How to Become a Better Writer Fast (Even If You Are Not Sure About Your Talent)

How to Become a Better Writer Fast (Even If You Are Not Sure About Your Talent)

39 Remarkable Comments

 

It’s time for me to show myself to you butt naked.

Let me strip down.

Yes, it’s time for me to stop hiding behind the mask of the writing teacher who knows all the answers. I don’t. And the best answers are the ones you come up with yourself anyways.

But fear not, oh esteemed reader, this post is still not X-rated. Calmly show it to your kids. I only want to give you a good understanding of how to become a better writer.

This article just has a lot more of a personal touch to it than all of the ones I have written before.

I want to tell you about my own, very personal writing journey, and the underestimated four actions you need to take to massively and quickly improve as a writer. And any look at a passion project must always be personal and a bit awkward. That’s because it matters so much to you (or in this case, to me).

The truth about what you need to do is simple, but I would have loved if someone had told me about it when I was starting out writing. Hopefully these lessons will help you too, especially if you are at the beginning stages of creating fiction.

When you are a beginner, like with any new skill, writing just feels clumsy and deficient. The ugly truth is, the beginning stage is painful for novices of any field. You have no clue about anything, and you don’t even have a feeling for what’s missing. You feel out of balance, like a bear riding a unicycle.

In my case, that clumsy bear phase began when I was 14; that’s when I started writing seriously. I had been writing stories since I was 6 years old, but back then it had just been child’s play.

Luckily, while writing, I didn’t realize how far I was from where I wanted to be. Like the donkey following a crunchy carrot, it always seemed to me my goal was just around the next corner.

Internet was still a few years away, and I didn’t have any information about the most effective ways to sharpen my skills. I just followed my gut and did what my passion told me: To keep writing and pushing forward.

But looking back now, I can point out the four specific things I did that helped my fiction writing more than anything. Let’s take a look at them one by one.

In my most personal post ever, find these butt naked truths:

  • One truth about consuming writing advice
  • One truth about reading fiction books
  • One truth about honesty and confidence
  • One truth about dealing with your characters

How to become a better writer

 

Another thingy I would have killed for back then is a smart, reliable guide to let me see what my story did well, and what it didn’t.

So I sat down to create precisely that guide for you in the form of 44 on-point questions. You can download it here:

How to Become a Better Writer PDF

The PDF guide is called 44 Key Questions to Make Your Story Look Like Hemingway in Earnest. It covers every area of your story, from character to plot, language, etc… and you will know exactly where you stand. It might even save you the editor.

Go through this list every time after you have written a story, answer these questions for yourself, and it will accelerate your quest for better writing a lot:

 

Now on to the 4 most important lessons I have learned in my writing life:

How to become a better creative writer

1. Put a Lot of Hours into Writing

If you take just one single advice from this post, let it be this: You only learn by doing!

By far the most important thing you can do to get good at a skill is to practice it relentlessly.

Theory can be a shortcut, and it’s a good idea to study a bit how people more skilled than you have done it before you – but don’t get stuck with it. You will never be able to write well just from reading theory. That would be like trying to become a world-class tennis player by only studying books about tennis.

No, here is the only way to get good: You have to sit down on the cheeks opposite of your face and actually do it!

It’s simple; the more hours you collect, the better of a writer you become. That’s the main criteria that will make you good, and nothing else. Anybody who tells you differently wants to sell you something or has no clue.

There is a rule that says you need about 10,000 hours to excel at a skill, and I found that number to be remarkably accurate: After roughly 10,000 hours of writing, I started to become really happy with the quality of my writing and my stories.

But back then, of course I didn’t know about that rule. I just knew that to have a finished book that I loved, I would need to have a finished book first.

And so I wrote. When the novel was done, I read it, and my heart sank to my knees – my writing was a lot worse than I had thought. But I still loved the story. So I wrote it again. And again. All in all, I wrote that novel four times.

I was propelled forward by my disdain for any writing that wasn’t as good as it had been in my head. My panicky fear of failure gave me the whip. Perfectionism can be dangerous, but in this case it was very useful. It drove me to accumulate writing hour after writing hour.

And while putting in my hours and actually doing it, I became good.

 

2. In Order to Become a Better Writer You Must Read

Just like you probably do, I loved books, I loved stories, and I loved to withdraw and immerse myself in different, fascinating worlds. I was intrigued by exciting plot, strong characters and skillful treatment of language.

