What Actually Makes You a Better Writer?

From Writer Unboxed:

We’re passionate about writing, and that passion makes us want to grow, to get better and better at our craft. Fortunately—or maybe not—there are whole industries devoted to helping us do that.

There are workshops, webinars, courses, programs. Craft books, editing services, conferences, support groups. Some, like the craft essays here on Writer Unboxed, are free.  Others can have price tags of hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

It seems reasonable to ask which, if any, of these classes and services actually help people improve their writing. To put it another way: is it “worth” signing up for all those programs and buying all those books? Or, in the end, is it a combination of talent, voice, and persistence—an elusive something that doesn’t lend itself to generalization?

I can’t possibly answer the questions I just posed, of course. But I can offer some reflections to help us explore them together.

First, let’s take a look at the ways that people try to improve their writing. For simplicity, I’ll divide them into two categories: those that focus on turning to “expert” sources outside oneself, and those that focus on turning inward, toward oneself.

External sources: Seeking knowledge and guidance from others

These “writing improvement strategies” are based on the assumption that there are people with more experience, wisdom, and objectivity who can teach us what they know—and thus, by the diligent application of what they advise, we can become better writers.

Sometimes this takes place indirectly—through craft books, courses, workshops, programs, and articles that offer guidelines, templates, lists, pointers.  I call them indirect because the authors and instructors may never see your actual pages; it’s up to you to absorb their advice and figure out how to apply it to your own work.

At other times, the instruction takes place directly when a professional—a teacher, coach, developmental editor, or other experienced mentor— reads your pages and explains what you, specifically, need to do to make it better. Because this kind of assistance is more personalized, it tends to be costlier than the generic advice offered in webinars and books.

Note: Direct advice can also come from non-professionals or semi-professionals, like beta reading services and critique groups. This kind of feedback is not necessarily meant to teach the author how to be a “better writer,” however.  As I wrote in my December 2022 article on this topic: “Unlike editors, there’s no expectation that beta readers will have advice about how to fix whatever weaknesses they find. They’re civilians, proxies for our future readers.”

Internal sources: Cultivating personal qualities, behaviors, and beliefs

Other strategies, in contrast, are based on the assumption that knowledge alone won’t produce better writing; vision, confidence, and perseverance are the fuel, the key to going beyond “technically correct” writing to discover one’s true voice.

This can mean changing one’s habits and behavior—for example, by creating a dedicated writing space where distractions are minimized, or committing to a disciplined, daily writing practice. Sometimes people undertake a structured routine like writing a minimum number of words each day, attending a weekly writing group, keeping a notebook of writing prompts, or making themselves accountable in some other concrete way.

The approach can also be internal, through developing inner qualities like confidence and determination. Belief in oneself can be strengthened by practices such as positive affirmation and meditation, or by participation in a support group.  Inspiration can be strengthened—and resistance or doubt can be overcome—by going to places or engaging in activities that are likely to evoke or renew that special spark.

These two approaches aren’t mutually exclusive, of course; many people partake of both.  But there’s also a third way—an approach that’s advocated less often, though I’m not sure why. Perhaps it seems too academic or old-fashioned. Yet I think it has much to offer.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed