The best ways to improve at writing:
1) Write more
2) Read more
I think that’s just about it. You know, besides getting feedback and talking to other writers (and, ahem, reading this blog).
Reference for Writers just posted this extremely thorough guide to reading like a writer, i.e. finding out why the books you love are so effective, and using that knowledge to improve your own work.
Here’s the meat of the article, “a short and concise guide to how to study when you read:”
- Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses. This is probably the most important part of any kind of studying, and it’s the part that so many people leave out or forget to consider. If you’re studying for a biology test, why would you waste time on the circulatory system when you already know everything there is to know about that and next to nothing about the nervous system? This can be especially difficult for writers because it requires reading our own work critically and defining exactly which areas we struggle in. The temptation to just say “Everything, it all sucks” is great for many, but it isn’t helpful. Be specific.
- Recognize Good Writing When You Read It. This is infinitely easier because in a lot of ways it’s basically instinctual. You know the feeling, when you’re reading and a particular passage or paragraph hits you so hard that you have to stop and go back and read it again and again. Maybe you get goosebumps and your heart beats a little faster. Good writing is relatively easy to recognize; it’s a lot harder to define what makes it good, but that is exactly what you must do. How has the author created this specific tone? What words have they used and why? You must to be something of a detective and something of an analyst.
- Seek Out Authors Who Excel Where You Struggle. Now that you know your weaknesses and are already on the lookout for good writing, you can start to pay special attention to good writing in areas where you need improvement. If you know you need to work on dialogue, read good dialogue. If you feel weak in pacing, find a book that keeps you on the edge of your seat. The point is to learn as much as you can from people who know more than you do.
- Emulate. Allow me to stress that this is only intended as an exercise for self-improvement in your writing. I am not encouraging you to try to copy another author’s work, voice, or style and attempt to pass it off as your own, I am merely sharing one study method. Use it the same way artists use sketching the Mona Lisa. That being said, try to write something with the same style or tone as another piece you admire. It will help you read like a writer and write like a reader.
This was great timing, because it is a potential fix for my current writing crisis. And yes, I’m always having some sort of writing crisis. Shut up.
Previously, the problem was that I felt unmotivated to write. No longer! Yesterday I actually had an AMAZING writing day. I devoted myself to cranking out as many words as I could. This was successful mainly because I promised myself a reward (or rather, I convinced someone else to reward me if I hit my word goal…make others do the hard work for you, kids).
By the end of my writing marathon, I gained a lot of confidence in the story I’m telling. Now my dilemma is that I feel like I’m not writing well enough to do this story justice. My sentences feel stiff, cumbersome, and repetitive. I’m a little scared to re-read what I wrote yesterday, so I’m just not going to for a good long while. And then when I do, I’ll probably slam my laptop shut and groan and eat a lot of ice cream to make myself feel better.
I know this insecurity is partly just in my head, but we can always improve.
So go on. Read the rest of the guide to reading as a writer.