I started devouring books at age 6 and never stopped. By the time I started writing, I had already been through many bookshelves worth of literature, with many more to come. I just did it because I relished it. But what I didn’t know was that observing my role models was excellent preparation for my own writing.

When reading fiction, you subconsciously and automatically absorb the writer’s language, his patterns, his ways to build characters and plot, and much more.

You will be able to draw from this reservoir for all of your writing career. Even if it’s not a career.

If you are constantly immersing your brain in stories and language, you can be sure that deep down a killer instinct for writing is built. You can’t help but learn.

As you continue writing, and go on to develop your own style, you will need less and less reading. One day you will discover that you have created your own way of phrasing, and your own, solid way to look at the world as an author. Then it’s time to focus on writing as much as you can and cut back on the reading – unless you purely read for fun.

Some writers don’t read at all when they are in a writing phase; the voice of a great author you love tends to overwrite your own inner voice. You run danger of sounding like a poor copy of your admired author. The less influence from other writers you let into your brain during the writing phase, the fresher and more original your voice will sound.

The authors in my head were in part from my native Austria (e.g. Nobel-prize winner Elfriede Jelinek), and in part from the English speaking world (e.g. Stephen King and Clive Barker).

The Austrian authors taught me about language and attitude, while the English-speaking ones taught me about plot and character, as English-language literature is very plot-driven. Of course, I wanted to pen a piece as fascinating as my heroes’ books. Naturally, they were in my head a lot, and my first novel sounded like a poor man’s Stephen King…

Load up on the alphabet soup by reading a lot of fiction. Use the voices of the authors you like most as training wheels. And before you know it, you will have developed your own voice, and the training wheels will come off.

3. Be Brutally Honest with Yourself

You won’t find this one in many writing manuals, because it’s hard to do: Being able to admit to yourself what you have written is plainly bad. Admitting it is especially hard when you have no idea how to make it better and how to navigate the maze that is writing a good story.

Me, I’m too critical a mind.

I’m usually able to confess to myself when work I have done sucks. To be honest, for many years reading my prose was an utterly depressing experience. My pulse quickened and my palms got sweaty when I realized everything it lacked.

What I wasn’t aware of at the time was how many people go for half-hearted outcomes, only to tell themselves it is okay and good enough. But self-deceit hardly ever leads to success.

You grow most outside your comfort zone. You grow when you set goals for yourself and work towards them. And in order to establish these goals, you must admit that you are not there yet. You have to be able to take a good, hard look at your writing and realize what is missing.

Only then do you allow yourself to become better.

If you are ready to take a close, hard look at your work, then the best resource to support you is my 44 Key Questions checklist. It’s a complete checklist of questions to ask yourself, so you can test every single aspect of your story. Can you be brutally honest with yourself? Put yourself to the test:

 

As you can see, confidence is a double-edged sword. But so is keeping an open mind. Realizing this is an important lesson.

Some writers are very critical of themselves. They will see what their story lacks and improve quickly. But they are also in danger of being crushed by their self-doubts, stalling, and maybe even giving up completely at some point.

Other writers are very confident their writing is good; no problem, thanks. It will give them a lot of wind beneath their wings, and there won’t be any fear. But they are in danger of being too content to ever push themselves or improve. They don’t question their stories and abilities.

The trick is to realize which of those two types you are more like. Depending on which side of the seesaw you tend to fall on, push a bit in the opposite direction.

You can probably guess by now that I’m very much on the self-critical side, which made it easy for me to improve. But I expected a lot of myself. At some point, my ego was on the line. I could hardly stand to read my own stories, no matter how good they were.

This motivated me, but eventually it became a dangerous game. I identified way too much with my writing and had to learn to let go. It was okay. I was not my writing. I was Alex. And I was happy that I could put my colorful ideas out into this world, exactly how I wanted it.

 

4. Know Your Characters as Well as Your Best Friends

Your characters are driving your story. That also means when you have great characters, they will drive your story for you.

They will take care of who they are (characterization), what they do (plot), what they say (dialogue), and what they see (description). That’s still not your entire story (above all, you also have to learn how to handle language), but it’s a huge part of what makes your story.

Hence, if you know your characters really, really well, it will help you enormously.

Once I realized this, I started to write out long character sheets for each main character before even writing one single word of the main story.

I wrote out deep psychology, background, attitude, speech patterns and more. Then I put my characters into single scenes totally unrelated to the story, just to see how they would behave. How would they react to winning the lottery? To their brother insulting them? To gaining weight?

Minor characters would get shorter character sheets and even very small characters would have a couple of sentences dedicated to their personalities.

