How to be a Better Writer

reading time: ca. 3 min

As you might have guessed from the short stories i wrote this year, I am a writer. * Not only because I write on a regular basis, but also because I worked at a editorial office for a couple of months and most of all because I studied Creative Writing & Cultural Journalism for three years, which has taught me a lot more than I realized at that time.

* Just to clarify: English is not my native language, so don't judge my writing skills by this article :)

With that particular academic background I will provide you with the basic guidelines to improve your writing. I will cover all three phases of working on a text - from grouping your ideas using certain criteria and outlining the skeleton or framework of your text via "just" putting one word in front of another until you're done through to double-checking your work. I will also share some tips that may help you with your creative, non-academic work such as that short story or novel you are struggling to write. Every writer can get better, and no writer is perfect. So here are some tips that helped me improve!

source: omghow

The theoretical stuff:

Similar to the article I wrote on How To Write A Term Paper last year, we need to start thinking of "writing" as three different stages: Pre-Writing, Writing, and Post-Writing

Too many people assume that you can simply "sit down and write", and that's it. While this might work for some - especially in the field of creative writing that i will cover down below -, it is not the best method to pursue a text. After all, writing is an art or a hand-craft, which needs to be learned and trained and exercised. 

Here is an overview of the three keystones of writing:

Pre-Writing (~ 30%)

- brainstorm
- mind-map
- gather and group ideas
- do some free writing
- journal, keep a diary
- in case of an Academic Paper: gather your sources (and start a bibliography)
- research and take notes!
- collect your bullet points (key ideas/information)
- look for evidence to support your claims
- plan and outline
- organize

For fiction, have a clear vision of your characters' biographies, chapters, story arcs.

For non-fiction, get your text structure straight, like this:
I Introduction - thesis statement
II Body - subsections with topic sentence and supporting sentences
III Conclusion - final thoughts/comments from a subjective, possibly provocative criticizing perspective **

Writing (~ 40%)

- set the mood (cup of tea or coffee, mellow music in the background, perhaps a public spot like the library to keep you from busying yourself with personal stuff, no distractions, maybe disconnect from the internet)
- start writing
- keep writing

"With a good plan the thing writes itself!" (my English lecturer)

Post-Writing (~ 30%)

- proofread
- edit
- get peer feedback
- consider your audience focus (what does your audience want/need to know?)
- interrogate every word
- check for cohesion and coherence
- check your structure, organization, word choice, conciseness...
The creative stuff:

- Before starting to actually write it down, get your ideas straight. This particular step is called plotting - constructing the plot -, where you develop your story arch(s), character interaction, turning point, synopsis of the story. First draft of: exposition, inciting incident, rising action, conflict, climax, falling action. Plan out your scenes instead of willy nilly attacking the page.

However, don't just plan to write — write.

- Consider participating in a program such as NaNoWriMo to force yourself to sit down and writing without re-thinking every single word.

- Write a fictional character biography
I do this for some of my main characters. write down their interests, their greatest fear, their deepest wish, secrets, obsessions, flaws, relationships to other people even if they might not appear in your story, future character development and events... get to know your characters! Maybe even imagine being on a date with them, and asking them a bunch of questions :)

- Find your spot. As in: Find a place comfortable but also "focused" enough for you to work. Also as in: Find your best time of the day for writing. (Are you a night owl or a morning person?) And as in: Find your own genre and niche. (Are you a short fiction writer or a novel writer? Historical fiction or magic realism? News article or satire poem?)

- Draw actual sketches of your characters or a specific scene. This will help visualize and characterize their personality.

- Create conflicts. Challenge your characters (otherwise there won't be any development). All you need to do is throw them into a kind of literary "Hunger Games" (arguments, deaths, losses, fights, moral conflicts...) and let your characters find a way out of the dilemma. In other words: Let the story write itself!

- Character description:
Rather than through outer appearance and direct description, try to depict the character through his actions, dialogue, thoughts, reactions by others etc.
Show don't tell. 
For example: instead of TELLing your audience that your character is nervous, SHOW them by letting your character pace about, fidget, smoke a lot, etc. 

