How to Improve Your Writing Skills

Do you dream of changing the world with your words? Do you aspire to be the next Annie Proulx, or the next David Foster Wallace? Or maybe you just want to be able to better express your thoughts and ideas more clearly. Becoming a great writer—or even a good writer—takes practice and knowledge, but with enough hard work perhaps someday somebody will aspire to be the next you!

Writing Help
Sample Writing Exercises
Sample Freewrite About a Name
Common Grammar Mistakes Cheat Sheet

Better Writing Basics
Be active instead of passive. One of the most common manifestations of bad writing is overuse of the passive voice. The passive voice makes the object of an action into the subject of the sentence with verb forms like “X had been attacked by Y” instead of simply “Y attacked X.” Learn to avoid these constructions as much as you can.[1]
“The novel had been written by Frank while he was in college” is passive. “Frank wrote the novel while he was in college” is active.

Using the passive voice isn’t always bad. Sometimes there is no clear way to make a statement active, or sometimes you want the lighter touch a passive construction allows. But learn to follow this rule before you start making exceptions.

Use strong words. Good writing is precise, evocative and spiced with the unexpected. Finding the right verb or adjective can turn an uninspired sentence into one people will remember and quote for years to come. Look for words that are as specific as possible. Try not to repeat the same word over and over unless you are trying to build a rhythm with it.
One exception to this is the words used to describe dialogue. Bad writing is filled with “he commented” and “she responded.” A well-placed “sputtered” can work wonders, but most of the time a simple “said” will do. It may feel awkward to use the word “said” over and over, but changing it up unnecessarily makes it harder for your readers to get into the back-and-forth flow of the conversation. When writing dialogue, you want readers to hear your characters’ voices, not your own.

Strong doesn’t mean obscure, or more complicated. Don’t say “utilize” when you could say “use.” “He sprinted” is not necessarily better than “he ran.” If you have a really good opportunity to use “ameliorate,” go for it—unless “ease” is just as good there.

Cut the chaff. Good writing is simple, clear and direct. You don’t get points for saying in 50 words what could be said in 20. Good writing is about using the right words, not filling up the page. It might feel good at first to pack a lot of ideas and details into a single sentence, but chances are that sentence is just going to be hard to read. If a phrase doesn’t add anything valuable, just cut it.
Adverbs are the classic crutch of mediocre writing. A well-placed adverb can be delightful, but much of the time the adverbs we use are already implied by the verb or adjective—or would be if we had chosen a more evocative word. Don’t write “screamed fearfully”;”scream” already suggests fear. If you notice that your writing is filled with “-ly” words, it might be time to take a deep breath and give your writing more focus.

Sometimes cutting the chaff is best done at the editing stage. You don’t have to obsess about finding the most concise way to phrase every sentence; get your ideas down on paper however you can and then go through to edit out unnecessary verbiage.

Your writing doesn’t just exist in a vacuum—it’s experienced in conjunction with the reader’s imagination. You don’t need to describe every detail if a few good ones can spur the reader’s mind to fill in the rest. Lay down well-placed dots and let the reader connect them.

Show don’t tell. Instead of just sitting your readers down for a long exposition explaining a character’s background or a plot-point’s significance, try to let the readers discover the same ideas through the words, feelings and actions of your characters. Especially in fiction, putting this classic piece of writing advice into practice is one of the most powerful lessons a writer can learn.[2]

Avoid clichés. Clichés are phrases, ideas or situations which are patently unoriginal. They may have been powerful at one point, but now they have been overused to the point of having little value unless re-imagined in some creative way. It’s hard to say exactly what makes a cliché, other than that, as with pornography, you’ll know it when you see it.
“It was a dark and stormy night” is a classic example of a clichéd phrase—even now a clichéd concept. Compare these similar weather-related opening lines:[3]“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”—1984, by George Orwell. It’s not dark, nor stormy, nor night. But you can tell right from the start something’s not quite right in 1984.

