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.


Search and Replace Trite Phrases in Your Writing

Avoid using “it was,” “that was,” and “this was”—among other things

Search and Replace Trite Phrases in Your WritingI hired a developmental editor to give me big-picture feedback on my novel. Though her comments overall encouraged me, I have several things to work on and fix.

One was that I used the innocuous phrase “it was” too often. How often? It popped up 126 times, which was an average of once for every 365 words. Interestingly I discovered I used it in spurts, with the phrase being absent in some chapters and plentiful in others.

As I set about to fix the problem, I realized I could simply replace “it was” with “that was” or “this was,” but doing so solved one problem by creating another. I would need to find and replace those phrases, too. While “that was” occurred only twenty-one times, “this was” showed up fifty-six times, for a total of 203 instances for all three.

  • The ideal correction involved replacing these trite phrases with a more powerful verb.
  • If that solution alluded me, a secondary option was replacing “it,” “that,” or this” with the noun they referenced or a suitable alternative.
  • A few times I couldn’t find replacement wording that would convey the same meaning without ballooning the sentence in size or structure, so I left it as is.
  • Last was dialogue. I reasoned I could often retain these phrases in speech because that’s how people usually talk. Even so, I did clean up some of the conversations in my story, too.

While I could have slavishly reworked every occurrence of these offending phrases, I felt inclined to leave some in to maintain the flow or clarity of the story.

In the end I left “it was” in twelve times; “that was,” three times; and “this was,” four times. This reduced my total number of offenses from 203 down to only nineteen, a 94 percent reduction.

Now my next task is to develop a habit were I don’t use “it was,” “that was,” or “this was” in the first place. While I long ago put my writing on a “low-that” diet, I suspect this new skill will take a bit longer to develop.

A Salute to Carrie Fisher and a Lesson for Writers

What writers can learn from the life and career of Carrie Fisher

A Salute to Carrie Fisher and a Lesson for WritersOn December 26, 2016 my wife and I went to see the movie Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The next morning I learned that Carrie Fisher had died. Like most people I knew her for her iconic performance as Princess Leia in the Star Wars franchise. Her obituary revealed so much more:

  • Worked steadily as an actress from 1975 through to her death
  • Author of several semi-autobiographical novels, including Postcards from the Edge
  • Wrote the screenplay for the film of the book
  • Starred in an autobiographical one-woman play
  • Author of the non-fiction book, Wishful Drinking, based on her play
  • Spoke about her experiences with bipolar disorder and drug addiction
  • Mental health advocate
  • Script doctor

All these items are impressive, but the last one caught my attention: script doctor. As the title suggests, a script doctor is someone who comes in to fix the screenplays of other writers. In short, when a screenplay is good but not working as well as it should, a script doctor reworks it to make it shine.

Carrie Fisher’s Wikipedia page says she was “one of the top script doctors in Hollywood.” Who would have thought? According to her Wikipedia page and her IMDB bio, here are some of the movies she worked on as a script doctor:

  • Hook
  • Sister Act
  • Lethal Weapon 3
  • Last Action Hero
  • The River Wild
  • The Wedding Singer
  • Coyote Ugly
  • My Girl 2
  • Outbreak
  • Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
  • Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones
  • Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith
  • Milk Money
  • Love Affair
  • Made in America

I’ve seen all but one of these flicks. In a lot of them she worked on dialogue or to develop a specific character. She worked as a script doctor for about fifteen years and said that at that time it was lucrative work (but apparently not so much anymore).

Carrie Fisher was known primarily as an actress, but she was also an author of books—both fiction and nonfiction—and screenplays, a script doctor, and an advocate. From her example, I have four takeaways for authors:

  1. Diversify our income stream. (She earned money as an actress, author, and script doctor.)
  2. Write in multiple genres. (She wrote fiction, nonfiction, and scripts.)
  3. Capitalize on our strengths. (She had a knack for dialogue and character development.)
  4. Use whatever platform we have to be a voice for what we’re passionate about. (She was able to use her popularity to talk about mental health issues and substance abuse.)

Thank you, Carrie Fisher. You entertained me and taught me about writing.

3 Types of Editing and Why We Need All Three

There are three types of book editing and you need a different editor for each type

3 Types of Editing and Why We Need All ThreeEvery book needs three basic types of editing, and each type of edit requires a different editor.

