Whether you’re a beginner or have been at it for decades, writing well is flat hard work.
I’ve written and published nearly 200 books, including 21 New York Times bestsellers, and I still take daily steps to improve my writing.
One doesn’t arrive at good writing. It’s a lifelong pursuit.
Maybe you write daily but feel your writing is still lacking. Or it’s as if you’ve hit a brick wall.
Many struggling writers would’ve given up by now, but you genuinely believe that with help, your message has the potential to reach the masses.
Let’s see if you’re right.
I can’t turn you into a bestselling author overnight, and I’d caution you to look with suspicion on anyone who says they can.
But I do believe I can help improve your writing immediately.
How to Become a Better Writer: My Best Advice
1. Don’t aim to write a bestseller.
That’s the last thing I think about when I start a new book. To have any chance at success, my manuscript has to come from my passions, my strengths, what I care about.
I have no control over the market, sales, reviews, and all the rest. All I can control is how much of myself I give to a writing project. It must come from the overflow of what drives me.
What’s your passion? Your strength? What drives you?
Write about that.
Your passion will keep you at the keyboard and motivate you when the writing gets tough—and if you’re doing it right, it always gets tough.
2. Always think reader-first.
Write Think Reader First on a sticky note and place it on your screen or somewhere you can see it while you’re writing.
Your sole job is to tell a story so compelling, so memorable your reader gets lost in it from the get-go.
Treat your readers the way you want to be treated and write what you would want to read.
That’s the Golden Rule of Writing.
Never let up, never bore. Always put your reader first.
3. Avoid throat-clearing.
That’s a term we in the writing business use for any writing that stalls a story or chapter by beginning with anything but the good stuff.
Cut the setup, the description, the setting, the philosophizing, and get on with the story.
4. Show, don’t tell.
Telling spoon feeds your reader information rather than allowing her to deduce what’s going on.
Showing triggers the theater of her mind.
Telling: It was late fall.
Showing: Leaves crunched beneath his feet.
Telling: It was cold.
Showing: He tightened his collar and turned his face from the biting wind.
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” — Anton Chekhov
5. Avoid telling what’s not happening.
“He didn’t respond.”
“She didn’t say anything.”
“The room never got quiet.”
If you don’t say it happened, we won’t assume it did.
6. Introduce your main character early, by name.
The biggest mistake new writers make is introducing their main character too late.
As a rule, he should be the first person on stage and the reader should be able to associate his name with how they see him.
7. Trigger the theater of your reader’s mind.
Ever wonder why the book is always better than the movie?
Not even Hollywood, with all its creativity and high tech CGI capability, can compete with the theater of our imagination.
My mind conjures images of everything an author implies.
Give your reader just enough information to engage his imagination, making him a partner in the experience, not just an audience member.
8. Cut dialogue to the bone.
Unless you’re including them to reveal a character as a brainiac or a blowhard, omit unnecessary words from dialogue.
Obviously, you wouldn’t render a conversation the way a court transcript includes repetition and even um, ah, uh, etc.
See how much you can chop while virtually communicating the same point.
“What do you want to do this Sunday?
I thought wWe could go to the amusement park.”
“I was thinking about renting a rowboat,” Vladimir said.
“On one of the lakes.”
, Vladimir, that sounds wonderful! I’ve never gone rowing before.”
This doesn’t mean your dialogue has to be choppy—just cut the dead wood.
You’ll be surprised by how much power cutting adds.
9. Omit needless words.
Less is more.
Tighten, tighten, tighten.
Again, you’ll find cutting almost always adds power to your prose.
10. Choose the normal word over the fancy one.
By showing off your vocabulary or flowery turns of phrase you draw attention to the writing itself rather than the content.
That’s the very definition of author intrusion.
Get out of the way of your art.
11. Use active voice vs. passive voice.
The easiest way to spot passive voice is to look for state-of-being verbs and often the word by.
Passive: A good time was had by all.
Active: Everybody had a good time.
Passive: The party was planned by Jill.
Active: Jill planned the party.
Passive: The book was read to the children by the teacher.
Active: The teacher read the book to the children.
Avoiding passive voice will set you apart from much of your competition. Even better, it will add clarity.
12. Avoid mannerisms of attribution.
Have people say things, not wheeze, gasp, laugh, grunt, snort, reply, retort, exclaim, or declare them.
Sometimes people whisper or shout or mumble, but let your choice of words imply whether they are grumbling, etc.
If it’s important that they sigh or laugh, separate the action from the dialogue:
Jim sighed. “I just can’t take it anymore.”
13. Avoid began to…
…laugh, or cry, or shout, or run. People don’t just begin to do these things. They do them.
Just say it: He laughed, she cried, Fred shouted, Traci ran…
14. Eliminate clichés.
And not just words and phrases.