I can only advise you to write out your character sheets, and then lean back and watch your characters take over…

What I didn’t want to admit to myself while writing my novel, was how similar my main character was to me. He was not a very likable guy. But I had written in first person, and I had taken advantage of my worst character traits and lent them to him. He was stand-offish, not very good with people, stubborn, and crazy.

Looking back many years later, I think it was a bit like exorcism too, while at the same time allowing me to write an extreme work with extreme characters. And luckily, I have one or two good character traits too…

 

Bad Fiction Writer

Please, Please Become a Better Writer!

Now Let’s Get Personal

Now it’s your turn: Tell me something about your writing you wouldn’t tell everybody.

Come on, we are on the internet here, you are anonymous! I won’t track your IP address, and you can just fill the name box with “Snoopy.” Maybe something embarrassing or something you wish you could do differently. Let’s get real!

Or tell me what you think of these four points. Is there something else that really helped you get better at story writing? Why can it be so brutal to read your own story? Do you ever wish you weren’t in the room when you read it? Could you maybe say you have gone outside for a smoke? Do your characters even like you?

Your Surefire Way to Become a Better Creative Writer

In summary, build on these four cornerstones: Write relentlessly, read, be honest with yourself and know your characters like your best friends. I followed these rules intuitively, and only looking back do I now realize how important they were for my writing.

If you do just these four things, you have come a long, long way. I guarantee you will inevitably become a much better, and maybe even a great writer. Your writing will improve fast and the quality of your stories will skyrocket. Till one day you notice… writing doesn’t feel clumsy anymore at all.

Now it feels effortless.

Image Credits: Cat Writer: KiraCatwell (https://kiracatwell.deviantart.com); Naked Banana: Milatoo/istockphoto; Learning by Doing: Daniel Villeneuve/istockphoto; Dog Cop: digitaljoni/istockphoto

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39 Remarkable Comments. Join in!



39 Comments

  1. DivaJo

    Periodically my characters and I talk to each other. Mostly they yell at me because I’ve left them hanging over a cliff for days and weeks at a time as the latest shiny object draws away my attention. Then they cry because I have ignored them. The tears guilt me back to the page. Then we’re all happy again.

    1. Alex
      Alex

      Hey, that means you either have a hopelessly split personality, or, much better, your characters are very much alive!

      Tell them hi from me, and I will drop by next week to bring them the umbrella they forgot at my place last time.

  2. Hayson

    Thank you for your post. I totally agree. I need to write more and read less! Because reading something that is so blindingly good makes me want to give up because I can never write like that. I guess I have to learn to be the best I can be without comparing myself to others.

    1. Alex
      Alex

      Well said. In other words, focus on the process, and not on the result. Then one day the result will be great automatically.

      Goes for all types of endeavors and any mountain you have to climb. You have to forget about the result, and judge yourself only by the effort you put in.

  3. Kathy

    This is great advice. And so true. I am writing a romcom and I could not figure out why they get back together after they break up. I was stuck. I also didn’t have time to write because my job was so busy. Finally I had some free time and I sat down with a character sheet for the romantic lead and started filling it out and he told me why they get back together!

  4. Arvilla

    My characters jockeyed for a place, actually pushed me aside from my computer in their effort to find out what I was doing wrong. Not actually killing them off, mind you, but not giving them their own voice. They all seemed like one person, split off into clones of each other. Too many to be dangerous. I got rid of a number of them. No blood and gore here just the erase button, so no one can really get offended. They (my characters) are beginning to have a more meaningful relationship with me and each other. We shall see how this all ends. Thanks for your advice. The others send their best regards.

  5. George in Quito

    I was fortunate enough to hook up with a bunch of pro writers when I joined facebook some years back. They all encouraged me to write, and I did. Returning to the completed pieces was sometimes exciting but other times bruising. In the later case, my reaction would be something like, “who wrote this shit?”

    Then I encountered Steven Pressfield and his insistence on  connecting with my muse. Somehow I did. She would  come to me with an idea, and we’d be off. I  could feel her holding my hand, I could feel her breath on my ear as she whispered the latest story. It was like taking dictation.

    When I went back over the story, I could see where I’d skipped ahead sometimes and the story needed filling in. I was able to spot holes in the plot line, places where more descriptive writing was needed — or where the characters needed developing.

    Thank you for writing this piece. I’ve needed to put all this stuff together for some time now.

  6. Audley

    I do read quite a fair bit, and before I sit down to write I read for an hour or so. I also do lots of crosswords puzzles.

