We can sometimes be so focused on improving how we write in our respective genre, buying craft after craft book on how to concoct the perfect mystery, that we forget great writing transcends mere labels.
So here are five ways you can improve your writing skills in a low stakes environment. (You know, when you’re sick of working on that novel that’s been banging around for ten years and not getting any closer to done.)
1. Go Strunk & White on your ass
No, seriously. Pick up the latest edition of your preferred style guide, study it, quiz yourself, then proofread your work. The art of great writing is not limited to theme and character and voice. It’s about your command of the English language and how you use it to articulate your thoughts. It’s sentence level stuff–grammar, punctuation, usage, composition. Using the Oxford Comma. (Hint, hint.)
Let’s face it, do you really know when to use a dash and when to use an em dash? Or when to use the past perfect tense if the rest of your story is just in past tense? Or how to make the plural of letters, numbers, and names ending in -s?
Classic guides, including, The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr and E. B. White, can show you how, and there’s even a workbook to practice. Or check out sites such as Grammar Girl.
Eighth grade was forever ago for most of us, but you won’t have to diagram sentences very long before you master the elements of style and the art of great writing. You may even find yourself silently judging poorly punctuated texts from your significant other.
2. Read and imitate your favorite author
There’s nothing wrong with trying to write like your favorite author. After all, there’s a reason why he or she is your favorite. What is it? What makes you pull her next book off the library shelf as soon as you put one down? What makes you stand in line at the bookstore or pre-order his latest novel?
Make a list of your favorite authors, then list the reasons that drew you to them. The best part is you get to reread any to remind yourself.
If you can identify what it is you like about how these authors write and dissect how they do it, you can practice incorporating these skills into your own writing. And by practice, I mean trying them out in a low stakes environment first. Think, something you don’t mind burning at the stake when you’re done. A warmup, if you will. Something to pass the time while on the subway, during boring business meetings, at family holiday gatherings.
You never know, you may find someone admitting to imitating your style some day.
3. Write one scene three different ways
Here’s another warmup exercise that shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Write one scene then rewrite it two more times using one of the following methods:
- Write a scene from three different points of view: first, second, limited third, omniscient third. (How do each of these affect your word choice, sentence structure, tone, voice?)
- Write a scene in three different tenses: past, present, future, or if you’re really hardcore past perfect. (What do you notice when someone views the scene from the past–are they nostalgic, depressed, insightful? From the future–are they filled with anxiety or hope? In the present–does everything flow peacefully or move too fast?)
- Write a scene to convey three different moods: excited, scared, desperate, ecstatic, pessimistic, etc. (Again, how does this affect word choice and sentence structure? What details do you focus on? Does setting play an important role or is it the character’s feelings and reactions?)
- Write a scene using three different genre voices: noir, flowery Victorian, Hobbit. (See #2 above and use inspiration from your favorite authors.)
- Write a scene with three different narrators: This is different from using three different points of view because now you will be writing the scene from three different characters’ perspectives. (For instance, how would a victim, a killer, and a detective describe the same scene of a crime. Use the same point of view for each iteration, e. g. first person, to make it easier.)
You can use a random scene generator like this or this to get you started.
4. Join a writing group
A writing group is different from a critique group. I belong to two writing groups. We meet informally and we usually always write on the same prompt that is given at that meeting. One person from each group volunteers to bring in a prompt–it can be anything from a first line, an exercise on descriptive writing, or a template for an entire short story–then we write for about 30-40 minutes, depending on how long people need to finish up last thoughts or sentences. (I’m usually the last one done.) At the end, we volunteer to read what we’ve written. Some members never read, some always do, and some read depending on the night.
We generally add comments of praise and sometimes suggestions if the writer requests it, but we never point out flaws or what could have been done better. We also don’t bring in larger pieces or WIPs to be critiqued by the whole group unless it is agreed upon ahead of time.
And don’t worry about finding a writing group whose members write in the same genre or have the same level of writing experience as you. In my groups, there are children’s writers, women’s fiction writers, academic writers, poets, technical writers, and genre writers. Some women have been published, some self-published, and some never published. Some members don’t even want to be “writers;” they just want to get out of their house. Some women have never taken a formal writing class. Others have devoted their entire education to it.
You’d be surprised at what you can learn from a diverse group of writers. You can obtain a similar effect by checking out online short story blogs. (You can find a list here, though I can’t vouch for any of them.)
Writing groups are perfect for low-stakes practice and the prompts offered should aim to improve creative writing skills in general. If you’re looking for specific feedback or how to whip your manuscript into publishable shape, you may want to join a formal critique group in which participants have an extended period of time prior to the meeting to read your work and formulate thoughtful comments on how to get you where you want to be.
5. Practice on your own
If you don’t like the idea of joining a writing group, reading your work in front of others, or leaving your cat home alone, you can get the same benefit by practicing on your own.
The best way to practice is to compile a list of writing prompts. Writers Digest has free ones (they also have a link for writing groups) or you can buy Storymatic cards.
If you’d rather come up with your own ideas, here is an example of a prompt we did in one of our groups that you can tailor. (I don’t know the exact origin of it, so you may have seen it elsewhere.)
On seven slips of paper, make one entry for each item below:
- a male character
- a female character
- what he said (line of dialogue)
- what she said (line of dialogue)
- where they met
- where the story takes place
- what happened in the end
Repeat this process at least five times. The more choices the better.
Now, place all the entries for each item into separate bags (or boxes or bowls or baseball hats or whatever) and shake them up. You should have six male characters to randomly choose from and so on.
Pick one entry from each bag/box/bowl, set your timer, and incorporate all of these items into one story.
Don’t worry if you suck at first. Or for a long time. That’s not the point.
When I first joined my writing groups, I couldn’t write a short story to save my life. Especially not in 30 minutes. I’d only ever written novel-length (or at least novella-length) pieces. So I worked on the prompts for the allotted time and focused mainly on character and voice, which are my weak areas. Over the past year, I’ve gotten to the point where I can finish most of the short story prompts (to an ambiguous conclusion) within 30-45 minutes. They are not perfect. They are not as well-developed as my friend, Trudy’s, as richly detailed as Sara’s, as humorous as Jenn’s, or as poignant as Kathy’s . They are not supposed to be. We are different writers.
But over time, like me, and hopefully with the help of these tips, you too can improve your writing. Practice as often or as little as you like. Revise everything or nothing. When you write for yourself in a low stakes enviroment, anything is possible, and you’ll find your main projects become that much better.
Do you have any tried and true writing prompts you turn to in times of need?
What are your thoughts on or experiences with writing groups? Would you recommend them?