4 Wise Ways to Sharpen Writing Skills
Early in a writing career, the options can seem endless: writing groups to join, workshops to attend, author talks and more. What can get lost with the thrill of entering the writing world can be the time spent in the often solitary task of putting your butt in a chair and building your writerly muscles, or in finding guidance to understand how readers will perceive your words, once drafted onto the page.
The good news is, there are lots of ways to focus on developing your understanding of compelling writing. And it's not about nixing the community aspect of being a writer, or skipping the important work of spending time writing. In fact, these approaches are supplemental, providing an outlet for when you need a writing break, while helping you build your understanding of good writing and step into your literary self.
Consider Reading Craft Books
Just as famous pianists, flutists and other musicians learned by practicing their scales, studying works that cover writing basics help ground you in thinking about craft. This concept of honing the basics of any skill is so important that, in the martial art that I practice, that two of its dozen-or-so guiding tenets are about this.
One of those tenets is called Practice the fundamentals (Shoshi ni kaeru in Japanese). The gist of this Aikido tenet is that you have to ground yourself in the basic principles and basic ways of moving in this particular art in order to ever master more complex techniques. As multi-black belt holder Peter Boylan notes in Musings of a Budo Bum, "What looks like magic is really just the basics done phenomenally well."
To create magical writings, you first must learn what makes a sentence hold up. In part, you have to know the ground rules before you start breaking them. For writers who don't want to rely solely on professional editors' input, some guides I send writers to are The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English and Grammar Usage, and The Oxford Essential Guide to Writing (an oldie, but goodie, that covers how to build works up from different types of sentences, sentence variation approaches, and more). Among the upbeat options for learning how best to string words together (syntax) are The Deluxe Transitive Vampire and Eats, Shoots, & Leaves (a British take).
I also recommend reading general books on the writing life such as Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. Because each genre has its own expectations, sometimes falling under the heading of tropes, finding guides for the genre you work in is important too. An example is Beth Kephart's Handling the Truth about the basics of memoir (her view is strict about truth telling, and you'll find other takes covered in this post).
Stir Up Your Literary Heart
A month or so ago, I went to readings by four authors at an outdoor café. Besides the fun of listening and chatting with writers in attendance, I was intrigued by a question the emcee asked of each before they shared a recent work: if you could visit anyplace in a book that you've read, where would that be, and why?
One author talked about wanting to visit the France that a famous writer, Hemingway I believe, described at the start of a famous work. I realized I didn't have such a place in my lexicon, and wanted to do so as part of feeling more a part of the literary community I began stepping into in my thirties, when I switched to a writing career.
In other words, practicing the fundamentals is partly about grounding yourself in the spirit of being a writer. Of making writing a central part of your life. As Maya Angelou once said, "I make writing as much a part of my life as eating or listening to music." Your inspirational moments may come from hearing an author discuss her most recent work, visiting exhibits about writing craft, listening to literary podcasts, or from other outlets.
Study Works with Intention
If you want to do something well, it's of course important to study those who've aced the exam. Or, as Nan Cuba, founder of San Antonio's writing center Gemini Ink, shared while interviewing Andrew Porter during a Big Texas Author Talk in May, books like his The Disappeared are "a wonderful masterclass on craft." Some established writers, in fact, have noted copying by hand the works of well-known authors while developing their writing sensibilities. But I'd also recommend adding other options to your go-to list.
First, you can make big leaps in understanding craft by studying works that don’t work in some way; this allows you to viscerally get why it matters to do that element well. As a case in point, I read a novel not long ago about a 13-year-old protagonist from the 1400s who routinely referred to things like an "unctuous tone," or to the "tendrils of mist … in the cloying air." Can't think of a better way to understand the need to match a character's words and such to their lived reality than to see such missteps on the page (partly related to making the upper-class girl the novel's narrator).
Reading a book twice is also wise to maximize learning: the first time is about getting the lay of the land sorted out; the second round is about focusing specifically on something like voice, how and when a hybrid self-help book includes personal stories, or other craft aspects of interest.
You can also study story forms in other media, and outside your favorite topics and genres. Are you a newspaper reader who automatically heads for the Lifestyle section? See if you can find a business writer instead who keeps you reading, to understand why that's so. I suspect this helps in part because you can stay in analytical mode from not being caught up in the topic at hand.
For instance, I love Western mythology in general, but I'm not a huge rodeo fan, and am a cisgender woman. While watching a wonderful documentary recently called Queens & Cowboys about North America's gay rodeo association, I could notice the choices made about what personal elements of members' stories were held off for the end of the film while building audience engagement; the same wise decisions appeared to be used in covering organizational successes before delving into the challenges of this unusually supportive association (to women in general who rodeo, as well as to the entire LGBTQIA+ community).
Remain Open to Guidance
I spent nine months at the start of my career in a writing program in California. After two internships during the UC, Santa Cruz program, I took an added fourteen months interning at Midwestern newspapers. But my writing skills didn't take off until spending another three years of having my work torn apart by a cracker jack British editor. We worked together at the same university press office during what I call my red-ink period. It was, hands down, the best—and most efficient—way to learn how to tighten content and prioritize the information lay readers needed to enjoy reading about the sometimes complex research topics I covered back then.
Allowing professionals to provide feedback on what works and doesn't in your content is part of the second principle of Aikido. In Go go no shugyo, once you think you know the basics, you set aside pride and keep working to deepen your understanding even more. The phrase means "training after understanding," as in, when you think you've "got it," continue to polish your skills. That reflective, iterative approach helps in addressing the inherent complexity of something like a martial art, and is why obtaining a black belt is often referred to as graduating from kindergarten. It's about retaining a "beginner's mind," as even established authors still do (for instance, NY Times' writer Sandra Blakeslee noted years ago that she had hired an outside proofreader to scan her traditionally published book, even though it had already been edited and proofread in-house).
As a writer, you can take online courses or workshops by published authors or qualified editors, run your work by professional beta readers, and connect with certified editors and other book-related professionals at writing conferences, through their professional websites, or through other resources.
Book coaches are also helpful early on to learn careful writing, or if a draft manuscript doesn't come together well and you become stuck. In part, experienced coaches can help writers build the sensitivity to be guided by their own intuition about when content is off-track or is hitting the mark.
Then there's the scourge of imposter's syndrome, with Angelou noting after her eleventh book that "Each time I think, 'Uh oh, they're going to find out now. I've run a game on everybody and they're going to find me out.' " The courage and humility that it takes to let skilled professionals evaluate your work, and your growing confidence about what you've learned over time, should hold you in good stead when doubts creep up during writing-focused times.
By Barbra A. Rodriguez
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