How to Write Better (aka Improve Your Writing Skills)

woman writing in her home studio

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Just as a professional musician continuously practices to maintain and improve their musical skills, just as a professional athlete spends hours a day training and refining their physical and concentration skills, a writer will benefit from a concerted practice of actively trying to improve their writing skills.

Whether it’s in response to negative reviews, feedback from editors and beta readers, or an internal drive to continually improve, writers can always learn how to write better to communicate and express themselves through their written work. There are numerous approaches to consider and numerous sources of motivation to help hone your writing craft and spark your creativity.

Overcome writer’s block

Writer’s block might feel like a blockade in your mind, or it may squeeze your heart with sensations of inadequacy. Writer’s block, as I understand it, is a cluster-junction when what’s in your head, heart, and mind collide. It’s a need to express something and, at the same time, being absolutely overwhelmed and unable to do it.

I believe writer’s block, or writing snares as I call them, derives from one (or all) of four places: emotional snares (false beliefs we have about our writing), spiritual snares (being unsure of writing’s purpose), mental snares (thinking too much about how we compare to others and deep self-judgement), and tactical snares (having too many directions or possibilities to pursue and being unsure of how to begin).

Expectations play a key role in the experience of writing. If we expect an impossible outcome or result (I will write the next New York Times best-seller) we’re setting up a huge weight. It’s not to say you won’t write a best-seller, but if that’s where creativity is expected to start, it may overwhelm any actual desire to write.

Strategies to overcome writer’s block

Asking yourself a few questions about your desire and inspiration softens and invites the creator within to come out and explore (and write). That’s what we’re looking for, right? To be in process. To dream. To write. So, what if you began with an idea of being OK with having no idea where writing will go or how it will flow? Staying curious about your ideas and expression? Looking at writing as an invitation instead of an expectation? Does that take any of the pressure off?

Quality writing is more substantive than a simple word count. So rather than saying, “I’m going to get 1,000 words done today,” I say, “I’m curious about what my friend Robin said about how time dissolves. I’ll invite my Self to write about it this morning.” The incentive shifts, and you may find that some lovely work emerges from that place. Could be poetry, excerpts towards a memoir, or the foundation for a fictional character profile.

Purposeful use of active vs. passive voice

While you should really understand the differences between the active and passive voice, there’s also a feeling conveyed when we write from these places, and there’s a feeling we get when we read what’s been written. Many writers default to writing in passive ways — we’ve been conditioned to take an observer’s point of view when we write. In some cases, like essay writing or journalistic writing, distance might be required. However, when my writing clients seek to write memoir or poetry, active voice creates a more intimate and relatable writing experience.

A sentence is in active or passive voice based on how the main subject is placed in relation to what’s happening. When the focus is on the doer of an action, the voice is active. For example: My teacher spoke about voice in class today. In a passive voice, the object acted upon is the focus: Voice was the topic shared in today’s class.

Active voice emphasizes a subject’s perspective within a sentence — passive voice de-emphasizes it. Emphasis adds a direct feel or connection to what’s happening, whereas a passive voice offers distance. Distance might be required if you’re writing an academic essay or sharing news. One form or another isn’t necessarily right or wrong, but your writing will be more effective when you know who and what your work is for and approach your word choice and voice accordingly.

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Review grammar rules

Many teachers, settings, or writing projects have imposed expectations related to grammar — and some are stricter than others. Although I’m not that teacher, being mindful of how your writing appears on a page will require grammar considerations at some point.

Certainly, when working on a first draft, being obsessed with grammar, punctuation, and capitalization rules is likely counterproductive. In just about every case, you’re better off getting your ideas down on paper without concerning yourself with the proper uses of colons, semi-colons, and the like. But, by the time you are ready to submit or publish a piece, grammar rules (to varying degrees) will apply, and you need to be — how do I put this? — In compliance.

Thankfully, most online and word processing programs offer grammar and punctuation suggestions, though they’re not always correct. Use them as a guide, but knowing your grammar rules will help you in the long run. So will working with an editor.

Seek feedback from readers and writers

Although seeking “feedback” is advice you’ll find in a lot of writing circles, it’s something I suggest with discernment and caveats. Feedback can crush or inspire, and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with your writing skill. Feedback is entirely dependent upon the source. Get clear on exactly what you want and from whom when seeking feedback. Get super clear about the type of feedback you’re seeking and if that person you’re connecting with is truly capable of providing it.

Free guide offer for Promote Then PublishWriters ask me for feedback all the time. I’ve learned to ask in return, “What type of feedback do you want? Do you want to know if the voice is clear? Are you wondering if the imagery ‘works’?” And when I offer feedback, I share, “This is entirely my own experience of what I’m reading…” I never act as if I’m the only authority because I believe writing and reading are mostly subjective.

However, feedback can serve when elements are “missing” — thoughts, plot points, lapses in action between things that have happened. Consider this: I believe writing comes from:

  1. What we think
  2. What we experience
  3. What we want to say
  4. What we actually write

Between step one and step four, what we want to convey on the page may get lost in translation. This is where feedback is helpful. Something we think we wrote or conveyed may be missing.

Read and learn from authors

Reading interesting writing inspires interesting writing. Seeing how other writers use words, images, and sentences is fascinating. I marvel at choices other writers make. Find a writer whose work slays you. Or makes you cry. Or makes you think. Or has shown what’s possible with form or structure.

I recommend that my clients read a paragraph or poem and write one themselves in that style. Emulation is a way to learn. It doesn’t mean you copy it verbatim or publish the work. It’s more about integrating the feeling of that writing into your own creative aesthetic. Try it!

Use writing prompts and challenges

Finding writing inspiration is one of my favorite topics. I call these writing “invitations.” Tactically speaking, yes, they’re “writing prompts.” Invitations can be random words, visual cues, music, surrounding environments, photographs, movies, food, overheard conversations, or objects within reach — anything that Invites you to write.

The core of using prompts is:

  1. Observation (what do you notice?)
  2. Curiosity (what does this mean/say/evoke/reveal?)
  3. Invitation (how does this relate to me/my character/the story/a moment/the action?)

Use everything around you. Take five minutes with coffee or tea in the morning and write in response to your environment, mood, circumstances. Also, instead of looking at the concept of a challenge — groups or programs that “challenge” you to write a certain number of words or pages — replace the word “challenge” with “invitation.” Yes, accountability groups can be helpful, just reframe how you enter into such groups or spaces so you’re poised to do your best, remain inspired, and your expression remains meaningful.

Accept that the first draft will need revisions

Don’t let the process loop of imagining, creating, writing, sharing, getting feedback, and revising discourage you. Revision is part of the writing process. I allow what I learn, see, and discover through revision to become integrated into what I’ve gained through writing. We don’t know what we know until we know it!

Writing is for you — your inspiration, growth, and edification. When looking to learn how to write better, all of what I’ve suggested here can be taken into account, or not. Ultimately, I hope that “better” writing for you includes more writing, motivation for writing, and discovering how much your writing can truly inspire you!

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Related Posts
Writing as Invitation, Not Expectation
Writing Prompts Unlock Freedom and Creativity
Procrastination and Writing: Four Snares That Stop the Flow
When Should I Use a Colon, Semicolon, and Dash?
Key Differences Between Active vs Passive Voice

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