Was Shakespeare born with a writing quill in one hand and an inkwell in the other? Nope. He had to learn writing strategies. He started out as a beginner, an unpublished writer who needed to learn how to write. How did Shakespeare learn to write so well? By reading and absorbing the writing strategies of the authors who preceded him.
These seven writing strategies will help you take your writing to the next level. The great thing about writing is that the more you write it, the better you get. It’s a skill you can improve throughout your life, one word at a time.
1. Read as much as you can – in all genres
Hopefully, if you want to write one, you also have a thing for books. You don’t have to have read every word of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, but you should at least read widely in your genre.
Genre, you say? Well, are you planning to write thriller, erotica, urban fantasy, young adult dystopian paranormal techno-romance? Whatever flavor you intend to write, you should become familiar with what the readers of that genre expect. Each genre has its rules and norms.
2. Learn from the masters
Millions of words about writing have already been published. Take advantage of them. Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is a staple.
I also love Jack M. Bickham’s Scene & Structure (Elements of Fiction Writing), and Elements of Fiction Writing – Conflict and Suspense by James Scott Bell. Books like these can help you skip past many of the beginner mistakes that less-informed writers make.
3. Explore different ways to write
There are two main types of writers: plotters, and pantsers. Plotters sit down before writing and make an outline or a synopsis of the novel, then work from that to create the full length manuscript. Pantsers, on the other hand, forgo all that and just put pen to paper.
I used to be a plotter, and now I’m becoming a pantser. I would recommend you start out your writing career making outlines, because it will save you a lot of revisions later on. The desire to let your fingers go willy-nilly over the keyboard may be strong, but until you have a solid amount of practice creating stories, I would stay away from pantsing.
In Mind Mapping for Writers, publishing coach Daphne Gray-Grant offers outlining tips and strategies for beginning writers.
4. Learn how to tell a good story
“STORY distilled is…HOOK, BUILD, PAYOFF,” writes Shawn Coyne in The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know. “That’s it.”
Just about every story ever told is about a guy or girl who wants something (desire), and there is a cost to not getting it (stakes), and something stands in the way (conflict). Know these three things before you start is a crucial strategy for beginning writers, and you’ll be on the right track. Start typing without them and your story may flounder and go nowhere.
5. Learn how to write scenes and sequels
Scenes and sequels are the building blocks of story, and knowing this one strategy for writers will rocket you light years ahead of most beginners. A scene is a unit of conflict, and a sequel is the glue between two scenes. Your story will be made up of alternating and escalating scenes and sequels until the big climax.
Your character wants something. She’s got a big goal, such as getting the promotion or winning the contract from her rival biologist. In order to do that she has to achieve several smaller goals along the way. So she writes a business report to get the client. But her dog swallows the USB port with the only copy of the report. This is a scene: it has a goal, conflict, and a result. The goal failed, so now the character will have a sequel, in which she reflects on her failure with the mixtape, and decides what to do next to win the boy’s heart. That decision leads into the next goal and the scene. Pile up enough of these, and you have a story.
6. Find beta readers and critique groups
Now that you’ve finished your masterpiece, it’s time to let someone else read it. Other people can always spot mistakes in the plot or characters that you can’t see because you lack objectivity. Find beta readers you can trust to give you honest opinions (not just your mom, who’s legally obligated to tell you it’s perfect), and join a critique group, if there’s one nearby. In a critique group, you not only get help with your own story, but you learn editing by critiquing the stories of other writers.
7. Start writing your next project
This may be the most important writing strategy for beginners: know when to put that baby to rest. Maybe you’ll go on to write ten drafts of your manuscript. Maybe you want to give it just one more run-through to get it perfect. The truth is, it’ll never be perfect. Your next project will be better, because you’ll know now what you didn’t know then. And the one after that will be even better. Maybe you’ll send manuscript #1 out to agents and get nothing but a massive pile of rejection letters. That’s okay, just don’t give up. Stick that manuscript in the drawer, and get on with the next one.
Are you writing a book? Read 20 Ways to Write a Better Novel.
7 Additional Strategies for Beginning Novelists
- Protect your writing time to work. Published fiction writers are obsessive about protecting their time. If you don’t guard your time, no one else will. Keep your promises to yourself – it’ll give you momentum and endurance.
- Stop saying “this is the way I write.” Don’t get stuck on one particular way to write, outline, blog, or do research. Be open to exploring new techniques and abandoning the tools that don’t work.
- Know that writing is active, not passive. Write fast and write now. A practical fiction writing strategy is to avoid procrastinating, whether it’s revising chapter three or writing your fiction book proposal.
- Use mind maps. Fiction authors use mind maps for characterization, plot, chapter summaries, and whole books.
- Hear your own voice first. You don’t necessarily need to do Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, but you do have to hear yourself first. A strategy all writers need is to process the world through their own experiences. This helps them understand their characters.
- Use a working journal. In a working journal, you write a sentence or two about what’s holding you back from writing today, or what’s bothering you. Then you move into your book or article – and suddenly you’re writing dialogue or description! For fiction writers, working journal is for both life and the book.
- Consider fiction writing tools such as Scrivener. This is a writer’s software program that many fiction writers can’t live without. Scrivener works faster, saves every two seconds, allows you to separate chapters and scenes, and files your scenes on the side of your desktop.
If you feel overwhelmed with all these writing strategies, you are in good company. Even the most published, famous, successful authors struggle with motivation, time, and energy.
“I just feel like I’m failing forward,” says New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author Vicki Pettersson. She describes herself as a mule who wants it really bad…so she stays focused and determined to keep writing her books. “Writers sabotage ourselves in so many ways to keep ourselves from doing what we want to do.”
Where do you start? Read 5 Steps to Writing a Killer First Chapter to WOW Readers.