5 Tips to Become a Better Writer

Writers serious about their craft should take concrete action to advance their career

I am a Writer, by Peter DeHaanIn a recent interview an author was asked, “What’s the best thing you’ve ever done to improve as a writer?” What a great question; I so appreciated the author’s answer. Yet my mind immediately considered how I would respond.

Within seconds I knew my answer. I smiled, thinking back to how that one decision changed me as a writer, propelling me forward.

Just as quickly another idea popped into my mind. It was a good answer, too. Which one was more important? I wasn’t sure. How could I pick just one?

But then a third significant thought surfaced, followed by a fourth, and then a fifth. They were all pivotal. Without any one of them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Each was essential.

So I have not one answer to share, but five. My five tips to becoming a better writer are:

1) Call Yourself a Writer: It sounds corny, and it’s hard to do. But my first tip is to say, “I am a writer.” When I first did this, my lips moved, but no sound came out. After three tries my claim was just a whisper—and that was in private. It took a couple years before I could comfortably tell someone, “I am a writer.”

I occasionally teach a “Get Started” workshop at a writers conference. I often have my class say this. Their first try is cautious, timid. But by their third attempt, they are confident and grinning. We need to call ourselves writers in order for us to believe it.

2) Commit to Writing: Once I called myself a writer I needed to commit to it. I had to set time aside to write, not just when I was motivated or had an idea, but even when I didn’t feel like it. Once a week on Saturdays, became three times a week in the evenings, which moved to five times a week in the mornings. Now I block out significant time each day to write. It’s my schedule, like going to work—but in a way it is. Writing is my job.

3) Attend Events: Next is the need to connect with other writers. Join a writing or critique group. Attend conferences. Mentor someone else and seek a mentor. Maybe you need to mentor each other. At my first conference, I was the proverbial deer in the headlights. It was terrifying, and my naiveté cost me a bit of embarrassment, but the conference was so worth it. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.

4) Learn about Writing: With technology we have many options to learn about writing: blogs, podcasts, and webinars are usually free. Books and magazines don’t cost too much. I’ve also taken some online classes—not university types, but practical, applicable writing instruction. I started with reading blogs and the rest of these followed.

5) Seek Help: As I began to make some money with my writing—which took years, by the way—I had funds to invest in my work. I began to hire experts to help improve. Aside from an editor, for my first effort I paid a retired writing professor to help me improve my short story writing (as a prelude to novels). His input was invaluable. Since then I’ve hired developmental editors and a grammar guru. With them, I slash my learning curve and gain valuable information fast.

These are the five steps I took to become a better writer. I can’t say which one was more significant, but I will admit that without taking that first step, I would have never gotten to the next four.

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How I Became a Better Writer

There is no single path to becoming a better writer. Instead we have a myriad of options before us. Here are some of the opportunities I encountered on my writing journey:

  • How I Became a Better WriterWrite Columns: Early on I contributed articles to a small newsletter (back when newsletters were still mailed). Having a deadline to hit each month was great preparation. It also taught me to always look for ideas and to work ahead. I did this for several years.
  • Get a Writing Job: Later I worked for a company in a seeming perpetual state of reorganization. During one such reshuffling I ended up doing tech writing. I wrote for eight hours-a-day, five days-a-week, every week. Though another restructuring soon moved me elsewhere, during this stint I learned how to write all day long.
  • Blog: Years later I jumped into blogging. What started as an experiment, moved into a hobby, and later acquired a purpose. At one time I had eight active blogs. Now I’m down to three and may whittle that down to two. (But don’t worry; this one will stay). In the past eight years I’ve published some 1,500 posts, amounting to nearly a half million words. During this time, I found my writing voice.
  • Listen to Podcasts: I don’t listen to music on my iPod; I listen to podcasts, mostly about writing. I learn about writing as a craft and as a business. I listen for several hours each week. It’s like going to school – without the tests.
  • Get Feedback: I also participate in critique groups. My friends help me improve. Yes, it’s wonderful when they like my words, but it’s even better when they point out shortcomings. They encourage me and keep me on track.
  • Study Writing: I also read magazines and books about the craft. Though I own more writing books than I’ve read, what I have read has helped me greatly.
  • Read Broadly: For too many years I read only nonfiction relating to work or faith. After a while everything I read bored me. Now I read mostly fiction, from just about any genre. As I read more widely, I can write more broadly.
  • Form Community: I spend time with other writers. Only writers understand the isolation of the work, the frustration of when words don’t work as we wish, the agony of rejection, and the joy of publication. We need a writing community to journey with us, be it online or in person.
  • Content Marketing: In pursuing freelance work, I do a lot of content marketing, which for me is much like blogging. Here I write with a purpose, have deadlines, and earn money. I think every writer – whether they admit it or not – wants to make money with their writing. I do.

