How Do You Learn to Write?

We talk so much about the business of publishing on this blog, but it always has to come back to the writing, doesn’t it? I can’t overstate the the importance of taking the time and effort to master the craft. So how does an author objectively know the quality of their writing?
People are constantly telling me how frustrating it is. They send their work out to editors/agents and get rejections but no feedback. How do you know if you’re headed in the right direction?

I think the answer is that you have to learn any which way you can. You piece it together. You take the lessons where you can find them. This could mean:

→ You read books on writing, and books in the genre in which you write.

→ You’re a member of writers’ organizations and online forums.

→ You take workshops offered whenever and wherever you can find them.

→ You take creative writing classes, such as at a local community college (although I’ve heard these can be a waste of time).

→ You have a critique group (this may or may not help, depending on the qualifications of your critique partners, as well as your own personality).

→ You submit your project to agents and editors, hoping for scraps of feedback.

→ You pitch your project at conferences, again hoping for feedback.

→ You enter your manuscripts in contests, hopefully getting feedback as part of the contest results.

→ You take advantage of the “paid critiques” offered at most writers conferences.

→ You hire a professional editor to evaluate or edit your project.

→ You find someone to mentor you and walk alongside you for a time.

→ You simply write and read and write and read and trust your instincts.

Let’s try and help each other out with some advice.

How have you learned to write? Who gave you the most valuable feedback? What would you recommend to other writers?


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  • Katherine Hyde

    >The first thing I did was to read voraciously all my life, mostly in the classics. I also worked as an editor for almost 30 years. When I started writing seriously, I did nearly everything you mention. I got feedback from thoughtful, literate friends. Then I attended a mentoring group at Mt. Hermon and formed an online critique partnership with some of the people I met there. The next year I attended another workshop with Bret Lott, who helped me tremendously. Meanwhile I read lots of books on writing and gradually developed a greater ability to spot my own weaknesses. I also submitted to agents and editors and learned from their feedback. Repeat all the above many times over and you have the education of a writer.

    I always wanted a mentor, but that was one thing I've never been able to find. So far I've managed to stumble along without one, but I still hope.

  • Shannon Taylor Vannatter

    >I learned the most from attending ACFW conferences, joining a critique group through ACFW, entering contests with guaranteed feedback, and paid critiques. The book that helped the most: Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain. This book can be overwhelming. Read a section at a time and let it digest. The class that cleared the scales from my eyes so that I knew what went in a book and what didn't: Margie Lawson's EDITS System. She has the course on her website.

  • Stephanie McGee

    >I learn by doing. I learn by reading and letting what I'm reading feed my writer's instinct.

    Most of the time when I've gotten feedback there've been the occasional, "Huh?" comments, but the majority are comments that I was already thinking about. I already knew there were issues, I just needed distance from the manuscript and a second eye.

    I've tried using books on writing, but it goes in one ear and out the other. For me, they're too dry and too often come off as "This is the only way to do it and if you don't do it this way you're less of a writer." (At least to me.)

    I joined Critique Circle a long time ago but didn't have anything ready to be critiqued so my membership has been deactivated because I wasn't using the site at all.

    I joined Book Country and have been getting some valuable information from the discussions there. I haven't gone in to revise anything since posting it there so I can't say anything for how the critiques are helping me with that aspect of things.

    The most valuable feedback? My betas. They've given me lots of things to ponder as they've sent my manuscript back to me. The manuscript has shed much wordage because of full and partial critiques my writer friends have offered me.

    My advice would be to experiment. Write what tickles your fancy at the moment. (Especially if you're not agented yet.) Write outside your genre, even if it's just a short story from time to time. It'll exercise your creative muscles and might even teach you something about your craft. Read a book or two on writing and see if those unlock your understanding and execution of craft. Find what works best for you and stick to it.

  • Jens

    >Most writers are active readers, but it sometimes seems that very few of us actively write about the books we read and the traits of the writers we admire.

    This is even true of those of us who earn M.F.A.s or frequently participate in writing workshops.

    Sure, it's great to get feedback on our own personal writing at a conference, in a classroom, or with a paid editor, and it's actually quite wonderful to read the transformational books in our genres, but not that many of us take time to write longer, sustained pieces about the writers we admire. The analysis of themes, style, and voice seems an essential companion to our own writing practices, and it seems like one of those "things" that most successful writers do on the side.

