Drills to Improve My Writing

I recently came across an article – How to Improve your Writing: the 7 drills by Mason Engel and made some notes.

The first thing that comes up is the ever-present advice on improving your writing. Write a lot, read a lot, repeat.

This is all well and good. It’s solid advice, especially when you’re starting out (as I am), but to keep improving and (I hope) accelerate that improvement, there needs to be more.

I think a lot of what the following advice comes down to is based around the old attitude that practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect. ‘Perfect practice’ is a bit of an oxymoron in my view, I prefer to think of it as deliberate, thoughtful practice. Just going through the motions may help up to a point, but it’ll also reinforce and ingrain bad habits.

So, the drills are:

1. Write

It’s still the number one way to learn how. The trick is to not write just anything, or even any one thing, mix it up a bit.

  • Copy – as in quite literally grab a pen and a notebook and copy someone else’s writing, word for word, into your book. When you’re this focused, you start to get a proper feel for their voice and how it’s formed. By learning the composition of other writers’ voices, you can better understand and construct your own.
  • Short form – not just short stories, but fanfic (where you don’t have to world-build), free writing and journalling.
  • Long form – just get on and write the darn book!

2. Read

Again, obvious, but go about it deliberately.

  • Read within your genre, so you can recognise the tropes, the cliches, the implicit understandings; and then use or subvert them in ways that will delight your readers
  • Read outside your genre. You know how your tribe do things. What do other people do? What are their cliches and tropes? What would happen if…?
  • Read bad books – painful I know but it’s incredibly helpful to work out what makes them bad.
  • Read like a writer. Slow down and notice choice of wording, depth of description, when details are left to the reader’s imagination. As a long term speed reader, this one’s a challenge. I usually have to sit over the book with a pen in my hand, an old habit from my days as in internet copy editor. And, yes, even when the words are on a screen, the pen trick works. Habits are powerful.

3. Get Feedback

However painful it might be. Just get feedback from the right people. That troll on Twitter is probably not the best source of informed, measured, constructive criticism.

  • Editors – pay a professional to look at your manuscript and give their expert opinion.
  • Critique groups – other writers at the same stage of the process, so have a bit more awareness than the average reader in the street. I’m part of two critique groups, one meets every week and runs through work in progress, the other is working its way through the exercises in Steering the Craft and we feed back on each others exercise pieces. I find these incredibly helpful and a lot more affordable than an editor at this stage.
  • Beta readers – the advice here is to avoid family and close friends. Good luck with that. The one thing I’d suggest is to go for fans of your genre, they’ll be far better placed to assess your relative strengths around the tropes and norms than someone with great enthusiasm but no interest in your area of fiction.

4. Study

  • Read books on writing.
  • Take classes and workshops on writing
  • Read articles, listen to podcasts and watch videos on writing.

5. Edit

Edit yourself. You learn a lot by coming back to something after a break and reading it with fresh eyes. I’ve also been told to change it to a different format for that fresh view, even changing the font can help. Although I don’t seem to be rushing to change everything to Comic Sans as one article suggested.

Edit others. Not only is it good for your skillset, it shows challenges and weak points in the writing of others that you may then notice in your own writing.

6. Enjoy Art

Consume it – absorb art, music, photography, crafts. By surrounding and immersing yourself in creativity, you’re feeding your own. Yes, you can find inspiration anywhere, but the creative world is a richer diet.

Create it. Have something other than writing as a creative outlet. Mine is knitting. Not especially high or noble, but I make a darn good scarf and the process is both calming and satisfying.

7. Live

Be present. I’ve done courses on mindfulness in the past and, while I’ll never be able to stop my brain from skipping off into the sunset at odd moments, the gift of presence, both for you and anyone with you, is a strong one.

Seek new experiences. Maybe a bit harder at the moment than it’s been in the past. New experiences through a computer screen aren’t quite the same, although they’re still valuable and valid. I’ve found seeing my world through the eyes of another – watching one of my godkids see a place for the first time, or my neighbours’ children discover the caterpillars in the hedge, or even the friendly dog who decided I needed to throw sticks for her the other day – show me new angles of the world I live in and new ways to appreciate and describe it.

So, those are seven drills and the elements within them. They’re all easy enough to practice to a degree, the trick is going to be taking the deliberate step to regularly engage in some of the more specific stuff, such as the copy writing (my handwriting is awful) and reading bad books (insert whinge). It’s all part of building to be better at writing though, so worth the effort.

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