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. Block out significant time each day to write. Click To Tweet

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.

Save

Do Your Part Before You Ask Others For Help; There is No Easy Button

Too many novice writers don’t invest in the craft and expect seasoned authors to give them an easy button to publication

Do Your Part Before You Ask Others For Help; There is No Easy ButtonI post on this blog, send out a writing newsletter, and speak at conferences because I want to give back to the writing community, to share with others what I have learned over the years. By helping others the best that I can, I help myself. As I give, I also grow as a writer.

Though I can’t help everyone who asks and my time is limited, I do give a higher priority to those who are part of my writing community, those who journey with me to become better writers and share our words with others. These are the folks who put in the hard work to improve as writers, study the craft, and learn about the industry. They are worthy of receiving help. Not everyone is.

Recently a friend asked me and some others to review her manuscript. This is a big ask, and I had misgivings. As far as I know, my friend isn’t part of a writing group, doesn’t attend writing conferences, fails to write regularly, and neglects to study writing and the industry. Instead she seeks those who have put in the hard work for help so she can skip doing the hard work herself. She’s hoping for an “easy button” to turn her rough draft into a publishable book.Too often I’ve tried to help people who asked for advice but weren’t ready to hear it. Click To Tweet

And I’m not too excited about helping with this. I prefer to invest what time I have into writers who are putting forth effort to improve. Too often I’ve tried to help people who asked for advice but weren’t ready to hear it. They lacked the basic tools to receive, consider, and apply my input.

They wanted an easy button, but in writing there is no easy button.

Your Turn: What Writers Conferences Do You Attend?

Participating in writing conferences is a great opportunity to move forward as writers

UR Turn, Help me finish ths post by sharing...Writing conferences offer many benefits. They provide education, encouragement, networking, and making friends. At conferences we can learn about writing, the industry, and promotion. We can meet editors, publishers, and agents. We forge friendships. And we have the opportunity to immerse ourselves in a writing community.

I have a goal to attend two writing conferences each year. This year I went to three:

Each one helps me improve as a writer. They are essential to my career.What writers conferences do you attend? Click To Tweet

It’s not too early to begin planning which conferences to attend next year, so for this month please help us out and share which writing conferences you attend or recommend.

Save

Save

Save

Writers Must Balance Education with Experience

Wordsmiths need both knowledge and a growing word count to achieve writing success

Writers Must Balance Education with ExperienceI’ve run into writers who work in a vacuum. Committed to writing all they do is write, but they don’t study the craft. They don’t read books or magazines about writing; they don’t take classes, attend workshops, or go to conferences; they don’t participate in writing groups, have a critique partner, or use beta readers. They don’t follow blogs, listen to podcasts, or watch webinars. I suspect these folks are more prevalent than I realize – because they write in secret, and I run into them by accident. (By the way, they aren’t reading this post, either – unless you email it to them.)

The opposite extreme are those who read extensively about writing and often quote their favorite gurus; they attend every writing related event they can afford to squeeze in, often traveling far to do so; they join online writing groups, are active in writing discussion boards, and confidently give their opinion on every piece of writing they encounter. There’s one problem: they don’t write. They’ve put writing on hold until they learn more. They have been talking about writing a book for years, but they’re not quite ready to start. They feel they need to figure out one more thing first.Writing without knowledge is futility, while studying without application wastes time. Click To Tweet

The balance between these two extremes is to pair writing with learning. Yes, we need to put in the time and write, but we need to do so in an informed way. Writing without knowledge is futility, while studying without application wastes time.

To pursue this balance I start by writing every day. Then to inform my writing I read writing magazines, follow a few blogs, listen to (too many) podcasts, participate in critique groups, attend two writing conferences each year, and read books (though I have bought more writing books than I have read).

As a long time nonfiction writer, in the past few years I’ve delved into fiction. I started with short stories, recently completed a novella, and will start a novel in November. I’ve also done a lot of studying to prepare me to write good fiction, yet I fear that recently my education has outpaced my experience. I currently have enough writing theory stuffed into my brain to paralyze me. Instead of thinking about writing a compelling story, my preoccupation with systems and formats and conventions and expectations has bogged me down.

My solution is to sit down and write more fiction. This will restore the balance. I can’t wait.

5 Reasons to Go to Writing Conferences

Identify why you go to writing conferences in order to realize the greatest value from them

5 Reasons to Go to Writing ConferencesA couple weeks ago I attended a writers conference, my second of the year. My goal is to attend two a year, but for 2016, I will make it three. While the reasons people attend writers conferences vary, such as an excuse to travel, a chance to see friends, or a means to meet with agents, I go for other reasons:

Learn About Writing and Publishing: My primary reason for going to writing conferences is to improve as a writer. I want to pick up pointers on how to write better and more effectively. I also seek to gain a deeper understanding of what it is to write for a career and learn more about the publishing industry.

