A friend recently asked me to critique a paper written for a class. In the process, and over the following hours, a few ideas came to mind that I thought might be of use to aspiring writers. Keep in mind, these are only my opinions; I’ve had no real training in journalism or any such thing. Still, they’ve helped me along the way to improve my writing abilities. I wanted to pass them on in the hopes that you might make some use of them as well.
- Improve your vocabulary. Get a large dictionary (they’re very cheap at second-hand stores). Use it to get on a word-a-day plan: Learn a new word every day (preferably verbs, adjectives, and adverbs), and use it in daily speech and/or writing as often as possible. Get a thesaurus and use it whenever you write. Take the time to pick just the right word for a particular concept rather than just going with the first one that comes to mind.
- Read a lot. Think about what you read, not just what the story means, but how the author put it together. Pick out your favorite authors, and find out what in particular you like about their writing. Do the same with your least favorite writers: Find out what about their style bothers you. When a certain phrase or sentence or paragraph or chapter or book strikes you in a meaningful way, take a moment to understand how that piece is constructed. When you come across an unfamiliar word, look it up (see point #1).
- Write a lot. Whatever goal you set in life, you need practice in order to grow towards it, so write at every opportunity you can find. Start a journal that only you will read. Start a blog that (hopefully) lots of people will read. Write letters to the editor and articles for the church bulletin or school paper. You can try out new ideas and be more open in a private journal, which helps to develop your flow of thoughts. You’ll want to be more mindful of style and form in public forums like blogs and published work, encouraging you to work on your technique. Also, incorporate point #2 here by mimicking the style of your favorite authors, trying to capture the feel of their best works. Do this in ways that can stretch your abilities: Write a technical paper in the style of a dramatic novel; write a short story in the style of a love letter; write a letter to the editor in the style of a product advertisement. Learn why different constructs work better in different settings.
- Read aloud what you’ve written. Read it to your dog or a patient friend if one is available. This has more to do with you reading it than someone else hearing it, so don’t let choosing a perfect audience keep you from actually doing this. It can help you identify discrepancies of number, tense, and person, as well as uncovering awkward constructs. How do the sentences flow off of your tongue? Does each paragraph stand well on its own? Do the ideas all fit within the work as a whole?
- Write dynamically. You can turn the most boring topic into a compelling read just by the style you apply to the work. Conversely, you can drain all the life out of a very exciting story with a dull presentation. No matter what you’re writing, put your fire into the text. Use active verbs whenever possible, avoiding ‘to be’ like the plague. Scatter colorful adjectives and adverbs liberally. Choose your words carefully, not just to convey the subject, but to recreate the feeling. Cut out any superfluous fluff so you can focus more energy on the primary topic. Write drafts and rewrite them. Move paragraphs around for maximum effect. (Modern word processors make these last two tasks trivial.) Put forth the effort to draw the reader’s attention to the point you want to make, and make that point well.
- Get feedback from trusted advisors. This may seem like the hardest part of the process, because it will mean learning to take hard criticism gracefully, but it could also be the bit that pays off the most. Find a few people whom you can trust, people who have read much and hopefully have even written, and occasionally ask them to read over your work. Not necessarily everything you write, but once in a while get feedback on a piece, especially when you’re trying something new, or you’ve produced something that you particularly like. Take their comments with a grain of salt, knowing that their opinion has value, but don’t automatically assume that their ideas trump your own. Just let it sink in enough to guide you in future work.
I’m sure there are other points that would be helpful, but these are the few that come to mind off the top of my head. I suspect that most of these ideas would be similar in any creative endeavor, be it music or sculpture or architecture or any number of other fields. I hope you find them helpful, and most of all I hope you keep creating, keep trying, and keep growing.