1) Development Edit: The developmental edit, sometimes called substantive or comprehensive edit, is the big picture stuff. Basically it asks the questions, does the book flow? Does it work? It addresses style, organization, and overall readability. For fiction this means the story arc and related elements; for nonfiction it means the central theme and supporting materials. What’s getting in the way of this? Are there roadblocks or detours? Does the writing veer off course? What sections will confuse, bore, or frustrate readers? Until the developmental edit is complete—and the needed adjustments made—it’s a waste of time, money, and effort to move on to the next two types of edits. Always do a developmental edit first.

2) Copyedit: The copy edit, sometimes called a line edit, looks at paragraph structure, sentence construction, and word choice. Don’t do this until after the developmental edit and always before hiring a proofreader.

3) Proofreading: A proofreader looks at grammar, punctuation, and typos. A proofreader scrutinizes every word, the space between them, and how they’re connected.

Editors usually specialize in one area or another. Even if they do more than one type of editing, they can’t do all three types on the same pass. So if you find one editor who will do all three, it will still require three edits, not one.

Usually you need to hire these people. If someone gives you free editing, you often get what you pay for. And finding an English major or someone who likes to read does not make for a good editor. Always find someone with editing experience. Though every editor has to at one time do his or her first edit, don’t let it be on your book.

When I read self-published books they too often fall short, and most all of the time it’s because of editing issues: no editing, poor editing, or inexperienced editing. Or they didn’t have all three types of editing. And sometimes traditionally published books suffer the same fate. Though they have been edited, it wasn’t good enough.

Don’t skimp on the editing. Your book will suffer if you do.

When We Should and Shouldn’t Self-Publish

Writers need to balance the considerations of self-publishing and traditional publishing

When We Should and Shouldn’t Self-PublishThere is much debate in the writing community about going with a traditional publisher versus self-publishing. Neither is a panacea. Both have their advantages and their disadvantages. Considerations include career objectives, time investments, speed to publishing, potential revenue, and personal goals. Though I am pursuing a traditional publishing deal, I will also self-publish (indie-publish) other works.

The key is to know when it’s the right time to self-publish.

Here’s When You Shouldn’t Self-Publish:

  • Publishers Reject Your Book: It’s an unwise reaction to self-publish your book just because a couple publishers said “no.” Some well-known books and classics were rejected scores of times, but their authors didn’t give up and kept trying new avenues. And I’m sure they continued to work on improving their book in the process.
  • Agents Won’t Sign You: The same thing applies with agents. Agents only make money when they sell books, so if they don’t think they can sell your book, they won’t take you on as a client. Not being able to land an agent may be the worst reason to self-publish because you’re probably not ready.
  • You’re Tired of Hearing “No”: Rejection is a part of writing. It’s often a sign that you or your book isn’t ready. Self-publishing prematurely will just give more people a reason to reject your book.
  • You’re Weary of Waiting: Traditional publishing takes time and requires patience. Being impatient with long production times is not (usually) a sound reason to self-publish.

Here’s When You Should Consider Self-Publishing:

  • You’ve Written The Best Book Possible: When your book is the best it can be you might want to consider self-publishing it. This means you have carefully edited and proofed it, you’ve received feedback from others, and you’ve hired people to make it shine.
  • Your Book Has Been Professionally Edited: There are three types of editing and you need a different editor for each type. Usually you need to hire these people. If someone gives you free editing, you often get what you pay for. First there’s a development edit (the big picture stuff), copy-editing (sentence structure, flow, and word choice), and proofreading (grammar, punctuation, and typos).
  • You Will Invest In Your Book: In addition to hiring editors, you will need to pay for a front cover design. Since “a book is judged by its cover,” don’t skimp on this. Other considerations include the book jacket, the interior layout, and file conversion. Each one costs and your book will look “off” if you try to do these yourself.
  • You Are Ready to Market Your Book: Successful self-publishing requires marketing. While traditional publishers will also expect you to help promote your book, when you self-publish, it all falls to you.

Consider both of these lists before you self-publish your next book.

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.

Follow 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.

Sometimes Rewriting Our Old Work Isn’t Worthwhile

The amount of time required to rework a piece is often too great, and it’s best to let it go.

