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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 skills.

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'.

The more sharply focused a class is - for example, on writing a memoir or magazine articles - the more valuable the instruction is likely to be for you. Look for classes or workshops that include feedback from an instructor who is both a working writer and an experienced teacher. Avoid general classes in "creative writing," which are likely to be geared to fuzzy-headed beginners.

The most valuable writing class I ever took was a class in editing at the University of Massachusetts. Through lectures and exercises, we covered concepts and techniques like levels of editing, organizing headings and subheads, University of Chicago style vs. AP style, and creating a style sheet - topics which proved their worth to me again and again in the next two decades, not only for my own writing but also for coaching others on writing projects.

Published! How to Reach Writing Success


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 compound-complex sentences.

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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 writing business.

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 kind.

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.

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5. Asking a friend or relative for feedback

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 online editor.

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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