    It forces us to analyze the craft we profess to admire.

    Perhaps it's as simple as writing a review online or making marginalia in the books we love, but sometimes it seems that an essential element of writing is the meta-writing: writing about the writing of others.

  • Melissa K Norris

    >Study your favorite authors. What about their style sets their books apart? Are their fight scenes edge of your seat? Do their black moments make you cry? Identify those things and then apply them to your own writing.
    Conference pitches are great, because generally the agent/editor will tell you why your pitch doesn't work for them.
    If you're lucky enough to get a personalized rejection, take a few days to let the sting subside, then go over that puppy. Really look at the reasons they list. Then dig in and fix them.

  • Kitty

    >I've been writing since elementary school put a pencil in my hand and taught me how to string words together. No joke, I've been writing that long and have never been published. It's been close to 30yrs. Even now I'm playing the agent game, seeing if I can finally get one of my stories noticed by somebody.

    I never had anybody teach me how to write. English classes do what they can but writing classes were a complete waste of time and money. My best advice to any aspiring or struggling writer is to get all the self-help books to writing that you can get and study them like their words are gold. Read author biographies (like I read Stephen King's On Writing) and find a series of books that help. To me, anything put out by the Writer's Digest editing team I found to be a big help. Other books that claim to have tips and advice, not so much. So when I have people coming to me for help, I tell them not to waste their college time and money in writing classes, don't bother going to conventions unless you're mixed in with a bunch of established writers in YOUR genre, and just spend all the time you have reading and writing.

    That's the best advice anybody can give somebody. I took that advice from Stephen King's book and then when I was stuck, I found myself asking Lynsay Sands, Madeline Baker, and Kerrelyn Sparks for some advice. They had some fascinating advice: No writer ever likes what they've written. So here's the way I look at it: I may think it sucks but really, it probably doesn't.

  • friendtoyourself.com

    >The best encouragement i got was from my sister-in-law who write, CretingBrains.com. She said, "Sana, you know a lot! When you start writing, you'll see. It will come to you. You won't believe how much you have to say." Now when I get stuck, when no words come, I remember this, the panic ebbs away and I start to write. That has taught me a lot.
    However, before this, I studied. I studied and I studied and worked really hard at getting the knowledge base that I have. I gained part of my platform before I even started writing, just by earning my degrees.
    It hasn't all been easy but being friendly to myself isn't supposed to always be easy.
    I share this story with others. Just write what you know. Go towards your interests, but also your credentials. Blend your asets, using your temperament as your guide. Keep on.

  • Nancy Thompson

    >First & foremost, read, especially in your genre. Then work with as many critique partners as you can and really listen to what they have to say. And read books like James Scott Bell's Plot and Structure. Outstanding reference! Then just keep on writing.

  • Melissa

    >I read, read and read – everything I could get my hands on. Then when I was old enough to go to university, I got a degree in a writing-related field. And because that wasn’t enough, I went for the master’s. I wrote literary fiction, submitted to literary journals and worked at a literary journal. Almost of my job titles have had the word “writer” or “editor” in them, and I continue to work as a freelance writer today.

    None of this experience prepared me for what I really wanted to do: write genre fiction. That was a steep learning curve. I read numerous romance novels — single-title and category — and studied the structure and style. I doubt I’d be able to do this, had I lacked a formal education, but let’s face it: studying with Famous Novelists of Literary Fiction was never going to teach me how to write romance.

    I’ve received the best feedback my entering contests and from critique partners thus far. I would like to work with an experienced editor with great credentials and have the opportunity to do so. Regardless of what happens with my current m.s., I feel it would behoove me to experience the process as though I were publishing a novel. Rachelle, your thoughts? ☺

  • Bethany Elizabeth

    >Oddly enough, I learned to write almost entirely through A) reading and B) writing fanficion. I know, I know – fanfiction isn't 'original', nor is it usually edited, but you learn a lot that way. I learned the importance of keeping a reader's attention at all times, grammar (because people love to correct it), and when to tone down the descriptions. Plus, I pounded out at least 200,000 words in the eighth grade because I wasn't worried about perfection. That really, really helps. :)

  • Jo

    >I always tell the Journaling Club at a Secondary school where I am a weekly guest speaker, that to be able to write you need to read. I read and read and read some more. I write, mostly journaling my life in East Africa at the moment, and submit to many publications as I can. I often don't get feedback but I take a deep breath and re-submit to another publication. I am way to far out in the African bush to join a Writers' Circle or Critique group and continue to practice to write on my own. In between I read, read and read.