    Characters are strange and interesting. Cares not how you know your friends you never know all there’s tricks and their secrets, but they are interesting just the same. No one knows me as me and so when i write my main character is centered around me with a blend from my other characters. I think, and this is my opinion, that can put together a more, if you may, dominant character or characters?

    Yes, reading sharpens the mind, but to be a writer one should spend more time writing than reading.

    1. Alex
      Alex

      Every character tends to be a bit like you, but it’s good to strive for characters that are different. Otherwise you end up with the same character over and over again.

      A good trick is to use people you know very well. Take one aspect, one facet of them (or several), and model your character after that. It’s easier to work with a real life model you know like the back of your hand.

      Recipe: Combine parts of several people you know for greater results. Some writers have used their mothers or their brothers for dozens of stories…

  7. Marilyn Carvin

    Interesting how characters can take over. Had named my heroine, got acquainted and started writing. But it is an historical novel and I wanted her traveling with an historical person with the same name. Oops. Wouldn’t work. Too confusing for the reader. So I had to change the heroine’s name or leave the other girl out. But that would’t work either. When I gave her a new name, she disappeared! Wouldn’t do or say anything after that. Wrote long list of names for her to choose from. She pouted about it and reluctantly took one. I can tell she still isn’t thrilled, but at least the story has progressed. Still hoping we can find a name she likes better. Being disagreeable was not one of her character traits. She likes the Gaelic version, but I hate reading novels where I have to keep remembering how to pronounce the darn Gaelic! We’ve compromised by having people occasionally call her by the Gaelic version written phonetically.  I don’t like it visually, but it doesn’t come up very often and it keeps her happy.  

    1. Alex
      Alex

      Hope the two of you can get along in the future, Marilyn! It’s like with rock bands… only the combination and collaboration of the talents and minds will get you guys a fine result.

      So team up, and good writing!

  8. Suzanne

    Great post.
     
    I would add to this (something related to your suggestion about forgetting about the result) –  to focus on the writing itself instead of publication.

    Too many beginning writers just want to get published.

    But, if you’ll focus on becoming a better writer, publication will naturally follow (once you start submitting your work, of course, provided you’ve also studied the markets and are submitting to appropriate markets for your work – but that’s another topic).

    Happy writing (and reading), everyone!

    1. Alex
      Alex

      Hi Suzanne, yes, that mindset makes you more patient and allows you to free the mind and focus.

      The great thing is, it’s not only true for writing, but for any area in which you want to improve. Imagine a tennis player obsessed with the result, or an architect wanting to have that building finished when he sits down at the drawing board. They would get terrible results.

      Happy writing to you too!

  9. Michelle

    After spending many hours writing out character sheets, challenging my characters with situations and placing them into my stories, they somehow always morph into some version of myself. Sometimes, I’m able to reign them in. Other times, I remove them from the story and work to find a suitable replacement.

    I’ve dedicated myself to making characters who couldn’t be less like me, characters that I generally dislike. 

    I have many story arcs, plot outlines, worlds and magic systems. Unfortunately most of them sit in otherwise empty documents because there is no one to populate the story.

    1. Alex
      Alex

      This leads us back to my comment above about using people you know as templates. It’s the easiest way to get yourself out of that character trouble.

      Ha, funny that you have plots without characters. On the upside, that should also give your plots a lot of freedom to develop and not be constrained by those nasty characters with their desires and demands.

      Lastly, characters we dislike can make us more understanding in real life towards people who are COMPLETELY different than us – and by understanding them better, you can also study those people for your next character…

  10. ROBERT HURLBERT

    Alex,
    I discovered in a novel I have revised a number of times that the Lead character I initially centered on is the wrong one. The young man was to assist an older man who wanted to make a final move in his life. The elder is now the Lead, and his use of the younger character has more meaning, more of life’s truths, and is more interesting due to what he can (and does) teach the younger one about survival, recognition of life’s dangers, and the pursuit of goals.
    Your study of characters validates my choice to change the Lead character of my story.
    Thank you…

  11. Christine E. Robinson

    Alex, nice to see you! Thanks so much for this post! As you know I’m writing a book that has German in dialogue. You helped me tremendously with the how much should I include, etc. I know the main character, it’s me, but I didn’t know how the story would go with a fictional “beau” that she falls in love with. So, it surprised me when the two of them without asking me decided on their own to have the first kiss, first sex and say the first I love you! Story structure thrown out the window!  These two characters are strong and they let me know what’s next! The book is fictional based on real events. A fun way to write with no limits on the imagination. Happy Spring in Austria! 😊 Christine 

    1. Alex
      Alex

      Hey Christine, good to hear from you. 🙂 I remember the emails we exchanged a while back.

