Chip MacGregor

September 18, 2012

How can I improve my writing?


Someone wrote and asked, “What is the one thing I can do that would most help me grow as a writer?”

May I offer more than one thing?

1. Write a lot. Most writers are really wannabes — they talk about writing a lot more than they actually write. But if you wanted to be a better pianist, would you TALK about playing the piano, or would you sit and PRACTICE? The same goes for dance, or painting, or singing, or baseball. Or writing. The best thing you can do to improve is to write more. (You want real-world advice? Set a goal of 1000 words a day, 5000 words a week, and get busy.)

2. Find experienced writers. For some, that means joining a writing group, in which you all write something and share it with each other every month. The critiques of others will hurt, but they will often help you improve. For others, that means finding a mentor — someone who may not have hit the bestseller lists yet, but he or she is a bit further down the path than you are. A mentor can offer advice, perspective, and wisdom to help you grow. For still others, it means simply making friends with a writer who is more or less on your own level and asking him or her to be your accountability partner, reader, and sometime counselor/shrink/psychic/motivational speaker.

3. Hang out with writers. We all get better by spending time with a diverse group of people who share our interests. Here’s a suggestion: If you’re a novelist, consider signing up for a good fiction conference (I’m heading of to the  ACFW conference tomorrow). A good conference offers some of the best training in craft outside of personal coaching or college classrooms, and spending a week with good writers is a great investment. If you’re a nonfiction writer, consider going to one of the big summer conferences. You’ll find good instruction, lots of friends who share your passion for writing, and one of the few remaining chances to be face-to-face with editors and agents. (And while I’ve taught at a couple hundred of these conferences, they’re not paying me anything to plug them.)

4. Read widely. Don’t settle for the same stuff all the time. Introduce yourself to new, young writers. Check out a bestseller. Pick up classic books. Try your hand at Twain or Dickens or Austen. If you’re a fiction writer, read a great nonfiction book (try Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm or John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air). If you’re a nonfiction writer, buy yourself a great novel and dig into another genre (have you read Susan Meissner’s Girl in the Glass yet?).  Stretch your reading boundaries this summer.

5. Do one thing to improve your craft. Buy a book on writing and try the exercises. Take an online class, or sign up for a writing workshop at your local community college. Check out one of the software programs designed to help you get going on your novel. Enter a contest. Give yourself an assignment to write an article for your local paper. (If you need suggestions for books on craft, I recommend Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life, Patricia O’Connor’s Words Fail Me, and Les Edgerton’s Finding Your Voice.)  And yes, I’ve recommended all of these books in the past. I’ll start recommending new things tomorrow…

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  • Cherry Odelberg says:

    Your first point hit home because I am a pianist. If I “can’t find time to practice” because I am busy reading master notes and novels about pianists, my next performance suffers. Lately, I have not been able to find time to write. Too many online writing groups, perhaps?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I love reading books about writing, but at some point I also have to actually WRITE to have them mean much in my life. Thanks, Cherry.

  • Rick Barry says:

    Underscore point #1. Love it. Some folks go through all the motions of reading about writing, talking about writing, attending writers’ conferences, puttering with their writer website–but then rarely sit down to write anything.

    There’s no point in would-be politicians who go around kissing babies, shaking hands, and printing up campaign posters if they never actually toss their hat into the ring. It’s the same with writing.

  • I love your posts. This one was especially helpful. Thank you.

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    This is a great list, Chip. In the past, I would have been 0 for 5, but now I can honestly say I’m doing 4 and 1/2 of these 5 items. (I still need to be reading more.)

    Another item that’s helped me a lot is sharing what I’ve learned with others. I think I learn the most as I prepare to tell it to others.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Good point, Peter. Talking about our work helps us understand it better, since it forces us to use words in another setting .Thanks.

  • Denise Hisey says:

    Thanks for the helpful hints, Chip. I think I need to print it out and tape to my monitor to help me stay focused.
    BTW a list of 5 seems manageable. Thanks,

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