  • Sharon A. Lavy

    >The best thing that ever happened once I realized I am a writer, is the permission to read.

    My father was a reader. And a book hoarder. I take after him in many ways.

    Mother . . . wasn't so understanding. She would catch me reading (I was a young pre-teen and younger, mind you) and would sigh. "I wish I had time to read." Or she would say "It must be nice to be a lady of leisure."

    So I would hole up in my room to read. Thankfully I married a man who loves to read. And his only request was that I keep it down to one book a day.) Which I sometimes do. =)

    But to have permission to read. To have reading to be a requirement. What Bliss!

  • Anonymous

    >I'm on my 4th paid coach. I love the feedback but it is frustrating that what one instructed me to do, another says never do. "This is not telling. This is ok". The next, "No, this is telling. Take that out." Same passage.

    Or "These are talking heads unless you show me the action. Make it real. Ground it with physical action."
    Next coach: "No, take that out. Slows down the pace showing their physical action. Just have them talk."

  • Lawrence J. Caldwell

    >I attended my first writer's conference a few years ago. Donald Maass taught the first class I ever went to. It was the best introduction to the world of writing. Later I bought his books on the Breakout Novel and I use them to write my first historical novel. It is so much fun.

  • Paul Anthony Shortt

    >Reading and studying the techniques used by my favourite authors was one of the most important things I did. I still do it, whether it's a book, a movie or a television show. I always want to learn more ways to tell my story.

  • Katie Ganshert

    >Sweet post, Rachelle.

    I offered similar advice on the post I wrote this past Monday: http://katieganshert.blogspot.com/2011/05/are-you-growing.html

  • Sue Harrison

    >One of my most valuable "learning" situations came when I landed a job at a university as the PR writer.

    I thought I knew how to write, but I learned that I had so much more to learn. My boss had been a long time editor for the Detroit News, and he was demanding but also a great teacher. He taught me to tighten up my work, to meet deadlines, to write radio ad scripts, to do interviews–

    During the time I worked for him I totally rewrote my novel Mother Earth Father Sky (5 a.m. mornings), and Doubleday bought it the year after I finished that rewrite. I owe so much to so many people who were willing to help me learn.

  • Heather Sunseri

    >I've been going back to basics lately, Rachelle. I think we can sometimes get so bogged down into doing ALL the "right" things – visit the right sites, make the right connections, learn the right rules – and forget to bury ourselves deep within our stories. I've spent some time the last few months reminding myself why I'm writing, what I want to write long-term, who I want to be as a writer, and the types of readers I hope to reach. All of those things have led me back to falling in love with storytelling. I figure if I can find and craft the right stories, then I should be able to persevere through the disappointments because I'm doing what I love to do. So my advice? Learn to love storytelling – find the right stories, then write them. Many of them. (oh, and invest in a wonderful library of the best books on craft, plot, structure, character, etc.)

  • Rick Barry

    >I especially underscore your final point: "You simply write and read and write and read and trust your instincts." Immersing yourself in good writing and practicing writing are essential. These form the double hook from which all other suggestions hang. I've known people who subscribe to writer mags, who attend conferences, who talk about writing… but who don't actually study successful authors and don't practice the craft regularly. That's a recipe for failure.

    Also,there's the reality that, just as not all people can become brain surgeons or airlines pilots, not all people can become publishable authors. It's not failure for a person to realize that his/her true gifts lie elsewhere.

    • Andrei

      I don’t agree with the last thing you said.I personally don’t believe that there’s such a thing as a gift or talent. The only true factor that is completely out of your hands is your genetic structure ( which implies the structure of your brain, how you function at a basic level ), everything else can be developed through persistence and deliberate work in the direction of your choosing, that includes exposing yourslef to the necessary influences, which you might have not received as yet, in order to shape your personality to better suit the vocation of your choice.