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”—Neuromancer, by William Gibson, in the same book that gave us the word “cyberspace.” This not only gives you the weather report, it does so in such a way that you are immediately placed into his dystopian world.

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”— The Crow Road, by Iain Banks.

““It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”—A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens. Weather, emotion, damnation, and despair—Dickens covered it all with an opening line that leaves the reader ready for anything.

Break the rules. The best writers don’t just follow the rules—they know when and how to break them. Everything from traditional grammar to the writing advice above is up for grabs if you know a transgression will improve your piece. The key is that you have to write well enough the rest of the time that it’s clear you are breaking the rule knowingly and on purpose.

Edit, edit, edit. Don’t believe your English teachers: there is no such thing as a “perfect” masterpiece in writing. Every author could have found something to change in even their greatest works if they had given it another once over. Editing is one of the most essential parts of writing. Once you finish a piece of writing, let it sit for a day and then read it over with fresh eyes, catching typos or scrapping whole paragraphs—anything to make your piece better. Then when you are done, give it another read, and another.

Consume the Written Word Voraciously
Pick up a good book or ten. Read and understand the works of great and influential writers to learn what is possible with the written word. By immersing yourself in writers who have given us the world’s the most compelling stories and ideas, you will expand your vocabulary, build knowledge and feed your imagination.[4]
Look for different ways of organizing a piece of writing or presenting a narrative.

Try comparing different author’s approaches to the same subject to see how they are alike and how they differ. For example, Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilych, and Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

Map the allusions that run through our culture. You might not realize it, but books, movies and other media are filled with references and homages to great literature. By reading some classics, you will build a body of cultural knowledge that will better inform your own writing.

Make sure you understand why a classic work is considered great. It’s possible to read a novel like The Catcher in the Rye and not “get it” or see its value immediately. If this happens, try reading an essay or two about the piece to learn why it was so influential and effective. You may discover layers of meaning that you missed. Understanding what makes great writing great is one of the best ways to grow your own skills.

Attend the theatre. Yes, watching a play is passive—like television or the movies—and there’s not a bit of reading involved. But it will fire your imagination in ways you might not expect.
More than a movie ever can be, a theatrical performance is like words come to life, with only the director’s interpretation and the actor’s delivery as filters between the author’s pen and your ears.

Read magazines, newspapers, and everything else. Literature isn’t the only place to get ideas—the real world is filled with fascinating people, places and events that will inspire your writerly mind.

Know when to put down your influences. It happens all the time: you finish an awesome novel, and it leaves you fired up to get cracking on your own writing. But when you sit down at your desk, your words come out sounding unoriginal, like an imitation of the author you were just reading. For all you can learn from great writers, you need to be able to develop your own voice. Learn to cleanse your palate of influences with a free writing exercise, a review of your past works, or even just a meditative jog.

Write Voluminously
Buy a notebook. Not just any notebook, but a good sturdy one you can take with you anywhere. Ideas happen anywhere, and you want to be able to capture those oft-fleeting ideas before they escape you like that dream you had the other night about…um…it was…uh…well it was really good at the time!

Write down any ideas that come to you. Titles, subtitles, topics, characters, situations, phrases, metaphors—anything that will spark your imagination later when you’re ready.

Fill up your notebook and keep going. When you finish a notebook, put a label on it with the date range and any general notes, so you can refer back to it when you need a creative kick in the pants.

Join a writing workshop. One of the best ways to improve your writing and stay motivated is to talk with others and get feedback on your work. Find a local or online writing group. In these groups members usually read each other’s writing and discuss what they liked, didn’t like and how a piece might be improved. You may find that offering feedback, as well as receiving it, helps you learn valuable lessons to build your skills.

Write every day. Keep a diary, mail a pen pal, or just set aside an hour or so for free writing. Just pick a topic and start writing. The topic itself doesn’t matter—the idea is to write. And write. And write some more. Writing is a skill that takes practice, and a muscle that you can strengthen and nourish with the right training.