- A scene doesn't seem to work for you?
Then try to re-write it from a different point of view!
Or change the location.
Or the character's gender.
Or the tense you are writing in.
Or put the cart before the horse and start the scene off with the ending. 
Try out alternative plot developments, or change the order of events. If you're not sure why you dislike a passage, rewrite it without referring to the original, then see what you like best in each version.

- As Jack Kerouac said: "One day I will find the right words and they will be simple."
Be plain. Be precise and clear. There's nothing wrong with a poetic writing style, but know what you want to say, and get it across.

- If you are struggling with finding a good story or topic, i'd like to quote another great writer, Kurt Vonnegut: "Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about."

This sounds a bit creepy but i do this all the time. I watch people - or rather human behaviour including my own! Write down snippets of conversation that you hear. Sometimes i will even try to imagine the story behind that person and write a text about it. For me the best places for observing human nature are trains, train stations, cafés, parks... any place really :)

- Write everything down, even if it's the middle of the night and you're half asleep. This will a) help you keep your thoughts organized and b) otherwise you will forget even your most brilliant ideas - especially those. So keep a little notebook handy and write down ANY ideas for stories or articles or novels or characters or plot twists or visual details. Some day even the most unlikely detail might come in handy.

- Whenever possible, read your writing out loud. Does it sound like it was written by a human being or a cyborg? Are you stumbling over excessively long sentences? Catch any typos or duplicate words? If so, tweak and read it out loud again. 
(If reading aloud isn't possible try lightly tapping a finger on your desk or thigh as you silently read each word in your head. - It's bizarre, but it works almost as well as reading out loud!)

- Be confident. Don't doubt your own writing skills - practise makes perfect! If you don't make the first step, you'll never get anywhere. And if you're stuck on writing, chat with a friend and use voice recorder, or stomp around your office or hallway and talk things out. Or do some free writing without the pressure to produce something great - that way you will relax and get your creative juices flowing again :) 

- Write about things you know. Write about things that seem incredibly obvious to you (and that you're perhaps overlooking). I believe that there is no such thing as a bad story - there's just bad storytelling. Trust me, you can even write a brilliant text about the peeling of an orange!

- But also: Challenge yourself! If you've been writing for a while, chances are good that you keep getting drawn back to a particular style, topic, or format. How will you ever know whether you're good or miserable at writing contemporary fantasy or a movie script if you've never taken a shot at it?

One of my favourite motivational quotes is: "Get out of your damn comfort zone. If you're work is too safe, it is too boring. Do something daring."

- Last but certainly not least: WRITE.
I know, this might seem as a Captain Obvious kind of advice, but in my experience this very simple point has been underrated many times by many people. Writing is a craft, and therefore it needs to be trained and exercised. Develop a consistent routine, for example from 10 a.m. till 2 p.m., and maybe work in short but concentrated burst of 15 to 90 minutes in a row. The more you write, the easier it gets, just like any other habit.


Write anything, and i mean it: diary, blog, essay, letter, poem, song lyrics, nonsense-scribbling in your scrapbook, fan fiction about your favourite celebrity, notes on people or situations in the street (see above), a polemic paper about your annoying teacher, even a mere transcript of somebody else's text... If you’ve got blank paper or a blank screen staring at you, it can be intimidating, but the longer you put it off the harder it will get to overcome your inhibitions.

So what are you waiting for? Flex your writing muscles!

**Think of your Academic Paper as a sandwich: The top bun as the introduction, the bottom bun as the conclusion, and the meat in-between as the body and the substance of your text. Both top and bottom are made from the same stuff ("the bun"), meaning that they don't introduce anything new, they just wrap everything up and hold it together. However, the top (the introduction) should be more interesting, eye-catching, attracting the readers attention - whereas the bottom (the conclusion) is more flat, not as "fluffy". It simply restates the meat (the thesis) in different words and summarizes the material, maybe plus some final thoughts and suggestions for further examination. 

Other writing-themed posts you might enjoy:

Tips to Write a Seminar Paper


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