Improving Your Writing: Seven Options
by Marcia Yudkin
Hundreds of years ago, there was only
one way to master any craft: apprenticeship. If you
wanted to shoe horses, you put yourself under the
tutelage of an experienced blacksmith. The same went for
printing, carpentry, masonry and painting, among other
Today, if you want to master the craft
of writing - to improve your ability to achieve effects
with words - you have many options. Here are seven ways
to boost your ability to write well, with tips or
anecdotes for each.
1. Writing classes or workshops
In a classroom setting, you can learn
principles of good writing, study worthy examples
selected by the teacher, and get practice seeing how
guidelines should or should not be implemented in your
work and in others'.
2. Writers' groups
Writers' groups often meet in
participants' homes and may or may not have an official
leader. More democratic than a class or workshop, they
usually involve people taking turns bringing in work for
feedback from the others in the group.
Without a knowledgeable leader, this
kind of get-together sometimes functions more like a
support group than a learning opportunity. But in a
group of people who are serious about writing and all
roughly at the same stage of writing experience, you can
receive and learn to offer very helpful insights on
writing. If there's a leader, he or she sets the tone
for critical comments, keeps discussion on track and may
even teach a bit.
For almost ten years, I led a small
writing group for Boston-area professors working on
academic articles and books. The participants asked for
a short lesson on some aspect of writing at the
beginning of each meeting, with the rest of the two-hour
session devoted to critiques of two or three pages of
their current work. One time I taught them the four
types of sentences and principles of sentence variety,
and for weeks afterwards they were excited to tinker
with their mix of simple, compound, complex and
Learn how to get your point across in
one page or paragraph as well as how to
satisfy a strict word count for magazine
or newsletter editors. Discover how to
identify and cut repetition, eliminate
excess verbiage, make your point fast
and convey a wealth of facts in a small
space. My longwinded clients asked for
this! Become more
3. Writers' conferences
Lasting from one day to one week, a
writers' conference often focuses primarily on how to
succeed as a writer. However, some conferences include
hands-on group critique sessions and/or an opportunity
to get one-on-one feedback from agent/editor. A few
offer lectures on technique.
At one famous conference I attended,
public feedback sessions were brutally humiliating and
not particularly instructive. In my observation of more
than 50 writers' conferences over the years, they are
generally too large and with too many egos strutting
around to serve as a setting for learning how to improve
your writing. Where everyone divides into small, focused
discussion sessions, there may be a better learning
environment. In any event, you can make valuable
contacts at a conference and glean a lot about the
4. One-on-one with an editor,
mentor or coach
Besides learning in a group, you can
work on your writing one-on-one with someone who has
skills that you lack. Although this option costs more
than a workshop, group or conference, it normally
concentrates precisely on what you need to learn.
Usually you'll submit work in progress and either
receive written comments or have a telephone or
in-person conference to discuss edits, flaws and
improvements. Look for someone who is both rigorous and
I've picked out an editor for my next
book who lives one town over but whom I haven't met yet.
He spent many years as an editor for the respected
literary publisher Houghton Mifflin, and from reading a
book he wrote, I believe he will relate to my topic.
Because I'll be venturing into a genre I haven't
published before, I will depend on him to help me keep
the book engaging and moving along at the proper pace.
Athletes never outgrow having a coach, and the same
holds for writers.
The Ultimate Private
Workshop... in Paradise
If you could use intensive feedback and
guidance on your writing or a publication
project, come work with me one-on-one next
spring on Maui.
retreat is structured so you have ample time to
relax on the beach and tour the island, too -
and if you're already earning money as a writer, your whole trip is
5. Asking a friend or relative for
The wisdom of this move varies wildly
with who your friends and relatives are. Some may catch
mistakes that you missed, while others urge you to fix
elements that are perfectly okay. Still others, wanting
to encourage you, tell you "Great job!" regardless of
what you wrote. And I'll never forget the time I saw
someone give back a piece of writing to a friend with a
sighed "So amateur..." Be cautious with this option.
6. Online tools
The Internet offers some tools that
can analyze a piece of writing and identify its
technical flaws, such as grammatically mismatched nouns
and verbs or overuse of passive voice. If you're unsure
about the correctness of your writing, such tools may
help by flagging trouble spots. Even so, you need to
understand the concepts underlying the computer edits -
which are difficult to pick up without a teacher.
I remember encountering the phrase
"dangling modifier" for the first time ever when I was
more than 30 years old. Fortunately the workshop leader
who'd written it in red ink on my manuscript explained
it to me so that I understood it wasn't a nitpick, like
not ending a sentence with a preposition. It's something
that gets in the way of the reader's comprehension. I'm
not sure I would have grasped the idea from an automated
7. On your own
There's a great deal you can learn by
reading attentively. When you read something that's well
crafted, go through it again slowly, looking for the
techniques that produced the admirable effect. You can
do the same when you encounter poorly written content.
Books on the principles of good writing can also help by
alerting you to what to look for when you read and what
to apply in your own work.
In my mentoring of copywriters and
nonfiction book writers, however, I have seen how hard
it is for most people to apply principles that they know
intellectually to their own work. Self-study doesn't
necessarily help you identify your own strong and weak
points or tell you whether your attempts to improve are
effective or make everything worse. This takes me back
to methods #1 and #4 above as the top routes for
becoming a better writer.
Copyright 2016 Marcia Yudkin. All rights reserved.
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