These are the highlights of my writing journey, haphazard for the first three decades and more intentional in the last one. Your journey will be different.

May we all move steadily down the path of our own writing roads.

What has been a key part of your writing journey? What steps will you take this year to move down your writing road? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Is Writing Your Hobby or Your Job?

I view my writing as a job. I use that term loosely. Though I derive some income directly from my writing, like most authors, I also have a day job to help pay the bills. Few authors earn enough money through their writing alone to fully support themselves and their families. The vast majority have another source of income, even though it may be writing related. Such is my case. (I’m a magazine publisher.)

Still, I think it’s critical to treat writing like a job. This means:

  • Is Writing Your Hobby or Your Job?I write every day, just like going to work. Though I don’t punch a time clock, I do have a regular time to write. When it’s time to write, I sit down, and I do it, with no procrastination and no waffling. I write.
  • I invest in my job of writing by going to conferences, two per year. This allows me to meet other writers, as well as agents and publishers. I make friends in the writing community; I network; I help others. I give and I receive.
  • I also strive to improve as a writer. This includes reading blogs, listening to podcasts, taking online courses, and reading books and magazines that relate to writing. I attend writing groups to have my work critiqued and to give input to others. I seek input every chance I get.
  • I treat writing as a business, too. I track expenses (yuck) and income (yea). Some years I make a profit, and I’m trending towards profit every year. Right now, most of that income is derived from freelance work.

I treat my writing as a job. My dream is that one day writing will be my only one.

Other people view writing as a hobby. They write when they feel like it. They write just for their family or friends, maybe even just for themselves. Sometimes they don’t even let other people read their writing. They don’t expect to ever make money from their work. But they do spend money on their hobby. They attend conferences, though it’s mostly for fun: to have an excuse to travel, hang out with other writers, or tie in a mini-vacation. They may also be part of writers groups, but it’s mostly for the social benefits. Last, the writing hobbyist often prefers to talk about writing more than to actually write.

Though I wish every writer would treat writing as their job, I know that for some it is a hobby. And that’s okay, just as long as they are honest with themselves.

Do you treat writing as a job or a hobby? Is there a third option that is halfway between the two? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Book Review: Are You There Blog?

Are You There Blog? It’s Me, Writer

By Kristen Lamb (reviewed by Peter DeHaan)

Are You There Blog? It’s Me, Writer is the result of Kristen Lamb’s journey down the blogging path, from a struggling novice to successful blogger – with the following to prove it. And she specifically focuses on writers. Kristen avows that as a beginning blogger she made every conceivable mistake, many of which she shares with us so that we can avoid repeating them.

Are You There Blog? Is divided into three sections. The first is a social media primer, specifically as it relates to writers. Although it is seemingly a long introduction to the book’s main theme of blogging, it’s also most valuable, worth the price of the book by itself. Most of the commonly advocated social media practices, while great for businesses and corporations, don’t help writers and authors and in many cases are actually counterproductive.

The second section, the meat of the book, is entitled “Eighteen Lessons to Blogging Awesomeness,” which Kristen Lamb shares with both humor and authority. Implementing her recommendations will help writers construct a successful blog and aid in establishing their platform, doing so with a minimum of distraction and anxiety. Throughout this Kristen frequently references her own blog, not as annoying self-promotion, but as an actual example and to show that she really does follow her own advice.

The final section, the shortest of the three, offers a trio of testimonies from others who followed and affirm Kristin’s recommendations. This is a fitting conclusion to Are You There Blog? and a confirmation she’s not laying out a theoretical treatise but instead sharing a practical, workable, and proven plan to help writers blog.

Are You There Blog? It’s Me, Writer is a stand-alone book. However, readers may benefit by first reading Kristen’s previous book, We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media, which she frequently references by the acronym WANA.

Regardless, Are You There Blog? is a good beginning resource for any writer who blogs or wants to blog.

[Are You There Blog? It’s Me, Writer, by Kristen Lamb. Published by Who Dares Wins Publishing, 2011; ISBN: 978-1-935712-48-0; 187 pages.]

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Book Review: We Are Not Alone

We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media

By Kristen Lamb (reviewed by Peter DeHaan)

We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media, Kristen Lamb shares from her own experience how writers can master social media, using it to build their platform. While much has been written about social media, this generic information, she asserts, is not helpful to writers and is often counter-productive.