      Yee-haw! Follow your characters, trust them, go with their program. Seems like you know them well enough for them to trust you with their most private secrets. Well, one of them is you, so she better trust you with her secrets!! Glad I could help and good writing!

  12. Cathy FitzGerald

    I just completed my first novel, got a contract, now in wait mode for the editing process. The main character is basically me. As I got to know her, I got to know myself better. Not always pretty but beneficial in many ways. I never planned to write another book, but a new character has just introduced herself to me, so with your recommendation to write a character sheet, I need to get off the computer and get to know JuJu. 🙂

    1. Alex
      Alex

      Congrats on the contract! Now go have coffee with JuJu.

      I plan to bring out some really good character templates for you guys at some point; templates that ask the right questions.

  13. Pam Zollman

    Awesome post and very helpful! When I first think of a story, I can usually hear my characters talking… before I even meet them. It’s like I’m eavesdropping on their conversation. Dialogue I have no problems with because I just write down what they say. I have a lot more problems with world-building.

    Oh, and I’ve tried several times to get the 44 Key Questions free e-book, but no luck so far. I tried two different emails and have been checking my spam folders, but so far… nothing. 😞 Could you please help me get that? It sounds like it will be a great resource.

    1. Alex
      Alex

      That’s the best case, Pam, you feeling like a stenotypist. Maybe play the selector too and weed out the lines that are not interesting to the readers.

      I will email you the ebook now. The form usually works, it just takes a bit of time sometimes.

  14. Jerry

    My characters are probably passed out by now. I left them at a moonshine still several days ago. I have been researching how to make very good moonshine. I think Pappy will thank me for that. Cheers.

  15. Ellen Chauvet

    Hi Alex,

    The first thing my writing coach had me take on was filling out character forms. I was lucky – I had a first draft – terrible, but at least we had something to work with. The character forms are invaluable. My first book is now published and am on to the second. I have not completed character forms on all characters and some are introduced in this book. Thanks to your post, I will go back and take the time to fill out character forms on the new ones. I do read a lot and find that it always supports my writing.
    Thank you for everything you provide.

    1. Alex
      Alex

      Sometimes the characters are in your head, ready to go; but usually a character form helps to get to know them much better. And where else could it ever be that much fun to fill out a form…? Cheers, Ellen!

  16. Snoopy & the Red Baron

    Nice post! I read, I write, I see my world and invent back stories to explain why so and so was just a jerk who passed me on a dangerous hill, blind – – sigh – BUT reading your post made me realize, I spend so much time learning my customers and writing in ‘their voice’ I’ve all but lost my own and all the characters who were willing to tell me their life story, IF ONLY I show up and listen – – Thanks – my ‘personal writing on my own goals’ has been all but MIA these past few months, because I’m so tired of ghost writing, to earn the $ to write, for me and those I love, despise, etc., but KNOW the story must be told – – LOL And yes, I will be taking you at your word, cuz first bit of ‘fun’ I’ve had in oh so long – suffice to say, thank you for doing what you do, and thank you for this post reminder! 🙂

    1. Alex
      Alex

      Right, don’t let your imagination be buried under your clients’ wishes and needs. Keep the spirit alive! Those poor characters desperately need you to talk to them; do not disappoint them!! Have fun! 🙂

  17. Simply Linda

    I find my writing absolutely hysterical and repeatedly laugh aloud about the same point…several pages after writing it!

    For example, in Sally’s Seaside Secrets she’s shown ‘the body in the boat’. It’s a big fish…seemingly to Sally it’s a big dead fish. She examines it closely. First she peers at its fins. Then Sally scrutinizes its tail. With one last look at its body, Sally muttered to herself. “I see what’s happened here. It’s been battered!’

    I know, it’s pathetic – but I can’t help it 😆

    I write (pathetic) children’s books. Previously I wrote very formal reports for court….with a little twist here and there to keep everyone entertained. More often than not, the judge would peer over his or her glasses and mutter loudly, “Really, Mrs Wilson? Really?”

    1. Alex
      Alex

      Naaaaah, Mrs Linda Wilson, don’t put yourself down like that! Reading your playful comment, I’m sure at the very least your children’s books are imaginative and written with passion.

      And if all else fails, you could single-handedly invent a new genre: Children’s books for judges’ children!

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