You’ve probably heard someone somewhere claim that writing is a muscle; if you don’t exercise it, it’ll shrivel up and atrophy. But that’s not entirely true. Writing isn’t a single muscle. It’s more like a muscular system, made up of a great many parts, each of which need their own kind of exercise.
That’s why—just like athletes—we reach plateaus in our writing journey. Sometimes pushing past that plateau means changing our strategy a bit. Other times we need to try something completely new.
In this post, you’ll find 22 tips that’ll help guide you towards becoming a better writer. They cover reading, building better writing habits, and improving the technical aspects of your writing.
For writers, reading is just as important as knowing the difference between “there,” “their,” and “they’re” for multiple reasons. Reading can help generate new ideas, expose you to different writing styles, and challenge your biases. Here’s how you can become a better reader.
Writing more is the best way to become a better writer, but reading is a close second. No matter what kind of content you usually write, from books to blog posts and email newsletters, reading more of it will improve your writing. You’ll pick up on new tricks, learn to avoid common pitfalls, and understand what works best.
What does this mean? If you’re reading for the express purpose of improving your writing skills, treat it like schoolwork. Taking notes, writing down important concepts, spending a minute or two thinking through ideas, all of these can enhance the impact a particular book has on your work.
For instance, if you write novels, you’ll want to pay attention to a book’s narrative structure and find examples of dialogue that doesn’t seem believable.
“DNF” stands for “Did Not Finish.” The lingo is common on Goodreads and other reading communities where people share book reviews. Ever read a book and realize it’s not really doing it for you halfway through? We’ll often try to power through, usually because we don’t want to waste the time we already spent reading it. But you know what’s even more valuable? The time you have left. Better to spend it on books you know will help make you a better writer.
How many of the books you read each year are fiction? How many books fall outside your area of expertise? It’s easy to think you should only read books in your niche—say, finance books if you write about finance. But exposing yourself to fiction and other industries gives you more to draw from, which can help you be more creative.
For instance, building a fictional world for your stories almost requires reading about many different fields. Similarly, if you write nonfiction, you can create connections others will miss if you read more broadly.
Whether it’s the when or how of your writing process, there’s always room for some fine-tuning. Here are a few ways you can do that.
The hardest part about finishing the first draft isn’t sitting down to write; it’s all the fresh new ideas trying to distract you. It’s easy to start feeling disenchanted when that thing you’re trying to write isn’t singing the way you thought it would.
When you reach that state, just about any other project is more enticing. You can take down notes about these ideas, but you can’t edit a half-finished draft. So buckle down and finish what you start.
Versatility is a strength. If you’re a professional writer, being able to write for different platforms, industries, and niches can open up more opportunities. That can mean seeing your name in your dream publication and generating more income.
If you’re a fiction writer, writing for different formats can give you a new perspective on your work. For example, novelists who work on poetry can improve the rhythm of their sentences, while screenwriters can polish their dialogue by trying other mediums.
Writing consistently is much more important than trying to write as much as you can in one day. Sylvester Stallone might have written Rocky in three days, but the rest of us can’t keep that pace up.
If you’re working on multiple projects, it’s much more important to keep writing than it is to chase sudden bursts of inspiration. To that end, make sure you write a little bit each day. It doesn’t matter if that’s one page, one paragraph, or even one sentence. It’s better to write less and have written than not write at all.
If you’re a writer, you’ve probably got a pile of notebooks sitting at home, their pages hopelessly blank. “This one’s much too nice for that idea,” you might tell yourself while scribbling on the back of a grocery list. Crack open your notebooks. Use them. Carry them with you. Your writing will be better for it.
Do you know when you’re at your best? Some writers do most of their work in the early hours when the rest of the household is still asleep. Others burn the midnight oil. Some find scraps of time in between ferrying their kids around town.
If you can find an uninterrupted block of time that you can reasonably rely on every day, however short, make sure you get your writing done then. It’s about finding what works for you and your routine.
What’s a writing buddy? A writer who volunteers to read some of your stuff, give you feedback, and help you push past writer’s block. Of course, this goes both ways; you have to be ready to do the same for them. But you’ll gain so much out of the relationship that every bit you give will be worth it.
If you’ve already got a writing buddy, consider this the leveled-up version. It’s one thing to have a fellow writer who’s got your back, but it’s another to cultivate a network you can rely on. Writers can open up opportunities for each other, expand perspectives, swap trade secrets, and finally settle the Oxford comma debate. Birds of a feather and all that.
I used to think I didn’t need to take a writing course. I also didn’t think my writing needed an editor. But when I was trying to find writing jobs, I realized that I had to make sure my skills were up to par. Just being in a room with like-minded writers was a great motivator, but it was the chance to both give and receive feedback that really made a difference.
