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How to, In General, Become a Better Writer

Updated on April 30, 2012

This Hub was inspired by a question one of my students asked me recently. As I teach freshman composition classes for an online university, it is common to have students confused and bewildered by the process of writing something—anything—regardless of length or subject matter. It takes an especially patient instructor to help students overcome these self-imposed blocks to creativity and success. Thus, for my own benefit and future reference, and the benefit of the universe at large, here are some tips to becoming a better writer in general.

Read, Read, Read

Great writers read constantly. The biggest paradox I hear among my students is a supposed love for writing combined a hatred for reading. What is the purpose of writing without being able to appreciate written word itself? Authors learn how to write by following the examples provided by other writers. Writing is, thus, a strangely collaborative act. The patterns and turns of phrase devised by other writers influence our own work. For example, when I write fiction, I often inadvertently mimic the style of the great 19th century short story writer and novelist Kate Chopin because I admire her work and have learned many things from it. It is also a great reminder that our own works should provide meaning on multiple levels. Good writing conveys its message well, but great writing leaves an imprint.

Eliminate the Fear

The admirably prolific writer Isaac Asimov, according to science fiction author and colleague Harlan Ellison, “had writer’s block once. It was the worst 10 minutes of his life” (Wikiquote). While it is likely that Asimov spent longer periods than that not writing, what is clear is that Asimov had no fear of putting his thoughts down on paper. As the author or co-author of 506 book titles and numerous other short essays and fiction works (Seiler, “A Catalogue of Isaac Asimov’s Books”), we should all hope to produce as much as Asimov did in one lifetime. Working through the fear of writing is easier said than done. Discounting our own thoughts, feelings, and ideas as being valid and worthy subjects leads to writer’s block, a phenomenon ultimately rooted in fear. Knowing how and when to take a different approach to writing is just as important as writing itself. Free writing, using an outline, and writing about things you enjoy are just a few of the methods described at Ivy Sea Online’s Tips for Working Through Writer’s Block, one of the most helpful pages I have found on the subject.

Learn the Rules

That ever-annoying statement, “You have to know the rules before you can break them,” remains as true for writing as it does for any other creative endeavor: learning the rules of good style, form, and grammar are essential to becoming a better writer. Although many modern instructors view grammar as a secondary aspect to learning how to churn out meaningful content, I still believe it is important to develop one’s writing skills from a solid grammatical foundation. Understanding the “correct” way to write provides a springboard from which more interesting and creative styles can flourish. I know that my students must feel aggravated when I assign them writing assignments using specific modes. However, these modes of writing (the narrative, the comparison or contrast paper, the argumentative paper, the descriptive essay) provide the student with an opportunity to strengthen their writing skills within set parameters and specific organizational methods—a skill that is just as valuable, if not more practical, than free writing.

Practice Makes Perfect

Writing is a craft that must be honed daily. Like a muscle, writing skills build and develop the more we use them. Neglecting these skills ultimately leads to atrophy. While many of us have goals to write at great length on a daily basis (à la Asimov), the simplest of goals to achieve is to write in a journal on a daily basis. Journaling is an easy way of working through creative blocks, as well as a way of chronicling private thoughts for later reflection. Work from here to develop the confidence and desire to use your writing skills in other projects. If the desire to become a better writer is genuine, the time will be made each day to work towards it!

In the case of my students, I advise them to work on their paper assignments each day—45 minutes to an hour per session—in order to improve their quality. As the university I teach at limits composition classes to five week terms, this schedule is almost enforced to produce the quality needed for a successful grade. When I was a teaching assistant at a traditional, semester-based university, I encouraged my students to make a similar commitment. Those that truly follow this advice experience the most growth over the term.

Join a Team

Joining a community that is dedicated to the craft of successful writing can boost morale and provide the extra bit of encouragement necessary to undertake a project. Taking a writing class at your local community college, participating in an online writing project like NaNoWriMo, or joining a website for writers within your specific niche can help improve writing skills through a positive implementation of “group mentality” syndrome. It is also a wonderful way of meeting new friends online.

The concepts presented above are just a few ways to start the process of becoming a better writer. While this list is nowhere near comprehensive, it is important to remember that each writer has their own path to follow towards success. Some of us benefit from producing work in great quantities, while others benefit more from writing on a selective basis. Taking the time to play around with various different methods to strengthen writing skills will ultimately result in success!

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    • JT Walters profile image

      JT Walters 5 years ago from Florida

      I agree if you aren't an avid reader you will never be a great writer. Sadly, some of us read books in other languages which is counter-productive to writing in American/English.

      I also agree a creative writing class is a safe place to hone your writing skills.

    • swellgal profile image
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      swellgal 5 years ago from Kentucky

      I wouldn't consider that counterproductive, JT. The arrangement of the elements within a sentence may be different, but one does get a feel for how good writing should look on paper and sound, regardless of the language. The reading of foreign Western texts, in particular, could be helpful.

    • profile image

      Gelbee 5 years ago

      I have been a writer of primarily poetry from an early age..in the past 7 years, I have written over 100 poems/haiku's/Acrostic's, Triolet's etc., BUT I have never read that much...I know that's terrible...I should read more...and I do have fear, currently I'm experiencing great writer's block...I have a poetry site I've been involved with for some time now and am a Moderator on that I truly enjoy, but there are so many good writer's on there it's terribly initimidating for me...sigh...Just sharing.....Thanks for the helpful info....On top of all this, I have been involved in this hub thing for a while and have yet to create my own...just not sure what to start out with....

    • swellgal profile image
      Author

      swellgal 5 years ago from Kentucky

      @Gelbee, I can understand where you're coming from. I relate especially to the intimidation that you feel from the skills of other writers. Just remember that there will always be someone "better" than you in some respect, but your own unique combination of skills, talents, and personality will produce unique work that will appeal to someone. One of the reasons we write is to somehow connect with other people. We can't do that effectively without first being secure in our own voice.

      Speaking of being secure in your own voice, the best tip that I've ever heard to bust through writer's block is to write about it! Getting through the "stuck" phases creatively is what will spur you to write again. This reminds me of JRR Tolkien's "Leaf by Niggle," an allegorical fiction story about the author's own frustrations with writing itself and the thoughts, feelings, and events that interrupt his creative flow. (This story was written during the period that Tolkien spent writing LOTR, an undertaking that took 12 years! Once the story was written, Tolkien was able to move through some of his frustrations and produce his master work.) This is just one example of how your annoyance with your block may produce something worthwhile.

      Thanks for the message, and good luck to you.

    • JT Walters profile image

      JT Walters 5 years ago from Florida

      Thanks Swellgal,

      I will take it under advisement.

      JT

    • xstatic profile image

      Jim Higgins 5 years ago from Eugene, Oregon

      Great Hub and really good ideas for writers of all levels!

      Welcome to HubPages too!

    • profile image

      Gelbee 5 years ago

      swellgal~Sorry I'm just now responding. I thank you so much for your insightful and honest feedback about my problem with writer's block...it's most appreciated...Truly...

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