To improve your writing, you have to practice. It’s that cut and dry.
Each and every sentence you write will make you a better writer.
However, if you want to measure your success, you first have to set a goal to measure against.
The goal could be that you want to write a short story. Or, you write and self-publish a novel. Or, it could be that you will only consider yourself a good writer when you are represented by a literary agent.
But here’s a question to consider. Are you a failure if you don’t achieve any of the above?
That’s up to you.
Only you can choose what signifies your own success and what constitutes failure. But it’s your readers who will truly decide if you’re a good writer.
One thing to remember is this: not every book is perfect for every reader. And the same can be said for a writer’s voice, style, and story.
So don’t beat yourself up if you get a negative review.
Your perfect readers are out there. Just practice your craft and write the best book you can.
Write as much as possible
Now, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but writing compelling stories takes years to master.
I certainly don’t have all the answers, nor do I think I’ve cracked it yet. But I’m willing to accept I’m still a student of the written word (and probably always will be).
However, like anything, we can all improve. And the more you practice your craft, the more you will develop.
As a new writer, you will probably have multiple ideas that excite you. You’ll want to get them down on paper as soon as you can. And I encourage you to do so.
But you need to choose a primary project that you will see through to the last page.
Choose the story that you believe will be your debut novel, and work on it as much as you can.
That being said, you should still allow yourself to write paragraphs, chapters and develop characters for your future projects.
This does two things:
First, you will develop new writing skills by learning what works and what misses the mark.
Second, if you have multiple ideas that are clogging up your mind, it’s better to get them down on paper before they become a distraction.
With those ideas no longer swirling around in your mind, you can focus on the primary story. And you’ll be a better writer for it.
However, don’t completely ignore your other ideas. Feel free to revisit them from time to time.
When your main project is feeling like a chore, use your WIPs for a breath of fresh air.
Four common writing pitfalls
On my journey, I found a few common writing problems that crept into my work from time to time.
As your skills develop, you’ll be tempted to exercise your command of the English language (or whatever language you use).
New writers try to build tension and draw in their readers by using hyperbole and dramatic sentence structures. But without an element of restraint, this can lead to overwriting.
Other can go the other way and underwrite.
The first issue is explaining everything with fantastic detail, and using words that wouldn’t normally be used in casual conversation.
For example, we don’t regale our companions with tales of recent events. No. We tell our friends a story.
We use simple, direct language. And so should your book.
As a self-publishing author, you won’t have anyone to reel you in when you get carried away.
You must be your own critic when you write and edit your first draft. And you must be disciplined.
Simply say what needs to be said.
Give the reader the elements they need and keep the story moving forward. And if you begin to dance with your words and they add nothing to the story, remove them.
Focusing on the wrong thing
Another common factor to overwriting is focusing on the wrong thing to build an atmosphere.
Without trying to teach you to suck eggs, below is a basic example of what I mean.
“Slowing the vehicle, she tentatively pressed the metallic pedal, gripped the steering wheel, and held her breath. The space was tight. Too tight for comfort. And with every turn of the wheel, she imagined the sound of metal scraping metal. But with no room for error, she glanced in her mirror, peered over the dashboard, and carefully manoeuvred the powerful Mustang between the white lines of the parking bay.”
Unless the story is about someone passing a driving test, I think the best way to write this would be to say, “she parked the car.”
Unless the car is going to explode, or situation is going to cause a life-changing event, no one cares about parking the car.
Get to the good stuff.
Body language and non-verbal dialogue
The final factor to overwriting comes when a writer describes a character’s body language.
There’s a fine line between focusing on irrelevant description and omitting important details.
This is especially important when describing body language. And even more so when writing a conversation between two or more characters.
If the story is brought to a standstill because of the writer describes every action during a conversation, the reader will lose interest.
Think back to the last time you had a conversation. Now, try to recall how the other person acted during that chat.
Were they relaxed? How do you know they were relaxed? Were they agitated? If so, what told you they were on edge?
For example, a character who runs into a police officer after escaping an attacker might glance over his should to check for danger. Also, their eyes would likely be wide and alert.
This shows us the character is afraid. But when a reader is bombarded with too many examples to convey the panic, it removes them from the story.
The things that are conveyed non-verbally are subtle.
So, sprinkling on some small details so the reader can feel what the character feels, and allow the story to continue.
Show the reader just enough to create an emotive response. But not so much that they end up skimming the words to get to the next action sequence.
Underwriting = telling, not showing
Underwriting is the ugly cousin to overwriting.
In short, this is when a writer simply states an emotion, feeling or situation, e.g.,
“She was excited to see her father. It had been more than a year since he went to war.”
Could this be done better?
“Her eyes sparkled as her father climbed out of the car proudly wearing his military uniform. For the past year, the family had avoided news channels in case they reported on the war. And every time the phone rang, she held her breath for fear of bad news. But there he was. Home and safe. And without warning, she cried out and ran to him.”
The goal we should be aiming for is to capture the mood with adequate description.
If done well, we can deliver a scene that allows the reader to put the pieces together for themselves.
In doing so, the reader will be busting to turn the page and find out what happens next.
But more importantly, they’ll be excited about how they find out.
Improve your writing through self-editing
Each time you put pen to paper, you become a better writer. It’s like training any other muscle.
But the real magic happens when you self-edit your work.
If this is your first novel or book, you might find this stage a bit intimidating. But you need not be afraid.
Simply read your work out loud and edit or re-write parts that don’t sound right.
And very much like writing, the more you edit, the better you become.
The easiest places to start with self-editing can be found in you this article.
Start small. Work on one paragraph at a time. And do not rush.
Practice is the key to developing as a writer. Every sentence is an exercise that makes you stronger.
But during the first draft, don’t spend hours trying to make every sentence sound perfect. This will not only see you pull your hair out; you’ll also take forever to finish the first draft.
And if it causes you too much of a headache, you could end up losing your love for writing.
Instead, write naturally. Write your story and enjoy the experience. Worry about all the technical elements later.
The best thing a new writer can do is finish the paragraph. Then, finish the chapter. And when you write enough chapters, you’ll finish the first draft.
But be warned. The real work begins when the story is finished and you’ve had a break from the book.
After a break, you will see a remarkable difference when you revisit chapter one and compare it to the final page.
And with every pass you make during the editing phase, the more the book will shine.