How to Improve Your Writing Craft

Posted by: Kevin Tumlinson 2 months, 4 weeks ago

We don’t talk much about craft.

It’s not that craft isn’t important. Knowing your craft, as an author, is one of the three most important parts of the business.

Those three top-tier considerations for writers are:

  1. Know your craft
  2. Develop a writing discipline (write even if you’re not “inspired”)
  3. Market your work like a business (because it is)

In that order.

There are more, but if you have those three down, you’re in business.

The trouble with craft—more specifically, writing craft—is that it’s not quite as measurable as the other two. When we talk about it, it’s usually in vague terms that are hard to define, much less chart.

Writing Craft: A Definition

Ask fifty different writers to define craft, and you’ll get 250 different answers, depending on their mood.

But to get better at something, you need to be able to measure it. And to measure it, you need metrics—the something to measure. You also need a solid definition to work with. So, even though you can certainly find different definitions out there, and you may even have one (or 250) of your own, let’s start with at least one decent definition to work with.

Writing Craft is the practice of using specific elements to create a story that is readable and appreciable by your target audience.

For ease of use, we’ll mostly refer to this as simply “craft” going forward.

There are a number of pieces in that definition that we need to explore, and I think you’ll start getting a better grip on the concept of “craft” if we break them down.

The Elements of Writing Craft

Like the definition of craft, “elements of craft” can have a lot of definitions. Some people consider the use of specific style guides (such as MLA, AP, APA, Chicago Manual of Style) to be part of the list—a consideration that can lead to a lot of bickering and in-fighting online. Just ask around about the use of serial commas (aka “the Oxford comma”) some time. Or whether to use two spaces or just one after a period.

Go there at your own risk.

Style guides vary (and vary, and vary, and vary), but there are basics of craft that we can agree on

It should be noted, by the way, that the following list is in order of importance, as defined by me. Your mileage may vary.

Characterization – The personality traits of the characters in your story.

For fiction, this will mean mostly your protagonist (main character), your antagonist (the main villain), and supporting characters (sidekicks or just random characters that help move the story forward).

 In nonfiction, characterization tends to play a lesser role, but it may still be there. If you are presenting historical or contemporary events, for example, or perhaps writing something biographical, characterization would be your tool for relaying to the reader some essence of who the subject is.

HOW TO MEASURE IT: There won’t be any specific value that you can look to and see whether your characterization is on point. It comes down to asking and answering a question: “Does what I wrote convey who this person is?”

If yes, then you have a success on your hands. But to measure that value, you’ll want to get opinions from a variety of readers.

This is where having beta readers can come in handy. If you give your book to at least five people, all of whom are part of your target audience (more on this in a bit), and ask them to describe the character in their own words, you’ll be able to gauge how effective you’ve been. IF their description more or less syncs up with your own… success!

Dialogue – The way your characters communicate

Talk is cheap, but in writing, it can mean the difference between a gripping story that readers can’t put down and a dud they walk away from after just a page or two. Dialogue is the second most important element of craft because it is the vehicle that conveys characterization, as well as essentially every other element on this list.

We’re calling this “dialogue,” which we typically use to describe language “spoken” by the characters. So, essentially anything in quotation marks. But internal dialogue is just as important.

In a third-person limited POV (see below), you’ll often find yourself needing to convey what a character thinks, as much as what they say. This can be a wonderfully powerful tool for shaping your story.

If, for example, your character says one thing but thinks another, the reader knows they’re getting an insider’s glimpse into what’s really happening in the story. They may now know more than the other characters, which is kind of a kick. But more than that, they become confidants of the character, which increases their investment in that character.

Readers are more likely to want to continue reading, to see how things turn out, if they have a personal investment in the characters.

Spoken dialogue can be useful for relaying important information about a character or story, though you do want to avoid exposition by dialogue.

“Show, don’t tell,” as the rule goes. It’s better to show your readers what’s happening and what’s important by the action in the story, rather than having your main character explain it to someone else.

But using dialogue to fill in the gaps is sometimes essential.

For example, if two characters just narrowly escaped death at the hands of a bunch of armed mercenaries, you wouldn’t want your protagonist to say, “It’s a good thing we had this car parked with the keys in the ignition, waiting for us!”

You want them to rush to the car, climb inside, and race away as bullets thud in staccato rhythm against the trunk, glass shattering in a glistening confetti into the back seat.

And at that point, the sidekick shouts, “Why didn’t you tell me you had this thing parked there the whole time?!?”

HOW TO MEASURE IT: Your use of dialogue, internal or spoken, needs to serve the purpose of moving the story forward, always. That’s Dialogue Rule #1. If it doesn’t move the story forward, rather than halting it in its tracks, it’s bad dialogue.

One way to test this is to remove it and see if something stops making sense, or if the action of the story grinds to a halt. If the scene simply doesn’t work without that line or that thought, keep it in. If you can move on without it, pull it.

By the way, if the dialogue serves to establish characterization, then that, too, is moving the story forward. Sometimes people say things simply because of who they are, even if it may be antithetical to the situation they’re in, and that’s how we get to know them.

Imagine Spider-man without the one-liners, and you’ll get the idea. Dialogue reveals character, which serves to keep the story moving.

Point of View – The perspective from which the story is told

Point of view (POV) can be a powerful storytelling tool. It can change the type of story you tell, and it has the potential to make or break your story as well.

First-person uses “I” as the protagonist and narrator. “I saw the murder happen right in front of me.” Or “I conducted research into this topic for six months, while boarding with my hosts in Kenya.” The advantage of this POV is that it feels more intimate and personal to the reader.

That can be a double-edged sword. If your protagonist is relatable and likable, this can make the reader sympathetic. They’ll root for the hero right away.

Of course, it can also be fun and useful to make the narrator unreliable or even unlikable. In these cases, the reader gets a kick out of seeing the other side of the mirror, slipping into the shoes of a bad guy, perhaps, or feeling a sense of “what the heck is going on?” throughout the book.

Second-person uses “you” as the protagonist. “You turn just in time to see a flaming sword swing for your head!” Or “You watch, your eyes stinging with tears, as your chances of escape fade with the afternoon light.”

This isn’t a common POV, and it can be pretty tricky to pull off. You mostly see it in “choose your path” stories. It can have the advantage of giving the reader a sense of immediacy and personal investment in a story—the consequences of the tale impact their lives, even if in just a small way.

Third-person is the most common POV, and there are actually “sub” POVs you can use with it. This is where the protagonist of your story is someone else, and the narrator describes the action that takes place as if they are outside and above it all.

We won’t get into the weeds here, but third person POV can essentially be omniscient (the narrator sees and knows everything, from the perspective of all characters) or limited (the most common, and the narrator may see and know everything but only reveals one perspective at a time to the reader).

For nonfiction writers, your POV will almost always be third-person omniscient, with first-person being a close second.

HOW TO MEASURE IT: This one’s actually a lot easier to measure, with some general rules of thumb. Just look at the personal pronouns. “I” will be first-person, “you” will be second person, and if you avoid personal pronouns altogether, or use them sparingly, it’s third person.

Pacing – the speed the reader feels while reading

Speed is a tricky thing to master when it comes to writing. Mostly because it’s variable by reader. One reader will find something “fast-paced and gripping!” Another will find the same work “plodding and boring.” Hair-pulling for writers, to be sure.

The key, of course, is writing for your target audience. We’ll discuss that in a bit.

When it comes down to it, though, authors control pacing in a number of ways. You may vary the length of sentences, for example, or the number of sentences in a paragraph. Long paragraphs can slow the reader down a little, while short paragraphs—maybe just a sentence—can make the pacing feel more immediate.

Case in point…

See what I did there? You can control (to a degree) the pacing of a page by controlling the rate at which the content is delivered.

One thing to try for here is rhythm.

There’s a science to this sort of thing, and there’s no way I can get into the details of it without making this section a whole lot longer. But ultimately, it all comes down to feeling your way through it.

When you’re writing, where do your fingers stop? Where do you pause to catch a breath? Where do you start feeling you should speed things up or slow things down?

A lot of the control over pacing comes from word choice. Complex, multi-syllabic words can slow the pace, while short, brief, sharp-toned words can speed it up.

Soft consonants can slow the pace. Hard consonants can increase the pace.

Short sentences mean speed.

Long, flowing, resonant sentences, with asides and built-in pauses, can mean a slower, more relaxing pace.

You can see by the examples above how this works.

HOW TO MEASURE IT: Read back what you’ve written. Read it aloud. Take note of where you pause and where you rush. Take note of where you take a breath.

Feel that rhythm?