Also, root out situational clichés, like:
- Starting your story with the main character waking up
- Having a character describe himself while standing before a mirror
- Having future love interests literally bump into each other when they first meet
- Having a shot ring out, only to have the shooter be a surprise third party who kills the one who had the drop on the hero
- Having the seemingly dead or unconscious or incapacitated villain spring back to life just when we thought the hero had finally saved the day
Avoid the dream cliché.
It’s okay to have people dream but eliminate the dreadful cliché of spelling out an entire harrowing scene and then surprising the reader by having the character wake up.
That’s been used to death and lets the air out of the balloon of your story.
Also, avoid heart and breathing clichés: pounded, raced, thudded, hammered, gasped, sucked wind, etc.
If you render the scary situation compellingly enough, you need not tell the reader anything about your character’s heartbeat or breath. The reader should experience those himself.
15. Avoid on-the-nose writing.
A Hollywood term for writing that mirrors real life without advancing the story, on-the-nose writing is the most common mistake I see in otherwise good writing.
16. Use adjectives sparingly.
Good writing is a thing of strong nouns and verbs, not adjectives.
17. Avoid the words up and down—unless they’re really needed.
He rigged [up] the device.
She sat [down] on the couch.
18. Read The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
This short paperback is recommended by every writing teacher I know and should be at the top of your list if you want to improve your writing skills.
I’ve read it at least once a year for more than 40 years. Its simple truths cover everything you need to know about style and grammar.
19. Give your readers credit.
They understand more than you think.
Example: “They walked through the open door and sat down across from each other in chairs.”
If they walked in and sat, we can assume the door was open, the direction was down, and—unless told otherwise—there were chairs.
So you can write: “They walked in and sat across from each other.”
20. Use powerful verbs.
Ever wonder why an otherwise grammatically correct sentence lies there like a dead fish?
Your sentence might be full of those adjectives and adverbs your teachers and loved ones so admired in your writing when you were a kid. But the sentence doesn’t work.
Something I learned from The Elements of Style years ago changed the way I write and added verve to my prose: “Focus on nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs.”
To learn how, read my post 249 Strong Verbs That’ll Instantly Supercharge Your Writing.
A couple of things to watch for:
- Avoid hedging verbs like smiled slightly, almost laughed, frowned a bit, etc. The character either smiles, laughs, frowns, or doesn’t.
- Avoid state-of-being verbs: is, am, are, was, etc. Not: There was a man standing on the train platform. Rather: A man stood on the train platform.
21. Resist the urge to explain (RUE).
Marian was mad. She pounded the table. “George, you’re going to drive me crazy,” she said, angrily.
“You can do it!” George encouraged said.
22. Conduct your research.
Though fiction, by definition, is made up, to succeed it must be believable. Even fantasies must make sense.
Once the reader has accepted your premise, what follows must be logical. Effective research is key to adding the specificity necessary to make this work.
Accurate details add flavor and authenticity. Get details wrong and your reader loses confidence—and interest—in your story.
- Consult Atlases and World Almanacs to confirm geography and cultural norms and find character names that align with the setting, period, and customs. If your Middle Eastern character flashes someone a thumbs up, be sure that means the same in his culture as it does in yours.
- Online and hard copy Encyclopedias.
- YouTube and online search engines can yield tens of thousands of results.
- A Thesaurus, not to find the most exotic word, but to find that normal word that’s on the tip of your tongue.
- In-person interviews with experts. People love to talk about their work, and often such conversations lead to more story ideas.
And remember, research detail should be used as seasoning. Don’t make it the main course—that should be your story itself.
23. Become a ferocious self-editor.
Agents and editors can tell within two pages whether a manuscript is worthy of further consideration.
That sounds unfair, and maybe it is. But it’s a reality we writers need to face.
Learn to aggressively self-edit using many of the tools I’ve given you here.
Never submit writing with which you’re not entirely happy.
24. Develop a thick skin.
Every piece of published writing is a duet between editor and writer, not a solo. Learn to take criticism, especially from professionals who are on your side and want you to succeed.
25. Become a voracious reader.
Your career as a writer can end before it starts unless you make time to read.
You won’t find the time—you have to carve it out of your busy schedule.
That might seem impossible with your busy life, but how badly do you want to become a published author?
Writers are readers. Good writers are good readers. Great writers are great readers.
26. Don’t let fear of failure stop you.
Even the most successful writers fear there’s too much competition and they’re not good enough.
They’re right! So don’t try to overcome that fear. Embrace it. It’s valid!
Instead, let it motivate you to do your best work. Every time.
You Can Get Better at Writing
I’ve dedicated most of my life to coaching writers because I love paying forward all I’ve learned and seeing you succeed.
Practicing these 26 tips won’t turn you into an overnight success—writing is hard, exhausting, time-consuming work. And if it isn’t, you’re probably not doing it right. But all that effort is worth it.
Dreamers talk about writing. Writers write. So don’t quit. Before long, you just might find yourself becoming a better writer. And after that, the sky may be the limit.