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
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…
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