You may not have even noticed it while writing, because it becomes a natural part of the work. But spend time paying attention to it, noticing it, so that you can better control it and use it intentionally.

In fact, you don’t have to do this exclusively with your own writing. Try it with every piece of writing you encounter (even this one). It can be a good practice to take something you’ve read, especially if it holds your interest, and study its pacing and rhythm. It can help you refine this part of your own craft.

Plot – the cause and effect of your story

Whether you are a plotter (someone who outlines their book before writing) or a pantser (someone who writes without an outline, “by the seat of their pants,” also known as a “discovery writer”), plot still plays a vital role in your book.

If you’ve ever had to endure a long, winding story from a child or strange uncle—one that seems to have no point and no payoff at the end—you know what it’s like to skip plot. The story feels unsatisfactory. It feels like it’s just words for the sake of words.

There are hundreds of ways to handle plot for your book. And pretty much any of them is the “right way,” depending on who you are. Some common techniques include:

-       The Three-Act Structure – Essentially, your story has a “beginning, middle, and end.” Which sounds pretty “well, duh,” but that’s only because three-act storytelling has become the de facto method of storytelling for Hollywood and publishing. It’s such a standard that when someone breaks it, we feel it instinctively. See Syd Field’s “Screenplay” for a wonderful breakdown of this structure.

-       The Hero’s Journey – Made famous by the work of Joseph Campbell, and then even more famous by Star Wars, the hero’s journey is a storytelling method derived from studying the common themes and structures in mythology throughout the ages. The basics are The Call to Adventure, refusal of the call, the journey, transformation, atonement, and the return. I’ve glossed over quite a bit here, but I do want to note that Hero’s Journey and the Three-Act Structure can actually work well together, though telling your story in three acts isn’t necessarily a requirement.

-       Non-linear storytelling – If you’ve ever seen “Memento” or “Pulp Fiction,” you’re familiar with this method of plot. The events of the story are told out of order—sometimes with the ending told first, or starting from the middle. Again, this works well with a three-act structure, but it isn’t required. Some stories have as little as one act, and as many as five. Maybe more. Writing is crazy.

There are other ways to handle plot, but those are the three you find most often in the work that likely inspired you to get into this business. You’ll note, too, that they all can either stand-alone or work together. Thus making any discussion of plot all the more challenging.

But to simplify things a little, we can determine that plot is a progression from beginning to end (linearly or otherwise), complicated by events, and ultimately resolved.

Basically, your job is to describe a cause and then its effects.

You’ll hear the term “plot point” used in discussions such as these. That’s just a fancy way of saying “cause and effect.”

Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle are killed (cause), and he decides to join Obi-Wan on his quest to help Princess Leia after all (effect). Otherwise, he was content to stay home and be a farm boy forever. The plot point changed the game and moved him into the adventure, which is the part the viewer (or the reader) is there to see.

HOW TO MEASURE IT: Plot is the action of your story, but it’s also the resolution. All action and no resolution means no plot. That’s boring and annoying for readers.

At the same time, easy resolutions, that happen as if by magic, are also boring. We want to see a struggle—whether it’s the struggle to reclaim a lost artifact or the struggle to win the heart of someone the character loves. And to have a struggle, you have to have complications.

So to measure all this, you just need to be aware of the plot points, and to answer some basic questions:

-       What is it your protagonist wants?

-       How will you deny them that desire?

-       How will you get them to not give up?

-       How will they work to achieve what they want despite the obstacles?

-       And finally, how does all of this change them, by the end of the story?

Voice – the style and tone of how you tell your story

I saved voice for last, even though it could potentially be first. Because honestly, if you have a strong enough voice in your work, it can overcome just about any other weakness your writing may have.

How often have you listened to someone tell a story to the end, even if it was on a topic that didn’t quite interest you, just because they were great at telling it? I remember reading a post from someone writing all about replacing their RV toilet with a composting toilet, and I was riveted right to the end because they were entertaining. It’s not like I read about toilets all day. Usually.

Voice is a skill, not a talent.

It’s important to note that right off the bat because when reading reviews of books, we often come away with a sense that the writer had a natural talent for storytelling that gave them an advantage. And in some sense, this could be true. But more often—the majority of the time, in fact—a writer’s voice is more a function of time spent honing their craft.

In some sense, voice is craft.

The way to shape your voice, as a writer, is exposure and practice.