Wherever you are in your writing journey, a course can help you pick up new tricks, tune-up the fundamentals, and meet like-minded folks.
Critical thinking is the ability to examine facts from multiple angles and derive a conclusion from them. For a writer, improving your critical thinking means you can do more with an idea. That gives you a competitive edge.
Examples of critical thinking skills include observation, analysis, and problem-solving. A great way to improve your critical thinking is by working with diverse communities, whether that’s in the context of a writing course, a retreat, or even just a writing buddy.
No matter what kind of writer you are, it’s easy to overwork yourself. Whether you’re writing around your day job or writing is your day job, we’ve all had those days when we can’t seem to form a single coherent sentence. If you’re starting to get too many of those in a row, consider taking a break.
Try decreasing your word count, or maybe even putting your project on pause altogether. It’s also a good idea to learn to pick up on the telltale signs that you’re starting to get overwhelmed. They can vary from person to person, but irritability, trouble sleeping, and brain fog are all examples of these signs.
Ever been distracted by a specific task, a request, or even just that really weird noise from across the street? Notice it takes forever to get focused again? This is caused by context switching, which happens whenever something pulls you away from your writing. After being distracted, it can take up to 25 minutes to get back to task.
So you’d better close Twitter, take the dog for a walk, and get some water before you sit down to write. Maybe even consider turning off your wifi.
Writing has so many little technical pitfalls that you could spend a lifetime studying them. You don’t need to study them formally to be a great writer, but picking up a few lessons here and there won’t hurt—they’ll propel you forward.
If the conclusion is your last chance to make an impression, the introduction is the first. But where your conclusion has the rest of your piece making a case for it, those first couple paragraphs don’t have that advantage. You need to start off with a bang, hook the reader, and catapult them through your piece. Your introduction will lay the groundwork for everything that comes after it. Make sure you’re making your first impression a strong one.
Ten-dollar words are, you know, the words that send the reader to Google instead of the next sentence in your piece. Some complicated words are unavoidable, especially if you’re writing in an educational or technical setting. But ten-dollar words—which are there to show off more than anything—have no place in your piece when something simpler would do. Special mention to buzzwords, which are so empty of meaning they can bring down your whole piece.
When I first started writing I didn’t think I needed to spend time learning my grammar. Then I read The Elements of Style and realized just how wrong I was. The little gray book is a great place to start since it covers common mistakes, debunks bad form, and does it all quickly. You can also use tools like Grammarly to help ferret out more tenacious mistakes—and learn from them.
How excited were you the first time you discovered the em dash? It’s a great tool—perfect for parenthetical statements—but it sticks out like a sore thumb when overused. Limit yourself to just a few uses for longer paragraphs and no more than one per paragraph. That goes for semicolons, too; they’re just as deadly. Remember that you can have too much of a good thing.
Not every sentence should be short. But run-on sentences are very real, and they can tire a reader out. Each sentence should be exactly as long as it needs to be. If you can easily cut out a few words, do so. That’ll keep your writing brisk and easier to read. Using shorter sentences can also make your writing more punchy, which is especially useful when writing copy—or fight scenes.
By some measures, Benjamin Franklin is one of the most accomplished American writers of all time. But he didn’t start out that way. He created seven writing drills to improve his ability. These drills start with taking down hints that cover a passage’s main points, sentence by sentence.
After that, Franklin would try to rewrite the original passage, based only on his hints. Other drills involved playing with the rhythm of a passage and reorganizing it. You can learn how to implement these drills here.
Because the conclusion comes at the end of your piece, it’s tempting to tap out and just crank it out. But if you do that, you lose your reader’s attention. Worse, you leave them thinking “so what?”
Make sure your conclusion doesn’t give the reader additional information; use it to summarize and synthesize what you’ve just covered. A conclusion is your final chance to drive your point home. Don’t punt it.
Before you put any of these tips into practice, ask yourself what your writing goal is. Are you trying to become a professional author? Want to build a side business as a freelancer? Or is writing one of the ways you take in the world and quiet your mind? Your answer to that question will determine which of these tips you should consider first, which to come back to, and which ones you should throw out.
Above all, remember that writing is a skill for some, a hobby for others, and an outlet for all. Take from it exactly what you need, and don’t bully yourself too much because you’re not quite where you want to be yet. These things take time.
Nick wrote his first story at the age of nine when living in New York. It had a troll, a cave, and a magical voice, but not much else. There’s more to his stories now, but he can’t quite stay away from the monsters and dark places of the world. He does his best writing on a powder-blue typewriter—which he snagged for $25—despite the protests of those around him. Some of his best writing (and the occasional gushing post about the Marvel Cinematic Universe) can be found at whiskeyandstardust.com.