  • Richard Mabry

    >Everything you've listed is valuable, but for me the ultimate method of learning is doing-failing-adjusting-doing some more-lather, rinse, repeat.

    I compare learning to be a writer with my progression as a baseball play, specifically a pitcher. I read articles, I attended baseball clinics, I talked with other pitchers, and I practiced…and practiced…and practiced. Everything clicked except my curve ball. Then, one day, a big league catcher pointed out one simple thing I was doing wrong, I put it into practice, and everything jumped a notch. I didn't make it to the bigs, but I became a pretty good mid-level pitcher. My writing has gone the same way.

  • Jeremy Myers

    >All great tips. Especially that last one. I think I read somewhere that you have log 10,000 hours of writing before you submit your first manuscript. The simple process of writing teaches you to write.

    Blogging REALLY helps with this, because as you log those 10,000 hours, you can hopefully get some feedback, and build your platform along the way.

  • lauradroege

    >I'm surprised that people say many creative writing classes are a waste of time. Any idea why? (I guess it depends on the qualifications of the teacher.)

  • lauradroege

    >@ Jeremy-
    I've heard that 10,000 hours of practice is needed to master anything, too. Maybe this also includes reading: 10,000 hours of reading quality writing would help immensely in helping us learn what is good writing and how to do it. Just a thought.

  • Wendy Paine Miller

    >I’m still learning. Hope that’s always the case. I’ve done pretty much everything on the list you provided. My degree in English with a writing concentration certainly enabled me invest a lot of time in reading and writing. I was also able to gauge my preparedness by the positive responses I received once I began sending out my short stories and nonfiction works.

    And I like Doc’s point about putting things into practice. It’s one thing to read about sentence structure and story arc and it’s another to mold and apply lessons learned in your own work.

    Here are some other thoughts:
    Don’t get stuck on one book
    Read agent blogs
    Take risks
    When you read other books in your genre, take notes on what works and what doesn’t

    I posted this on my blog a few days ago…“'When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story…When you rewrite your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.’” from Stephen King’s On Writing

    ~ Wendy

  • J.M.Cornwell

    >In this age of computers and networking and all things about togetherness, it all does come back to writing. I wonder how all those famous and nearly famous writers did it before the advent of computers and networking. They didn't go in for books on writing or conferences or classes or critique groups, they simply wrote. And they kept writing, refining, reading and writing some more.

    You're right. It all comes back to writing.

  • Christine

    >I read a lot of books–in my genre and other genres. I read a lot. I write every day. I never give myself the "gee you've mastered it at last" talk. I read craft books. I am a member of the RWA and three smaller romance writing chapters. I attend workshops. I have solid critique partners. I pay attention to blogs with solid writing advice. I enter contests (but no longer for the feedback, just to get past the first round gauntlet). I tell myself that every rejection I get is a YES to learning my craft and becoming a better writer. I am getting better, but I have to work hard. Very hard. The closer I get, the more I believe I have to learn.

  • Jenny Rose

    >Well, I'm not published so I don't know that I "know" the answer but I read alot across mainstream and Christian and nearly every genre. I've connected with published authors across genres. I am on Writing.com and Scribophile.com (though because of family and other writing commitments haven't been there in a while) so I review/critique others work. I voluntarily write scripts for the preschool department at my church and get feedback there. I post book reivews on my blog and sites such as Amazon and GoodReads. I read some books on the craft of writing but mainly for the technical stuff such as query letters. I don't attend workshops or take classes due to time. I guess we'll see how far this approach takes me ;)

  • Rachael

    >Extensive reading led to extensive writing, but the thing that really honed my craft was having an excellent but sometimes overly zealous editor. She really helped me find and hone my voice and clean up my prose. It was good for me that she was overly zealous, though, because it made me fight for the parts that I really believed in and felt were necessary to my voice and the story, and those were often the pieces that made the work its best.

  • Jenny Rose

    >One more thing, I watch TV and movies and analyze the storylines, plot twists, the ones I like, the ones I don't like. Some say this media can be a distraction but TV and movies had to start as written scripts at one point, right?

  • Joanne Bischof

    >There are so many writers who craft a story better than I do and I've met many mentors through critique groups while others, I've bought and devoured their books.