Sometimes Rewriting Our Old Work Isn’t WorthwhileI once read the debut novel by a YA author. I was quite taken by it. I loved her humor and writing style. I wanted more, but since it was her first published novel I would need to wait.

I later learned something surprising: she had written five other novels, all unpublished. True, few novelists land a publishing deal on their first novel. Or their second or their third. I understand it typically takes four or five before they find their voice and hone their craft. I heard of another author who wrote nine novels before he sold one.

Since I don’t write novels (yet), I wondered why authors give up on their initial attempts. Just fix the flaws in their back material, and it’s good to go. However, this may be naive thinking.

I recently pulled out a short story I wrote several decades ago. It is the oldest one that I still have. I read it. The premise was good. I grabbed readers with the opening, surprised them at the end, and had an interesting arc in the between part. All it needed was a simple edit to incorporate what I now know.

It wasn’t that simple.

First, I had written it in third-person omniscient. This was fine in 1977 but not acceptable for today’s market. Publishing’s gatekeepers now deem head hopping verboten. I picked a point-of-view (POV) character, the mom, which required I rewrite all the scenes that included the dad’s, daughter’s, and boyfriend’s thoughts; this accounted for most of the story. Plus it took too many false starts to home in on the right POV character.

Next, my narrator’s voice was a juvenile’s, which makes sense because I was a teenager when I wrote it. I needed to update that as well. Last was the pleasant reality that I’m a much better writer now and had scores of novice errors to fix.

After several rewrites and the investment of too much time, my once unacceptable short story was now acceptable: good but not great. An editor told me as much in his rejection email when I submitted it for publication.

I suspect I spent four times the work trying to fix this old short story as I would have spent writing and polishing a new one. I should have thrown it away and focused on new material.

Now I understand why some first novels aren’t worth the effort to fix.

What is your experience trying to breathe new life in to old work? Do you have a first novel that isn’t worth fixing?

Is Your First Draft Too Long or Too Short?

Some authors write too much and need to delete; others don’t write enough and must add

Is Your First Draft Too Long or Too Short?Do you write long or short? Some writers produce long first drafts and then shorten them – sometimes a great deal – as they edit. Others write shorter first drafts and then add to them – sometimes a lot – as they work on revisions. Which camp are you in?

Write Long; Edit Later: Some writers produce long first drafts. Then they remove the parts that don’t fit or edit it down to hit a target word count. I suspect discovery writers (those who “discover” what comes next as they write) or those who write fast tend to fit in this category.

I try not to do this. It pains me whenever I need to cut something from my work. If you do cut a section, a chapter, a scene, or a character, always save what you remove; it could come in handy later – especially if you need to put it back.

Writing long feels unproductive to me. Writers who do this spend more time writing their first draft and more time editing it later. That’s why I try to avoid writing long. This is why I plan before I write.

Write Short; Add Later: The opposite is writers who write a short first draft and then expand on it as they edit. They insert scenes, characters, sections, or points. Sometimes this is to round out the text. Other times it is to hit a minimum word length.

I needed to do this once. After including all the information I was provided for a ghostwriting assignment, I was 10,000 words short. I added paragraphs, lengthened sentences, and inserted words. The result was longer but I fear not much better. This arduous task drained me, as well as taking up a lot of time.

For another book, my dissertation, it seemed everything I added messed up the flow of what came next. So each thought I inserted caused me more work with the following text, requiring even more rewriting. That wasn’t fun either.

Just Right: My goal is to write the right length in my first draft. That’s a big reason why I outline, either on the page or in my head. This saves me the pain of cutting and the agony of adding.

Usually I come close to meeting this goal. But not in this post. I just deleted 225 words because it was running long, but I saved them to use in a future post. So it’s all good.

Do you write long or short? Would you rather add or delete as you fine-tune your work? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

How to Make Your Writing Easier to Read

The Hemingway Editor guides authors in improving readability

How to Make Your Writing Easier to ReadA friend recently turned me on to the Hemingway Editor, a nifty online tool to assist writers in improving our work. The website says, “Hemingway makes your writing bold and clear. It’s like a spellchecker, but for style. It makes sure that your reader will focus on your message, not your prose.”

It’s simple to use. Go to the website and paste some writing into the text window. The software analyzes the writing and reports on what it finds:

Grade Level: The Hemingway Editor uses a standard readability algorithm to assess the U.S. grade level. It goes as low as fifth grade and says the average American reads at grade ten.

