January is often a time for setting goals for the year ahead. We make resolutions to go to the gym or give up alcohol. We aim to spend more time doing the things we enjoy or to be more forgiving human beings. And for writers, January can equally be a chance to press the re-set button. 2018 is now in the rear-view mirror. For myself, whilst I had some minor successes in the past twelve months, I want to build on that and generally improve my craft. This blog post, then, is all about my tips and tricks for taking your writing to the next level in 2019.
Don’t Forget to Read
Reading is essential to honing your writing skills. Any book, story or prose poem will do as long as you think about why it is good, bad, ugly or indifferent. Reading a variety of styles (classics, contemporary, style-over-substance, substance-over-style, high literature adventures, fantasy, crime, historical, state of the nation, cross-genre etc.) is the best way to understand the different avenues that you can go down as a writer. It should help give you inspiration to find new subject material and novel techniques that you might try.
Find Better Subject Material
Apart from reading, there are many places that you can go in search of inspiration. Watch the news, trawl clips on YouTube, go for a walk, listen to music, allow yourself time to daydream, take a trip to a museum, sit and observe everyday life from a new perspective. Sitting in a café, you might invent a backstory for every other customer – imagine what emotions they are feeling and why; imagine the thread of their conversations etc.
Writers are often told to ‘write what you know’ and I think that this is often misinterpreted. ‘What we know’ is intrinsically limited by the extent and variety of our lives, most of which are pretty dull and uneventful. Flip the phrase on its head, though, and you get ‘know what you write.’ If you research anything thoroughly enough, you can become an expert. And once you are an expert, you will much more easily (and believably) be able to bring a related story to life.
I think it’s important to write what you love (because this passion will shine through to your readers) but you also shouldn’t discard a whole genre or set of circumstances that you initially find uninteresting. Challenge yourself to find a novel twist on a tired trope. Challenge yourself to see the unpromising subject material in a way that it becomes enchanting or mysterious.
Improve Your Style
A classical musician will learn a lot by attempting jazz improvisation or playing through the chord sequence progressions of a pop song. A tennis player will find a lot of benefit from playing on different court surfaces or trying out different tactics. And in the same way, a writer can learn a lot by experimenting with new techniques. Try writing from a new perspective (1st person, 3rd person omniscient, past tense, future perfect continuous etc.), try structuring a story as a shopping list or diary entry, try writing in the voice of a contemporary teenager or a Regency period dowager. Even if your approach doesn’t work or reach the standard of your normal writing, there will always be something useful that you can take away from the experience.
Knowing your areas of weakness is really important if you want to takes strides forwards. It might be that you sometimes struggle with pacing or that tone of voice is not a particular strength. It might be that you are not as concise as you could be (I fully hold up my hand to that one!) or that you overload your writing with too much imagery. Whatever it is, try writing a story where you focus uniquely on that one area without worrying about anything else. Look back at a previous story and set yourself a target of making ten improvements to your area of focus. Find examples of other peoples’ writing where the pacing/tone of voice/concision is particularly strong and ask yourself how they have achieved it. Find examples of other peoples’ writing where there are notable issues in your chosen area of focus and think of how you might make it better.
Get Feedback and Set Challenges
One of the best ways to improve your writing is to seek out other people’s feedback. This can be a nerve-wracking process and it’s important to find beta readers or critique partners who you feel comfortable working with. Whilst it’s always nice to hear that your writing is brilliant, you want to get feedback that will challenge you to improve so it’s important that they point out the bad and the ugly as well as the gems. Once you have their feedback, think about different ways that you can improve the piece of writing (i.e. there is normally more than one solution to a sentence that isn’t working) and also whether you can learn anything from the feedback that applies to your writing in a more general sense. See my blog post about the importance of feedback at Lucent Dreaming for more specific thoughts on this.
Finally, one of the things that sometimes holds me back as a writer is the lack of any real deadline. I’m not a fan of stress but a small amount of pressure can sometimes be a good thing in bringing the best out of you. Therefore, setting yourself little challenges might just be the thing you need to write more efficiently or to help raise your game. There are hundreds of literary journals out there looking for submissions. There are also contests and anthologies where you might send your work. To give yourself something to aim for, why not challenge yourself to make one submission per month (or per week if you are particularly prolific!). Why not aim to write something for a prestigious competition? Or why not task yourself simply with writing a certain amount of words per day? Whatever motivates you, having a specific goal can really help focus the mind.
The majority of New Year’s resolutions are broken by the middle of February. We tend to be overly optimistic in what we might be able to stick to. After all, changing our habits is a difficult thing to do. Therefore, don’t try and alter your whole writing routine all at once. Make incremental changes. Focus on one aspect at a time etc. Don’t be put off if experimentation with new techniques doesn’t pay off straight away. As in anything, failure can sometimes be a good thing and it may well take until the end of the year to be able to notice whether you have improved at all. At that point, of course, it will be time for a whole new set of resolutions.
I've made a handy crib sheet all about taking your writing to the next level. You can find it along with other useful bits and bobs on my new resources page.