We Are Not Alone (which Kristen affectionately refers to by its acronym, WANA) is presented in three acts. Act one is “The Big Picture,” effectively introducing the topic. It is a social media primer, providing the basics and presenting a compelling argument as to why writers need to embrace it.

The second act, the meat of the book, covers the practical aspect of building a social media platform; it’s subdivided into two stages. The first part offers instructions on understanding and gathering content, while the second section addresses the technology and websites that can be tapped to share this information.

The final act is the shortest of the three; it addresses time management. Succinctly, social media can be a huge time suck, as well as a distraction from the more important job of actually writing. Kristen shares her strategy to address this, encouraging readers to do the same.

We Are Not Alone was written in 2010 and with social media rapidly changing, some parts are already out of date (thought happily most of the book is still nicely applicable). For example, not too many people are on My Space any more, but Kristen advocates it as an essential part of a writer’s social media presence. While her argument is strong, I wonder if she still advises that today.

Regardless, the underlying basis of We Are Not Alone remains useful. I recommend the book as a basic tutorial for any writer not using social media and for those just starting to use it, as well as writers already socially active who desire to use it more effectively.

[We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media, by Kristen Lamb. Published by Who Dares Wins Publishing, 2010; ISBN: 978-1-935712-17-6; 197 pages.]

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Book Review: The Making of a Christian Bestseller

The Making of a Christian Bestseller: An Insider’s Guide to Christian Publishing

By Ann Byle (reviewed by Peter DeHaan)

The Making of a Christian Bestseller: An Insider’s Guide to Christian Publishing is a valuable handbook of practical advice for writers in the Christian book market. Additionally, most of the insights are equally applicable for the general book market as well.

The Making of a Christian Bestseller is the result of Ann Byle’s interviews with successful, published writers who share their stories: what they did right – and wrong, the hard lessons learned, the provisions from God, and their advice gained through personal experience. Each author’s account is self-contained in its own chapter, which are thematically arranged. The result is a pleasing progression of instruction and a helpful text on all things writing.

Regardless of the genre, The Making of a Christian Bestseller has a relevant chapter to address it. In total, 40 authors were consulted, which resulted in 40 concise chapters, smartly grouped into seven topics. As a bonus, each chapter starts with a quote from the author on the craft of writing and ends with a “best seller tip” summarizing key points. The book concludes with a valuable resource section and a helpful index for quick reference of key concepts and words.

Read The Making of a Christian Bestseller as a primer on Christian writing. Then use it as a personal handbook to refine your craft and advance your career. This book is a nice resource for every Christian author’s library.

[The Making of a Christian Bestseller: An Insider’s Guide to Christian Publishing, by Ann Byle. Published by FaithWalk Publishing, 2006, ISDN: 978-1-932902-57-0, 237 pages.]

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Book Review: V is for Vulnerable

V is for Vulnerable: Life Outside the Comfort Zone

By Seth Godin and illustrated by Hugh MacLeod (reviewed by Peter DeHaan)

Self-proclaimed as “an ABC for grownups,” Seth Godin’s book V is for Vulnerable may look like a kids picture book, but it’s really a creative package to encourage adults “to see the world differently.” In it, Godin shares simple truths to help readers stretch themselves, becoming more of who they were made to be.

In addition to learning that “V is for Vulnerable,” Seth teaches that “Effort isn’t the point, impact is,” and that “Heroes are people who take risks for the right reasons,” along with 23 other alphabetically ordered insights.

Creatively illustrated by Hugh MacLeod, a clever drawing reinforces each of Seth’s 26 points. These pictures serve to both enlighten and to entertain, adding substance and depth to Godin’s concise coaching.

Buy a copy of V is for Vulnerable: Life Outside the Comfort Zone for yourself and another one to give to a friend (that’s what I did). Read it today and then reread it each year to refresh its message. I know I will; it’s that important.

(The text of this book, sans pictures, is also included in Appendix 2 of Godin’s book The Icarus Deception.)

[V is for Vulnerable: Life Outside the Comfort Zone, by Seth Godin. Published by Penguin Group, 2012, ISDN 978-1-59184-610-9, 64 pages; $16.95]

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Book Review: How Do I Decide? Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing

How Do I Decide? Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing (A Field Guide for Authors)

By Rachelle Gardner (reviewed by Peter DeHaan)

In How Do I Decide? Rachelle Gardner gives an unbiased explanation of the pros and cons of self-publishing versus traditional publishing. She starts with a brief review of how publishing has changed in the past 15 years, followed by a summary of the basic tenets as publishing currently stands and then seguing into an exposé of the emerging self-publishing option.

