Have you ever written a book, paper, blog post, or poem, left it alone for a while, came back, read it, and thought "Oh, this could be better"? You're not alone. Every writer who has ever existed has had a similar experience. One could even argue that this is a vital part of the writing process. To write well, one must constantly re-write, edit, and improve their craft.
To improve, however, requires knowledge on how to correct the mistakes we commonly make in our writing. It raises the questions: "How do you take your writing from mediocre to excellent?"and "What are the steps to do this?"
While there is no magical corrector or easy-fix for our writing weaknesses, we can instead adopt a new attitude and stronger mindset. Often our differences as writers mean that we have varied weak spots in our writing. The trick is to learn to identify our own flaws and then practice until we've phased out of this particular faux pas.
Here are 4 simple steps to get you started:
Step #1: Give Yourself An Honest Evaluation
This step is really one of two parts. The first is to look at your own work as objectively as possible and pick out the parts you feel you're the weakest on. This can be anything. Perhaps you feel your grammar and spelling could be better. For others, it may be that you tend to forget setting details and character attributes. Maybe you feel like you tend to rely on certain filler words, that your narrative needs to be strengthened, or that one of your characters is too one-dimensional. Whatever it is, you're probably aware that this is an area you struggle in and are looking to change it.
Begin Here: Comb through your writing and highlight any areas you feel are weaker than others, need work, or are unsure about. This is your starting point. Next look more closely at what you selected and sort out what type of mistake you're making. Example: If it's grammatical, character, plotline, scene, etc.
Sounds easy enough right? Depending on how you approach your own writing it can be simultaneously simple and difficult to do this. While most writers are able to self-diagnose in certain regards, we are all guilty of being blinded by our own writing, particularly if we've read it frequently and numerous amount of times.
Start Here: If you're struggling to self-identify your writing flaws, consider having a writing friend/fellow reader/beta reader/teacher assist you. Feedback from someone who is familiar and comfortable with giving their opinion can lead to invaluable advice. Reach out to said reviewer and ask them to read over your work. Then following their completion send a quick survey asking them to clarify which areas were your weak points and why.
Bonus Tip: Another great way to improve your own writing is by consuming the work of others. Read books by your favorite authors and note what they do well and why. Then look outside your comfort zone. Explore genres you wouldn't normally read and find a novel or two there. Evaluate those authors and their styles. Giving yourself a wide spectrum will help put your own writing into perspective.
Step #2: Identify Your Problem Areas
Identifying the problem is the first step towards fixing it. Whether we realize them or not, as writers we all make mistakes that are innate to who we are as writers individually. For example, some tend to use filler words like "just" and "that", others use overly wordy sentences, and others still write sentences that are too terse and lack sufficient description. Realizing our flaws allows us to be honest with ourselves and admit our writing isn't "perfect" (and if you're shaking your head in denial as you read this, consider that there's obviously a reason you're here reading this).
The Work Continues: Sorting your trouble areas into categories will help you identify specific weaknesses that you can then learn to improve. With these accurately reflected it will help you to research why you're making a mistake and what can be done to correct. Writing is a natural reflex. Unfortunately so are our mistakes. Correcting them takes time, effort, and the desire to improve. Keep in mind that these changes don't occur overnight, but if you're persistent you can gradually evolve. Having trouble finding where your trouble zones are? Consider using a service such as ProWritingAid. Through them you'll receive comprehensive feedback on where you can improve your writing but also what you do well.
What To Do: Tackle one problem at a time. Going through your manuscript in full and trying to correct every error you see will be time-consuming and ultimately ineffective. Your brain is much more likely to process the lesson you're trying to teach yourself if you stick to one subject at a time. The same goes for self-editing. Pick a single topic to search your manuscript for at a time and only address said issue. Then do individual reads for every mistake you want to address. It helps to space these out so that your mind doesn't overtire. It'll be easier to absorb the new corrections if you give yourself time in between new topics.
Unsure whether you've accurately assessed what's wrong? Seek a second opinion by calling up that writing buddy or professor to double-check.
Step #3: Practice Until It's Second Nature
Remember the old adage "practice makes perfect"? It's now time to apply it. To succeed, you have to make a specific, intentional effort to change your bad habits. With dedicated and focused efforts you'll eventually notice your writing is improving.
How To Succeed: Begin by looking at an individual habit and creating a step-by-step plan of attack. What could this look like? For instance, say you were wanting to improve your ending paragraph. What you could do is take your ending and compare it to endings found in other books that you know are strong. By comparing your work with work that is done well, you should be able to identify a few key differences that could help you alter yours.
Use The Tools You Have: Another example would be if you're a fantasy author struggling with battle scenes. It's not uncommon for sword fights and magic to be used in wartime scenarios. By researching the way other writers have written similar scenes, you can further get a sense for how it's supposed to be done. Need further help? Get technical. Read books on battle strategy, watch Youtube videos of sword fights, and learn the verbiage associated with this particular sport. Writing a romance? Gather examples of similar scenes and look to the experts, like Nicholas Sparks and Danielle Steel for inspiration. Do some real life research by thinking back on a time when you went on a first date. How did it go? What common elements do dates tend to feature? For grammatical and narrative issues, pick up a few copies of different craft books. On Writing Well, Book Craft, and The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing are excellent examples that will help you polish your skills.
Book Craft: How to write books readers love, from first draft to final polish by Derek Murphy
Looking for extra support to help you take your novel from the slush pile to the bookshelf?
This book will help you to…
Write compelling books readers love
Create dynamic characters readers will root for
Plot your book without stifling your creativity
Hit crucial turning points to keep readers engaged
Improve pacing & backstory without info-dumps
Increase stakes, drama and conflict
Double your word count and stay motivated
Regardless of what you're trying to improve, the trick is to do it repeatedly. Over time you'll be able to reassess your strengths and weaknesses and see if your efforts have paid off.
Step #4: Repetition Is The Key
Repeat steps 1-3 for each area you'd like to improve in. It may seem like tedious work, but as a writer you're probably already aware that nothing that comes with writing is instantaneous. You may however find that your prior bad habits are easier to grow away from than you previously thought. It may take you a few days, a few weeks, or a few months to strengthen your understanding of how to craft an ending, then from there you may work on dialogue, or battle scenes, or romances, and so on.
Remember, writing is a practice of consistency. The more you read, the better you'll write. The more you write, the more your writing will improve. Always take the time to evaluate and re-evaluate your work. Ernest Hemingway spent decades tweaking his sentences. Patrick Rothfuss took ten years to carefully craft the perfect epic novel. When in doubt, there's always more you can do.
If you struggle with holding yourself accountable for meeting your goals, then exploring an accountability partner or group might benefit you. Find a writing friend or a writing group on social media, ask your friend who also writes, or for your own accountability group. The goal of this arrangement is to help you, and anyone else who joins, stay on track and up-to-date on all their writing projects.
Your writing will only be as good as the writer. By having the courage to face your writing flaws, you give yourself and your future stories a better chance at life beyond the writing desk. The good news is that as long as you're committed to improving, you will get better.
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