Stats: Hemingway reports on the number of paragraphs, sentences, words, and characters, as well as the time it takes to read the text.

Number of Hard Sentences: Each sentence that is hard to read is highlighted in tan.

Number of Very Hard Sentences: More critical than hard to read sentences are very hard sentences, which are color-coded as reddish brown.

Phrases with Simpler Alternatives: I often type “implement” when “use” is a better choice. Hemmingway points these out in violet. Hover over the violet word or phrase and Hemmingway will show you the preferred alternative.

Number of Adverbs: While we don’t need to remove all adverbs, Hemmingway will point them all out and tell us the maximum acceptable number for our piece. Adverbs are in light blue.

Number of Passive Sentences: Once the king of passive sentences, I trained myself away from them. Still they pop up and Hemmingway points out the passive voice in pale green horror.

Armed with this color-coded input it is easy to visually see where to make changes to increase our work’s readability. The adverbs and simpler alternatives are quick to fix. In general the hard and very hard sentences are correctable by rewriting complex and compound sentences into shorter, simpler sentences. That leaves passive voice, which takes some practice to reword. The good news is that having some adverbs and passive sentences are okay.

We can edit in the Hemmingway window, which updates its analysis in real time. As we make changes, the grade level decreases, meaning the piece is more readable. Also, the various highlighted colors disappear. While editing it to become colorless may make for rather bland, fifth grade level reading, less color is preferred.

Using the Hemmingway Editor is a quick, easy, and fun way to improve our writing readability.

The Hemmingway Editor results for the above text are:

  • Grade Level: 8
  • Stats: 14 paragraphs, 31 sentences, and 426 words. The reading time is 1:42.
  • Hard Sentences: 7
  • Very Hard Sentences: 3
  • Phrases with Simpler Alternatives: 5
  • Adverbs: 1
  • Passive Voice: 2, having 6 is acceptable

I’m tempted to edit this post in Hemmingway to make it more readable, but I think I’ll leave it as is so you can see the unedited version.

What is your experience with the Hemmingway Editor? What other online writing tools have you used? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Use the Right Editor for Your Book

Following every suggestion from the wrong editor leads to wrong results

Use the Right Editor for Your BookIn my work as a magazine publisher I learned early on that I needed an editor. After a couple of issues with embarrassing mistakes, I realized I would never catch all the errors myself.

I hired someone to edit the articles before the printing press permanently immortalized them. For a while I dual-sourced this, but eventually I picked one; she has been working with me for about fifteen years. (By the way, we’ve never met; we do all our work via email.)

She does a combination of proofreading and copy-editing, with the overarching goal of producing a professional result. I’ve also had her work on a couple of books but not all of them. Sometimes I need help from someone with a different skill set, such as in making my dissertation comply with a complicated set of formatting requirements.

A few years ago I showed an agent a finished memoir. He liked the concept but said it needed more work. He referred me to a book doctor to advise me in adding more zing.

I liked the guy, but he was expensive. After an hour or so of interaction, I realized we would quickly grow frustrated with each other: him pushing me to make changes I didn’t feel right about and me resisting most of his recommendations. I suggested we not continue. He agreed.

The agent was surprised (perhaps frustrated) at my decision to fire his recommended editor, but he referred me to another fixer. Her rates were much less – about one fifth the price. I eagerly accepted some of her suggestions, but struggled mightily to implement others. Though her vision for the final product was different from mine, I pushed through to make every change possible. I assumed that once done, the agent would like the results and agree to represent me. Though he still affirmed the idea, the execution, he felt, fell short. He declined to take me on as a client.

I still hope to publish this book, but before I do, it needs more work. About half of the second editor’s suggestions improved my book, while the other half moved it away from my target audience. I will need to remove some of these things she pushed me to include before I can move forward.

Over the years I’ve worked with other editors on books and projects, but for various reasons we never clicked: the cost, the turnaround time, their mindset, the manner in which they present recommendations, or the value of the feedback provided.

When working with an editor we need to find the right one for our project, our audience, and us. We need to learn when to implement their recommendations and when to decline. And we must respect their opinions on things we don’t understand. Mostly we need someone we trust, just as I trust my magazine’s copy-editor.

What is your experience working with editors? What qualities do you look for? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.