As the chapters unfold, Rachelle shares the strengths and weaknesses of both publishing opportunities, connecting them with the personal strengths and weaknesses, the individual likes and dislikes of each writer who is weighing these options. In doing so, Gardner does not attempt to steer readers towards one conclusion over the other, but gives an open-minded presentation of each in a balanced manner.

After explaining both options, Rachelle unveils a detailed checklist to guide readers in selecting the publishing option that best matches their personality, experience, goals, and strengths. The book concludes with a valuable resource list that covers all aspects of book publishing.

Having followed this discussion for several years – and as someone who is simultaneously exploring both options – this concise book is the best resource I’ve seen. I highly recommend it as a starting point for any writer seeking publication, as well as published authors wishing to better navigate the rapidly changing path of book publication.

[How Do I Decide? Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing (A Field Guide for Authors), by Rachelle Gardner. Published by RL Gardner Publishing, 2012, ASIN: B00B4JRNN8, Kindle; $3.99]

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Book Review: The Shy Writer

The Shy Writer: An Introvert’s Guide to Writing Success

By C. Hope Clark (reviewed by Peter DeHaan)

Many writers are shy. C. Hope Clark understands this too well. At best, the effect of shyness serves as a roadblock for writers. At worst, it’s enough to cause some to cease writing altogether; the cost of confronting their shyness is simply too great.

For withdrawn writers who decide to push through, she offers two strategies: become less shy or figure a way to reconcile with it. Though her tips apply to both solutions, she gears her book to help writers accommodate their timidity. Along the way, Hope gives permission for shy writers to determine which areas they will make adjustments for and which they will avoid. Allowing reserved writers to choose which items they will press into and which ones they will skip is a viable plan.

For example, consider public speaking. Perhaps leading a small group can become acceptable, while standing behind a podium will never be, so saying “no” is okay. Or maybe serving on a panel is a reasonable alternative to a formal presentation. As with all her advice, she offers tips for dealing with these uncomfortable social situations

In the book’s twelve chapters, Hope effectively walks shy writers through the various issues they could encounter when confronting their introverted tendencies. Although The Shy Writer applies to males and females, her examples often center on the ladies.

Written in 2004, the truths about shyness remain unchanged. However, some of the recommended solutions are no longer applicable or require tweaking. Most of the out-of-date advice addresses the Internet, which has evolved greatly in the intervening years. Other outmoded suggestions relate to navigating the publishing industry, which has changed almost as much. Yet despite the dated references, the book contains a great deal of encouraging information for writers who are shy.

If you write and deem yourself shy, consider this book as required reading.

[The Shy Writer, by C. Hope Clark. Published by Funds for Writers. 2004; ISBN: 1-59113-583-4; 163 pages.]

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Book Review: Every Writer Needs a Tribe

Every Writer Needs a Tribe: A Practical Guide to Finding (and Writing For) Your Audience

By Jeff Goins (reviewed by Peter DeHaan)

Every Writer Needs a Tribe: A Practical Guide to Finding (and Writing For) Your AudienceEvery Writer Needs a Tribe is the essential book for all writers who desire for others to read their work. Merely writing a great book is not enough. A writer needs a platform, an audience, a tribe of followers who connect with the writer, understand his or her focus, and are predisposed to read the writer’s work.

Jeff Goins shares how to realize this objective. As promised, it is indeed “a practical guide to finding and writing for your audience.” This is not a theoretical pursuit, but a real world process that is achievable. Jeff explains how he built his tribe, instructing how other writers can do the same thing.

Every Writer Needs a Tribe is a short e-book. It is quick to read and packed full of useful instructions. Containing twenty-three concise chapters, it moves writers through a basic understanding of the need for a platform and the importance of a tribe. At times counter-intuitive, Jeff shares his experience in a straightforward manner that is easy to follow.

Along the way, Jeff shares practical advice about getting permission, building a list, focusing your writing, blogging, writing with purpose, and many more topics relevant to writers.

Every Writer Needs a Tribe is an essential tool for everyone who wants to be a writer and every writer who wants more readers.

[Every Writer Needs a Tribe: A Practical Guide to Finding (and Writing For) Your Audience, by Jeff Goins. Published by Sterling & Stone, 2012, ASIN: B0086X5Z80, Kindle.]

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