    I think one key is always looking for that next challenge–reading above what I write, being critiqued by people who know so much more than I do and seeing the gems in their words whether woven into a story or scribbled in red ink.

  • Lisa Jordan

    >I've been a lifelong reader, so when I decided to write, I knew I had to learn how. I majored in fiction writing when I went to college the first time and learned the fundamentals. Through the years, I learned through the mentorship of others.

    The best advice I've received came from the mentorship of Susan May Warren and Rachel Hauck of My Book Therapy. They really help writers learn the craft and provide encouragement along the way.

  • Jan Cline

    >Good advice. I lead a fledgling writers group that really is bearing no fruit for me and I have considered dropping it, but Im afraid to let the few other people down that are faithful. It's hard to stick to what is the best use of your time. I also belong to Mick Silva's Your Writer Group Online and have learned a lot there. You're right about college writing classes – some are really weird!
    Happy Memorial Day weekend!

  • MJR

    >It's hard for me to know if what I've written is any good, but I do ask myself:

    –am I getting responses to partials? Lately I haven't so that is giving me feedback.

    –are beta readers enthusiastic? If not, I need to go back and rewrite. I want beta readers to be so enthusiastic that they want to pass the ms onto other friends etc.

    I think I improve with each project, so it's important to move on to other projects.

    I find writing books very helpful. I also borrowed from the library a course on CD from a professor from the Univ. of Iowa that was helpful.

  • jongibbs

    >"What would you recommend to other writers?"

    Find out what works best for you, then do that…a lot.

    PS: And don't forget to have fun :)

  • Cynthia Herron

    >I realized at a young age, I had a knack for telling stories. As I grew older, I read voraciously and I refined my skills through writing courses, writers' organizations, critique groups, seminars, and writing itself. And all of those things, I still find important. One significant aspect I've added is my reader who catches things (big and small) my brain might otherwise overlook after reading the same thing a hundred times over.

  • Jill

    >I have a degree in creative writing, have been to conference, have attended workshops, but, hands down, the best boost was my first critique group. I've never found another group as good that first one. I was the youngest writer, and this benefited me. Also, it was a mix of pubbed and unpubbed writers. Why can't I find a group like that again? A mentor might be helpful, too!

  • Keli Gwyn

    >I do several of the things on your list: read in my genre, read books on craft, attend conferences, attend workshops, exchange stories with my critique partners, enter contests that provide feedback, judge contests and give helpful feedback (I learn heaps when editing others' work since I'm not emotionally invested in it), and listen to the counsel of my agent and editors. And a biggie for me is to realize there's always more to learn and to push myself to improve as a writer.

  • Charcoal Renderings

    >A few friends from college and I have started a writers' workshop group. We're pretty spread out so we keep up mostly online, but once a month we try and plan a day to physically get together and workshop whatever we've been working on. It's been a big help already, having other people who know me and who know their stuff asking all the right questions to get me moving forward in my stories. I recommend an open forum with peers like this to anyone who really needs some honest feedback–and a fun afternoon with like-minded artists.

  • Jaime Wright

    >My mentor has completely inspired and held my hand through my writing. She has given me so many proven tidbits and even edits backed by her published expertise and having slogged through the mire before me. It's nice to have footprints to step into so the way isn't so murky …

    ACFW – has taught me mountains of writing training. Without ACFW I would be floundering – maybe I still flounder a bit, but at least it's not quite as dramatic of a flounder :)

    Critique partners who are willing to be brutal. I had a few who showered my ego with praises but eventually I started wondering if I was just THAT amazing of a writer or if they were just THAT loving that it hurt too much to be truthful. Enter new critique partners – one in particular – who practically had me rewrite the entire book I had written.

    And I second and third, Keli's comment – "there's always more to learn and to push myself to improve" – AMEN and AMEN!

  • H. A. Titus

    >Throughout my teens, I devoured every book I could find in m genre, both old and new, as well as reading 'how to write' books. I had a good friend who was also an avid reader and writer, so we'd get together and talk about things we were learning. It helped a lot to bounce ideas back and forth with someone who understood me! :)
    Once I graduated from high-school, I took a 2-year online course, went to a conference, read more books. This past year I've added a couple of online forums as well as a critique group with two friends who aren't afraid to be honest with me.
    I guess I did something right–I'm starting to have short stories accepted! ;)

  • Melissa Jagears

    >By far the best thing was finding critique partners that were "brutal" — they didn't praise me or only pick out the grammar/punctuation problems to point out, but were willing to say "this whole chapter just doesn't work."

