goose at some point if she wants to be an excellent cook. Be warned. Practice doesn’t make perfect if we keep making the same mistakes. We need to write with specific goals in mind. My daughter learned to play the piano by practicing for hours, but the purpose of practicing was to concentrate on how she positioned her fingers, read music, incorporated her music theory. Likewise, writers must write with a purpose. What are we writing and for whom? How do we make that happen to the best of our ability?
5. Get Honest Feedback
A writing partner or critique group can provide invaluable input by pointing out our writing’s weaknesses and strengths. DPOV comes naturally for me. I didn’t even know it had a name when I started writing. But I can’t describe a sunset over the ocean like my artist/writer friend so I rely on her input. Sometimes my dialogue sounds contrived, which is why I count on another writer friend to point out those weak spots. Someone else has a hawk eye for passive voice. We learn from each others’ writing.
6. Hire a Writing Coach
Does a private tutor cost money? Yes, but the benefits of that one-on-one objective guidance pays big dividends, especially when we’re writing our first book. My coach pushed me toward excellence and held me accountable. At first I balked over the thought of spending money, but I paid my daughter’s piano teacher for her expertise. Can we learn how to write on our own? Of course, but serious writers should be willing to invest in their craft too.
I could have quit writing when that editor asked me what I was doing to improve my craft. Instead, I did the work. I paid the price. I’ve just finished my first book. And thanks to the suggestions that I mentioned above, my writing has improved. Now if I could just learn how to play the piano!
What helped you to improve your craft?