Exposure to the work of others—in other words, reading the work of others—helps to train you and enhance your instincts. You’ll get an ear for what good writing sounds like, making it easier to pick out.

You probably have a favorite writer. Probably have a few, in fact.

Why?

What is it about that writer’s work that resonates with you, when so many others didn’t?

It may be an ethereal quality that’s hard to define or pin down. But as you read, pay attention to the turns of phrase, the rhythm, the expressions of ideas that really hit home with you. Take note of the verbiage used to describe something, especially something that would otherwise be mundane. Really spend some time thinking about how the writer hooked you with their words. And then try to replicate that yourself.

Benjamin Franklin, in an apocryphal story from his youth, was said to have improved his own voice and craft by reading something that he found inspiring, then putting it aside and trying to rewrite it from memory. The point of this wasn’t to memorize the passage, per se, but to get his brain to sync with the voice of the work. He was teaching himself to have an ear for good writing, by attempting it again and again, and measuring it against a specific standard.

Which leads us to…

HOW TO MEASURE IT: Try this for yourself. Go back to a book or blog post or article you’ve read that really hit home with you. Read a passage that you find inspiring, and then try writing it from memory.

You won’t get it perfect the first time. Just try to capture the elements of it that stuck with you, first. And then compare it to the original and see where you went left as they went right. And then, try again.

After trying that for a while, branch out. Try writing about something else entirely but attempt to make it sound like something your favorite author wrote. Switch it up by trying to write about the same subject with the voice of multiple authors.

Do this with a variety of passages until the voice becomes instinctual. Then try your own voice. You’ll find that things will have changed, and the way you wrote before will seem overly simple or stilted or lacking depth, while you are not gaining greater sophistication in how you write about any given topic.

Practice makes perfect.

Measuring your success comes from there. Comparing early writing with later writing and being able to identify where the earlier writing was weak, will give you a means of measuring your growth as a writer.

Those are the essential elements of craft, but we haven’t yet reached the end of our definition from above. The following sections will give you a quick look into the rest of the story.

Readability and Appreciablity

“Appreciabilty,” by the way, is apparently not a word, according to spellcheck. But I need a term to convey this aspect of your writing. And as I am a writer, professionally, any word I invent is officially a word. Science.

Basically, readability and appreciability apply to the quality of your work, from the perspective of your readers. All the elements we described above apply here. They are the blocks you use to build the story your readers will inhabit for a time.

Readability is the ease with which readers take in the story, and how “sticky” the story is for them. Do they read to the end, or drop off somewhere in the middle?

Appreciabilty is a measure of your book’s long-term nostalgia for the reader. Is the story memorable? Does it make them want to return to the world you’ve created and live it again?

Good craft starts with considering these factors, in terms of your target audience (we talk about this next). And the way you improve on either of these is by paying attention to how other writers handle them, as well as to the response you get from readers.

This is where having an advanced reader team (beta readers, street team, or whatever term you prefer) comes in very handy. You might consider constructing a team from both the readers of your work and from other writers in your community.

One approach to finding advanced readers is to pay attention to reviews and feedback you get. Often, I will get emails from readers who like my work but have found something wrong—a typo, a continuity error, maybe just an awkward turn of phrase. They will email me or reach out to me on social media, to let me know what they’ve found. And if I find them polite, and their advice useful, I’ll sometimes extend an invitation for them to join my street team.

It’s helpful to have other writers on your team, and you can usually find willing participants in writing groups, Facebook groups, or (even better) at writer’s conventions. Just be aware that adding writers to your advanced reader team is typically a two-way street—a reciprocal relationship wherein both of you swap work from time to time, reading to help each other out.

If you do add writers to your advanced reader team, make sure they are operating at a skill level that is at least equal to, if not above, your own. It does little good to take advice from writers who aren’t successful at the craft. Look for writers who are accomplishing some of what you’re trying to accomplish.

Your Target Audience

The most important aspect of the writing business is the reader.

Seriously, even books that are poorly written, have terrible covers, have no real marketing, and maybe even have no plot can be successful if the author takes the time to build up a readership. I’m not going to name names—but there are bestsellers out there that read like something written by a barely literate school child.

Getting to know your reader, and then producing work aimed specifically at that reader, is an absolute must. Here are some tips for doing just that:

Create a reader profile: Just like it can be helpful to create a character profile, a reader profile can help make decision making and style choices clear. Spend time writing up a description of your ideal reader. Include this person’s name, gender, interests, career choices, and anything else that might inform how they spend their time.