    Prior to that, I'd read books, listened to conference classes, etc. but until someone said, "Melissa, this paragraph is telling, here's how you could show it" it didn't affect me.

    After so many months in the group, THEN I could go to classes, read books, etc. and then apply it to my own work and help my crit partners. I don't know, but there was just something "magical" about having the flaws pointed out in my own work for me to finally "see" it.

  • Sara Richardson

    >I have been so blessed to get feedback with nearly every rejection I’ve gotten from an editor. Not much but enough. One said, “your writing is not emotive enough.” I was thrilled because that single sentence gave me something to work on. Others have said, “great writing, but the structure needs work.” Again, that gave me a very tangible element to study. Working with, and learning from professional editors has been the single most critical factor in improving my writing.

    Craft books offer a lot of insight, but I find it’s more effective for me to read great books in the genres I’m pursuing and analyze them. I always keep a notebook for each novel I read. I mark in the books, take notes, go back and reread, map out the structure, etc. Not that I would necessarily do things the exact same way the author did, but studying the devices they used to write a compelling story is always beneficial.

  • David A. Todd

    >Not being able to pay an editor or a coach, I've no choice but to rely on the limited feedback from agents/editors, on my newly formed critique group, and on beta readers. Lack of feedback is the one of the most disappointing and frustrating things of my writing life. I've also participated in paid critiques for every conference I've attended, but found them of limited use. The book that was most helpful to me was Strunk & White's The Elements of Style. But…

    …I have had the most awful luck on beta readers following through. I have 100 percent failure on non-writer beta readers on my e-book, and close to 100 percent historically from non-writers. For fellow writers, it's somewhere around 50 percent failure rate. By that I mean I never receive the promised feedback, or it comes much too late to use based on deadlines. Possibly I do a poor job of picking betas. Having a family that doesn't care doesn't help. I have never yet failed to fulfill my end of a beta reading pair, and really don't understand my bad luck in this area of writing.

    I formed the critique group I'm in now, sponsored by our church. I had been without a critique group for about ten months. It's going to be good, but the problem is that I, the barely published writer, is the most experienced person in the group. So we'll have to see exactly what it does for my writing. Perhaps from critiquing the work of the others I'll gain more than I give.

  • Casey

    >I have found a great deal of help in Margie Lawson and her online courses. I've taken two so far and plan to take them all, she is a value worth her weight in gold in this writing world!

  • Flower Patch Farmgirl

    >This post was the best way to kick off my first Summer Vacation Quiet Time (aka all kids home and "resting")! I'm brand new to all of this, so I don't have anything to add. But the suggestions offered here are fantastic! Thanks!

  • Siri Paulson

    >I majored in creative writing at university, but as a genre writer among literary writers, I didn't receive much helpful feedback. I've also taken community college classes, but they were geared towards beginning writers, which by then I was not.

    The first thing that brought my writing to the next level was National Novel Writing Month. Say what you will about it, there's a lot to be learned by devoting yourself to writing for a month and slogging through a big chunk of a novel in a short period of time. I've done it for several years now, and each of my novels has been better than the one before. I can't sustain that pace outside of NaNo, but I set myself a time goal, usually 15 or 20 hours a month, which includes writing, editing, and outlining or planning.

    The second thing was finding a really good critique group made up of writers in my own genre. By now we have one published novelist, one published short-story writer, one agented, and several more who are close (IMHO) — but when we started, none of us were published. You do have to take into account the personal biases of each critiquer, but that's made easier when they all discuss a piece in person.

    The third thing was finding an online group, not for critiquing but for encouragement and nagging to write regularly. We talk shop, we challenge each other to meet mutual goals, we talk about our lives outside of writing. Twitter is a good spot to find like-minded people for the same purpose — just search for hashtags such as #MyWANA or #amwriting.

    I also read a lot of fiction, both in and outside my genre, as well as a lot of writing blogs. But I think that goes without saying.