Hang Out With Other Writers: I often think the only people who really understand writers are other writers. While our family and friends do their best to support us and give us space (my wife is amazing in this regard), only other writers actually get it. It’s good to spend time with people and not have to explain our self or our career.

To Meet People: Over the years I’ve made many friends at writers conferences. It’s great to reconnect with them each year (and throughout the time between). Plus I’ve been able to work with some of them in various capacities because of first making a connection at a writers conference.The only people who really understand writers are other writers. Click To Tweet

Schedule Appointments: Many writing conferences make provisions for time to meet individually with editors, agents, and publishers. These times are invaluable. In addition you can meet informally with specific people or groups after the end of the day’s schedule.

A Break: I don’t take my computer to writing conferences. I’m not there to write; I’m there to learn. I will write when I return home. A short breather from writing is good. Plus it lets me know that I won’t die if I go a couple of days without writing.

So after a two-day respite from my normal routine and with a lot of great tips and ideas, I’m now back from my conference and striving to catch up from being gone. I have all of my follow up work done, except for one item. (Though I am still working on my list from my earlier conference this year.)

It’s great to go to conferences and great to return home and begin applying all I learned.

Save

Save

We Need to Balance Formal Education with On-The-Job Training

While a college degree in writing has value, it is not a requirement for a rewarding career

We Need to Balance Formal Education with On-The-Job TrainingLast week I talked about the appropriateness of hiring others to help us on our writing journeys. This has been a reoccurring theme in my career as a writer and my vocation as a publisher.

When it comes to written communications, I am self-educated: I am a self-taught writer, a self-taught editor, and a self-taught publisher. It’s not that I eschew formal education – I do have advanced degrees, after all – it’s just that they don’t happen to be in the field of communication.

I took one freshman writing class and one freshman literature class, both required in my engineering curriculum. That was it. I never suspected I’d end up working as a publisher, editor, and writer. Being an author was not part of my career plan.

Since I am decidedly finished with college I am left to design my own writing course, one propelled by real world needs and bathed in actual application. This pursuit is both practical and effective. It includes:

Magazines: I subscribe to magazines about writing and publishing. These periodicals arrive with predicted regularity and feed me practical advice in bite-sized chunks. I look forward to each one.

Books: I also tap books for extended focus on particular topics. Though these are helpful, I have bought more writing books then I have read. Some are boring, and for others it seems the authors are more concerned with impressing us than educating. Maybe it’s just me. Nevertheless some writing books are most helpful.Listening to podcasts on writing is my go-to method of learning. Click To Tweet

Podcasts: Listening to others discuss writing is my go-to method of learning. I consume several hours of podcasts each week, listening to them while driving, doing mindless work around the house, and during lunch. They fuel me and give perspective.

Writing Groups: Being part of a writing community is a great resource, not only for learning but also for support and encouragement.

Online Courses: I also take advantage of online learning opportunities in the form of webinars and classes. The pinpoint focus of each allows me to pick topics of immediate, practical application.

Conferences: My goal is to attend two writing conferences a year. (This year will be three.) I look for those that provide value and are within driving distance (no airfare), and local (no hotels) is ideal.

Best of all, my educational path has no tests, finals, or grades. The only studying I do is in actually applying what I’ve learned. I’m pursuing a self-directed writing education.

10 Tips to Improve as a Writer

To progress as an author requires hard work and diligent focus

10 Ways to Grow as a WriterI’ve been writing my entire adult life. In the early years my primary goal was to write faster, but for the past decade or so, my focus was on writing better. As I attended to learning the craft of writing, my writing has steadily improved. Along the way I have also begun to write with increased speed.

Here are my ten tips to improve as a writer:

