Techniques to become a better writer

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Story and art by Maureen Conlan

This may seem obvious, but it’s the No 1 tip. To become a better writer, write more. It doesn’t have to be the “great American novel” – not yet. Just write. It’s like tennis, or building mandolins – the more you do it, the better you get.

* Writers are typically told to “write what you know.” But also, write what you feel, what you think and dream about. Do research and write about what you don’t yet know (journalists do this all the time – instant experts).

* To be a better writer hone your skills of observation -- study people and situations around you, mull things over, tune into conversations, glean the subtext – what’s being said vs. what’s truly going on. Let your writing get under the skin of things – using humor, irony, keen insight.

* As you read other writers, underline words and phrases – what you see as good writing. Notice style, plot, dialogue -- what shines. Practice writing stories or poems using some of the same shine techniques.

* For inspiration and practical tips, read books about writing. The still classic is Brenda Ueland’s “If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit.” Many writers recommend Stephen King’s “On Writing – A Memoir.” “Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within” is another favorite. There’s an excellent series on writing published by Graywolf Press: “The Art Of…” It includes, among others: “The Art of Description,” by Mark Doty; “The Art of Endings,” by Amy Bloom; and “The Art of Subtext” by Charles Baxter.

* Keep a small notebook (such as Moleskine) in your purse or pocket to jot down ideas as they come to you. Index cards work just as well. (If you don’t do this, it doesn’t mean you are a bad writer; some writers find this helpful, some don’t.)

* Keep a file or notebook of interesting names. You can peruse the list if you get stuck on a name for a character.

* Be patient with the process. A story or poem goes through stages, a bit like a writer. The idea – conception. The birth – first rough draft. Sometimes a prolonged and awkward adolescence when you struggle with plot, characters and what you really want to say (subtext). Don’t give up just because your writing has a few spots and gangly limbs. You can nurture it to maturity.

* When you have a piece of writing pretty much the way you want it, put it down. Don’t look at it for a week or so. Then pick it back up and any possible holes or too much frosting (excessive adjectives, etc.) will be easier to spot.

* When you begin to buff, polish, cut or add to your finished writing, make every word work. Especially watch adjectives and small words that clunk up a sentence without saying much. The lady wore a pretty hat (weak). She was a woman of a certain age and she wore a red hat (better) that might have done the Queen Mum proud.

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