BONUS: If you have this information about your reader, it will not only help with improving your craft, it can be used for targeting your marketing efforts.

Hang out where they hang out: Facebook groups, live events, retail stores… wherever your ideal reader would spend time, you should spend time there as well. Start looking at the world through their eyes, seeing things the way they see them. Learn to speak the language of their everyday lives, so that you can incorporate some of that in your work.

Join their groups: Become an active member of the things your readers are a part of. Spend time volunteering for their charities, chatting in their forums, geeking out over their passions. It’s important to remember that as you participate in these things, it’s not about promoting your books. You’re spending time getting to know your reader by focusing on the things they focus on. You’ll eventually have relationships with these people that can open opportunities to mention that you’re a writer and that you have books for sale. But that’s a bonus that comes after a lot of time and work. Aim to build trust first, and to sell second.

Your Practice

The key to improving your craft is to put the things you learn into a regular practice. I recommend doing something daily—and it’s not as difficult as you might think.

We all have busy lives. That’s going to make things challenging, no matter what. A lot of writers dream about the days when they’re able to spend all their time writing, with no other distractions.

They dream because that’s all it is.

No writer, anywhere, ever, has a life devoid of distractions. Day jobs, kids, family commitments, community commitments, health issues, even other passions and pursuits can all derail your writing. The life in which you can spend eight hours a day working on your book is rare.

It might not even be desirable. Hear me out.

When I first started publishing, I was working as a copywriter, full time. I’d tinkered together stories and books for years, but always in the cracks between work and home life. Still, it was something that was important to me, so I made time for it. I may only have had an hour or two a week, but I spent them writing. And eventually, they paid off.

Later, when I started seeing some success from my work, I was able to leave day jobs and other obligations behind, and focus exclusively on writing books. All day, every day.

The result?

I wrote less, not more.

I found that, somehow, despite having a full day open to me, I ended up doing anything but writing. Given the chance to do nothing but this work I loved, I found that I had to do something else just to get myself inspired. The something else usually took over—paint the house, put in a new floor, get the car washed, organize the garage, build a new desk for the office. These are all good tasks. But I would do them instead of writing.

What I found was that I needed limits. I needed deadlines. I needed to have windows of writing time, with a clear beginning and end. And with those, I became more efficient. If I knew I only had two hours a day to write, I spent those two hours writing, not letting anything else distract me.

Once I embraced that limitation, the work too on a new hue. It became easier. It became something I was fighting for.

Limitations can help make your writing career work.

The other key to developing a strong writing practice was consistent effort.

On the whole, I usually recommend a daily writing routine. Write X number of words per day or Y number of pages. Whatever your metric, apply it every single day.

But sometimes “daily” isn’t possible. You might have a slice of time each week. Or each month. And those times are the times. That’s understandable. It’s fine.

Here’s the reality: Success only comes with consistent effort.

So here’s what I recommend:

  • Choose a time to write and make it sacred. Daily, weekly, monthly, doesn’t matter. Choose a time, put it on your calendar, tell friends and family you are officially unavailable, and then do it. When life gets in the way, adjust that time to somewhen else. But become consistent. Also, I do recommend daily, even if all you can squeeze out of each day is half an hour. Commit to daily effort, and you’ll see rapid progress.
  • Measure your work. Choose a target. A daily word count is good, and pretty standard. As is a daily page count. And the amount doesn’t matter as much as the consistency. So if you can do 100 words per day or 5,000 words per day, good. Just commit to doing that every day (or week or month) without backing off of it.
  • Learn something new every day/week/month/year. Study craft and apply what you learn. It won’t always work. Sometimes advice seems good, but doesn’t click, or doesn’t have the impact you’d like. But just like committing to a writing goal, committing to a learning goal will help improve your writing craft.

Becoming a better writer really comes down to spending the time and energy to doing the work and learning how to do the work better. There’s no secret sauce here, no magic spell, and no scientific formula. Getting better is a function of commitment and effort.

Read—a lot. Read good books and read bad books. Then try to figure out what makes them good or bad.

Get into reading groups to discuss the books you read.

Spend time talking to other authors—especially authors who are better at this stuff than you are. I recommend attending writer’s conferences, in person or virtually, to start finding authors you can follow.

Improving your craft will happen as you put in more effort. Putting in the right effort will improve things even faster.

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