  1. Write: The most essential step is to just sit down and write. Some aspiring writers put off this tip waiting until they are ready. Guess what? I doubt anyone is ever ready. Not really. So start writing. Do it on a regular basis. Take it seriously. Make your writing time sacred. When I did this, my writing blossomed.
  2. Study Writing: We must study the art and craft of writing. I read about writing, listen to writing podcasts, learn from the masters, and go to lectures. If you’re in school, take writing classes.
  3. Read Broadly: Reading informs our writing. We see what other authors do. We learn what we like and don’t like. We need to read in our genre and outside it. Read for fun, and read to learn.
  4. Watch Movies: Cinema informs my writing almost as much as reading. Movies reveal insight about plot development, effective openings, memorable endings, character development, effective dialogue, and more.
  5. Attend Conferences: Writers often complain about the cost of conferences: registration, airfare, hotel, and incidentals. I get that, but tap into local conferences to eliminate the travel and lodging expenses. Some events are even free.
  6. Participate in Groups: Join a critique group, support group, accountability group, or some collection of other writers who have a shared goal of improvement.
  7. Pay for Help: If you need help, don’t be afraid to pay for it. This may be for edits, critiques, story development, or any other area where you struggle. What if you can’t afford it? Find a way. Be creative. Swap services. One enterprising writer “paid” her editor by cleaning her house.
  8. Give to Others: Share what you can with other writers. Give to the industry and the industry will give to you.
  9. Work in the Industry: If you have the opportunity to find employment that intersects with writing or publishing in any way, grab it. This may be part time or full time; it may pay well or little (and some gigs are volunteer). But the key is to put yourself in a position to interact with other writers. You will learn from your environment; by osmosis you will grow.
  10. Write: I end my list with the same tip I began with. That’s because too many aspiring writers become so busy, so fixated, on tips 2 through 9 that they skip the writing part. They don’t have time, become too distracted, or put it off. If you’re serious about writing, never stop. Writing is the most critical step to being a writer.

Writing is the most critical step to being a writer. Duh! Click To TweetFollow these tips to become a better writer. Pick one and implement it. Then add another. Keep going until you are doing all ten. You will be amazed at the results.

4 Reasons You Should Attend Writing Conferences

Being in a creative environment offers writers many benefits not found elsewhere

4 Reasons You Should Attend Writing ConferencesA few weeks ago I attended a writers conference, the Festival of Faith and Writing. Setting a record, there were over 2,100 attendees who invaded the campus of Calvin College. I wasn’t planning on going and then changed my mind at the last minute. I’m glad I did.

Rather than reporting on specific things I learned, I’d like to share some general observations as to why I advocate going to writers conferences, which this one exemplified:

  1. Supportive: Non-writers don’t understand writers, so most everyplace a writer goes he or she is among people who don’t comprehend the writing life: the joys, the struggles, the motivation, the isolation, the rejection, and so forth. A writers conference is one place writers are surrounded by likeminded people. There writers don’t need to explain themselves or guard their words; they can be themselves and be accepted for who they are.
  2. Encouraging: A writers conference is a supportive environment. There we see other people who have found success in the writing world. Sometimes it is widespread acclaim, but usually it’s more moderate accomplishments. They show us what can happen and motivate us to do the same. Writing conferences spur us to persist in our work.
  3. Diverse: Writers conferences offer variety in both attendees and presenters. By being exposed to a diversity of backgrounds and ideas, we expand our perspectives and open our minds to new possibilities. This informs our writing.
  4. Educational: Of course we go to writers conferences to learn about the craft of writing and the business of writing. This is valuable, but I list it last because to me the other items are more valuable. Still the educational lessons I learn stay with me.

The unique environment of a conference offers writers many benefits not found elsewhere. Click To TweetI go to two writing conferences a year (though this year I’m making an exception and will attend three). A couple a year is enough to help keep me fresh and focused. If I go to too many it would actually get in the way of my writing, and I can’t allow that.

If you’ve gone to a writers conference that didn’t provide this type of environment or offer these benefits, maybe you picked the wrong one. But don’t dismiss all conferences just because one left you wanting. Instead pick a different one and try again. You will find the right one.

What writing conferences do you go to? What do you enjoy about them? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Save

Does Your Family Support You in Your Writing?

I’m lucky in that my wife supports my writing. If I’m working to meet a deadline when she wants to do something else, she understands. She is patient. Without complaint, she allows me time to write. She lets me write without criticizing. She even offers encouragement and celebrates the results of my work. I am indeed fortunate.

Yes, there is a balance in this, too. There are times I set my writing aside to spend time with her, to focus on family. Yet, I suspect, she is more flexible than I am.

Does Your Family Support You in Your Writing?I’ve heard from other writers who don’t have it as good as I do. Their spouses begrudge the time spent writing; they complain, and they criticize. These writers don’t dare write when their spouse is present; they sneak it in when they are alone or their spouse is asleep. Not only do their spouses begrudge the time spent writing, they also resent the costs associated with writing: computers and programs, membership fees, convention registrations, travel expenses, and so on. To offset that, there is pressure to produce, to earn income through writing. This just adds to their burden.

Though I understand the plight of writers with unsupportive families, I don’t fully comprehend. Any advice I might offer, would be mere theory, falling short of providing practical help. What I can offer is encouragement. Do not let your writing dreams flounder. Continue to navigate the difficult course of balancing your writing with the needs of others. Seek creative ways to find time and money to pursue the craft of writing. Then, when you succeed, your reward will be doubled.

And for those of us with supportive families and spouses, be sure to thank them. I just did.

Do your family and friends offer you support or opposition in your writing? What should you do to thank them or improve the situation? 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.