Crafting a Story
Pick a topic and lay out a general arc for your story. It doesn’t have to be complex, just a way to get your head around the direction of the plot. For example, that classic Hollywood story line: boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again. (The chase scenes are added later.)

Write an outline. It can be tempting to just start writing and try to figure out twists and turns of your plot as you go along. Don’t do it! Even a simple outline will help you see the big picture and save you hours of rewriting. Start with a basic arc and expand section by section. Flesh out your story, populating it with at least the main characters, locations, time period, and mood.
Note that in an outline like this, you discover that of the 4 sections, the last one will take up the bulk of the story. When you have part of an outline that will take more than a few words to describe, create a sub-outline to break that section into manageable parts.

Write the first draft. You’re now ready to start your “sloppy copy,” otherwise known as your first draft! Using your outline, flesh out the characters and the narrative.

Keep some space in your story outline to add characters, and what makes them who they are. Give each of them a little story of their own, and even if you don’t add that info into your story, it will give a sense of how your character might act in a given situation.

Don’t be afraid to hop around. If you suddenly have a brilliant idea about how to resolve a situation near the end, but you’re still on Chapter 1, write it down! Never let an idea go to waste.

Let your story guide you. Let your story have its say, and you may find yourself heading in unexpected, but very interesting directions. You’re still the director, but stay open to inspiration.

Finish your first draft. Don’t get caught up in fine tuning things yet, just let the story play out on paper. If you realize 2/3 of the way through the story that a character is really the Ambassador to Dubai, make a note, and finish the story with her as the Ambassador. Don’t go back and start re-writing her part till you’re done with the first draft.

Write it again. First draft, remember? Now you get to write it from the beginning, this time knowing all the details of your story that will make your characters much more real and believable. Now you know why he’s on that airplane, and why she is dressed like a punk.

Write it through to the end. By the time you are done with the second draft, you will have all the information about your story, your characters, the main plot, and the subplots defined.

Read and share your story. Now that you’ve finished the second draft, it’s time to read it—dispassionately, if possible, so that you can at least try to be objective. Share it with a couple trusted friends whose opinions you respect.

Write the final draft. Armed with notes from your reading the story, plus notes of your friends or publishers, go through your story one more time, finalizing as you go. Tie up loose ends, resolve conflicts, eliminate any characters that do not add to the story.

Similes and metaphors are fun to use! When done well, they are like the scent of a rose, and make you look smart as a whip.

If you would like to say something that sounds unique and profound, avoid cliche’s by rather possing your question or phrase in a unique understandable way that will make your readers “want to read on/more”.
E.g: Don’t just blurt it out by lamely saying “what religion are?”. Put it eloquently and make it sound unique. Cleverly rearrange your words similar to “Tell me more about the God you believe in?”

Putting your question this way shows the person that you’re really interested in what they have to say. It also allows the person to relax and elaborate more in detail, without you having to ask them to please elaborate.

Writing should be fun. Or it should be torture. Depends on whom you ask. It can leave you feeling revved up, or exhausted. There is no one correct way to write or feel about your writing. Find your own style.

If you don’t like an idea at first, still try it and it might take you somewhere.

Feed your imagination with adventure and experience. Feed the experiences with imagination. Then write what you know.

Do not plagiarize! Presenting the words or ideas of others as your own is a serious offense in academics, journalism and fiction. If you are caught, you can be expelled, fired, sued or blacklisted from further publication. Just don’t do it.

Use words with care. There is no quicker way to sound ignorant than to use a word as the wrong part of speech or in the wrong context. If you are unsure of a word’s usage, look it up in the dictionary and make sure you understand its meaning and connotations.

Related wikiHows
How to Avoid Colloquial (Informal) Writing

How to Use English Punctuation Correctly

How to Write a Report

How to Make a Resume

How to Send Fan Mail to Stephen King

How to Improve Analytical Skills

How to Improve Fiction Writing Skills

How to Write a Dystopian Novel

Sources and Citations
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