Reader Question: Writing better

Are there any exercises you do to help you get better at writing or get more into it?

To be honest, I’ve never been that into writing exercises. I feel like I do my best writing when it’s for a story I’m excited about, not a prompt or a practice session of some sort, and I’d rather work on improving my craft in that context.

But I definitely think a lot about how to write better, and work at it every time I sit down with the blank page.

I think much of developing one’s skill is just reading and writing a lot and getting a sense of what works and what doesn’t. But there are certain things I’ve learned to do that help the process along.

A large part of it is being aware–of my reactions to stories, of my own writing abilities.

For example, when I’m reading, and I really like something, I think about why that element is working so well for me. What is the author doing with their writing that’s hitting my buttons just right? And how might that apply to my own stories?

On the flip side, if I’m reading and I really don’t like something, I question that too. Why is this element turning me off? Would it work better for me if it was written differently, and if so, how would it need to be written? Make a mental note to watch out for the same thing in my own writing.

I don’t often consciously reference ‘oh that thing I read in that book the other month’ when I’m actually writing, but the fact that I’ve thought about techniques that work and don’t means that those ideas are there in my head if I run into related elements as I go.

When it comes to the writing itself, I try to have a sense of what my strengths are and what areas I need to work harder at. Some of this I’ve gotten from my own awareness of what comes naturally to me and what I struggle to put on the page. But a lot of it comes from feedback from readers and critique partners. (This is why having critique partners is so important. Seriously, you can feel like you’ve done an amazing job at some element of a story and it’ll turn out it was all in your head… not on the page where the readers can appreciate it.)

And once I’m aware of a weakness, I start to strategize ways of counteracting that weakness. I’m not terribly methodological about this–I’m not very methodological about writing in general, despite being a planner and an outliner. (I outline intuitively! Really!) Most of the time the “strategizing” amounts to throwing whatever comes to mind at the problem and seeing how that goes. But I have found that as long as I’m trying to do it better, and trying in different ways so I’m seeing what works best, I do improve.

The most obvious example I can give is description. A number of my critique partners have told me in the last few years that I write really powerful, vivid descriptions, and I still do a double-take when I see that comment, because for a long time I viewed description as one of my weaknesses. It was one of my weaknesses. When I was in my teens I got comments about my descriptions being somewhat flat and unengaging. So I decided I wanted to try to write them better.

The strategy I ended up going with was making a point of stopping and picturing what I wanted to describe in my mind before I wrote the description. I didn’t always do that–I’m not very visual with stories, and I rarely picture what’s happening as I read. But it was clear to me I couldn’t describe something vividly if even I wasn’t sure what I wanted it to look like. At first, this was pretty forced. I would start to write a description, catch myself, make myself visualize it, and write a more concrete, specific description to match what was in my head. But after a while I got so used to doing that, I internalized the process.

Now I automatically visualize most scenes as I write, when I’m describing people, settings, the action taking place, really anything. And apparently that’s worked so well what used to be a weakness is now one of my writing strengths.

So, in terms of what’s worked for me (everyone’s process is different), the most important factors in becoming a better writer:

1. Pay attention to any strong reactions you have to stories you’re reading, and get in the habit of questioning and analyzing those reactions.

2. Be aware of what sorts of writing you do well and what sorts you don’t, preferably with the help of objective eyes.

3. Brainstorm and try out strategies to help you tackle those weaknesses, until you can see yourself improving (or others tell you they can see it).

4. Play to your strengths. The things you do really well are what will make your stories shine, so don’t neglect them or push them to the side because you’re too busy focusing on “fixing” your weaknesses. The stories that have the biggest impact aren’t perfect, but they have aspects done very very powerfully. And that will always trump a story that does everything pretty well but nothing spectacularly.

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