Sunday, March 13, 2011

Getting to the Next Writing Level

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

There’s a ton of information on the web about writing, querying, submitting, fixing your weak spots and improving your strong spots, but what do you do when you want to write, but have no clue how to get started? Or you’re not sure what to work on next to get to the next skill level? How do you turn it from a hobby to a possible career?

How much writing you’ve done and how solid your fundamentals are will determine how much work you might need to do to reach the professional level required for publishing. Here’s a general outline for gauging your ability and things you can do to get to the next level:

You’re not sure the proper use of punctuation, your grammar is iffy, and you’re not totally sure what the difference is between an adverb and an adjective. The only writing you’ve done is work or e-mail related, maybe a few creative pieces here and there. It’s something you’ve always wanted to do, but you’ve done nothing yet to improve your skills. Work on developing those basic skills as your first step. Read a few books on grammar and the basics of writing. Practice your writing so it’s formatted properly and the technical aspects are correct. Write about anything you want, but try to get in both dialog and exposition to get a feel for how it all works together.

Your fundamentals are good, but when people talk about things like POV and narrative drive you’re not sure what they mean. It’s now time to learn the lingo. Writing has its own terminology, and advice is going to come in that language. To benefit from that advice, you first have to understand it. Familiarize yourself with the common terms and what they mean, as well as how to use them. Then try writing a story that utilizing these aspects. Pick one at a time if you’d like to make it easier and allow you to focus on how it’s done. The goal is to understand all the pieces so you can start using them to your advantage.

You understand the common terms and what they mean. Your writing skills are solid. You’ve written stories, but your feedback often contains phrases like, “nothing happens,” or “what’s the point of this story?” This might be a good time to work on story structure and plotting. Read up on things like conflict and character arcs. Explore the components that go into a story, such as how scenes and acts work, what sequels are and how they all string together to form a novel. Study what makes a good beginning, what happens in the middle, and how you resolve the story in the end. Try writing stories with complete story arcs that start somewhere, fulfill a plot, and then end with a resolution of some kind.

Your writing’s pretty decent and you know how stories are put together. You can create plots and finish a story, but sometimes things feel a little flat. Feedback includes comments like “There’s too much backstory” or “you’re telling too much,” or “why are they doing this?” Try digging into your characters more and studying POV. Read up on character development, motivations, goals and stakes. Understand why they’re doing what they do and why they see things as they see it. Study how characters advance plot. Try writing stories that strive for clear goals and stakes, a solid plot, and character growth of some kind.

You write well, can craft a good story and get compliments on your skills. But not every story is wowing folks, and you know you have a few trouble spots here and there to work on. Work on your weak spots, those things that are getting mentioned in any feedback you receive (or the nagging doubts you feel about your own skills. Trust your instincts). Try looking at your pacing and how you feed information to the reader. Study what makes a good story, and not just the mechanics of a book. You have the technical skills, now it’s time to develop your storyteller skills and find your voice (if you haven’t already). Write the types of stories you enjoy and keep writing them. Learn how to revise and polish. Study books on editing and crafting compelling stories.

Naturally, not every writer will fit into this exactly, and some folks will be better at one area that’s higher on the list, and worse at others, but hopefully it provides a general guide to help you decide what you might need to focus on next. Trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to work on the things that you feel need work. If your plotting skills are strong, work on character development or storytelling. If characters are your thing, work on plotting. The goal is to have a well-rounded skill set that you can use to get those stories down on paper.

Each writer will find their own way of doing things, but every one will still need good writing skills and an understanding of what makes a good story. Don’t feel you have to do it all at once. There’s a lot to learn, and taking it step by step will allow you to develop strong skills at every stage, so when you’re ready to go pro, you have all the tools you’ll need.

Originally published during the Blue Fire blog tour at Ex Libris Draconis.


  1. Excellent Piece. I'm glad you re-posed it.

  2. Wow, this is cool!!

    but I didn't think I would be a beginner!! Seriously I didn't think so!!

    with warm regards

  3. Mary: Thanks! Me, too.

    AllMyPosts: That takes some of the pressure off, doesn't it? You don't have to be perfect, you can make mistakes, and as long as you're improving, you're moving in the right direction.

  4. Woot! This was great, and it made me feel better about myself. I'm waffling between Intermediate and Advanced. That's an improvement over the last year so there might be hope for me. :)

  5. Charity: Awesome! There's always hope :)