  • Kristin Laughtin

    >I've found the most useful thing is, after reading the books on writing and studying and all that, is going back and rereading your favorite books. This usually helps me pinpoint what I like about the writing that I couldn't articulate before, and then I can (in theory) transfer those elements over to my own. (I don't mean to say I copy certain stylistic things or anything that makes an author's voice unique; I just look at things like sentence structure, dialogue, etc.–how they use the building blocks.)

  • Larry Carney

    >Discipline. Took martial arts a few years back, and that made me realize the need to focus. Just as one must put your all into every kick and punch, so must you put your all into every word you write.

    I would indeed recommend this to other writers. It's probably a better way to release frustration with the industry than with the bottle ;)

  • Kate Larkindale

    >Reading is the mot important thing. I don't think anyone can expect to be able to write a good book if they don't read them.

    And practice. Like everything else, you get better with practice. I look back on some of the things I wrote even two years ago and can see how much better what I write now is.

    And I can't say enough for how fantastic my critique group is. They're not afraid to be brutal when my work needs it, and my work is 100% better as a result.

  • candidkerry

    >Reading is a prerequisite to writing. Whether fiction or non, short stories, blogs posts, magazines…just read. A lot. It provides the foundation for writers.

    Joining a writing organization (like ACFW, which I recently joined) is an important step. It's counter-productive to write in a vaccum. (On that note, while family is wonderful for many reasons, they're NOT the best choice for critiquing a WIP!;)

    The feedback from ACFW's Genesis contest was sunburn painful but very insightful. I learned exactly where to focus my writing energy for my WIP.

    I appreciated the ACFW judges' helpful feedback and honesty because it ultimately benefits my writing.

    Finding a critique partner/group is the next step.

  • Loree Huebner

    >I always knew that I would write at some point. The first novel I wrote, nearly 10 years ago, I just wrote a mountain of manuscript…then another, then another. I queried, got requested, then got rejected.

    When I look back at recent revisions of these novels, the basic stories are good. I'm a much better writer now (by practice) than I was back then. I can now see where things need to be fixed. #1 Practice writing…so I say practice as my first tip.

    It wasn't until about 3 years ago that I started to really get IT, after reading blogs like yours, Rachelle, or blogs by successful authors. I learned many valuable tips just in passing on a blog. #2 Read great blogs written by people who know the business and writing. Really listen to what they are saying.

    I've also been studying the writing craft now where I really didn't do that in the beginning. Back then, I just flung it out there and hope it stuck somewhere. I read books on writing and took a class. I hope to get to a conference this year. #3 Read, study, and devour information on writing. This includes reading books in your genre.

    I write in a genre that's not easy to get published in, so I've got to make it right this time. I take things one day at a time and not rush through. I think we need to celebrate the small victories…a completed chapter, a re-write completed of a difficult part, a great blog post you wrote, a smaller publication. This month I will have a non-fiction, 10 page history article published. I celebrate that victory. #4 Celebrate your small writing victories!

    It is our nature to get excited when we see someone else getting published…we feel happy for these authors, but sometimes, we feel left behind. I don’t feel this way anymore. My time will come. I’ve learned that in publishing, it all takes time and patience. #5 Have patience with your writing. Have patience with publishing. Step back for a short period to gather yourself, if you need to.

    #6 Get a good critique partner who you can trust for an honest opinion. “That’s all I have to say about that.”

    Great post! I will be reading the comments for great tips.

  • Christine Rains

    >I've always been a big reader, and I try to read in a variety of genres. I have my favorites, of course, but it does help to read outside one's genre. I have encouraging friends and great critique partners online. Yet what has helped me the most is attending writing seminars at conventions and meeting with the authors, agents and publishers who were on the panels. It's one thing to read something, it's another to hear it and to be able to ask questions. I'm a shy person and I am terrified of talking in front of people. Yet, when I get the chance, I make myself get up in front of panels for their Read & Critique sessions. Their advice has helped immensely.

  • M.R. Anglin

    >I will always tell people who ask that the best thing you can do is take writer's classes. I took several in college, one at a community center, and one online writing class. These classes forced us to get used to critique, and that really helped. Also reading and critiquing other works helped me get better.

  • Sarah Thomas

    >I had no idea entering contests would be so helpful. The feedback I've gotten has been invaluable. I do think your last bullet is the most important, though. Read, write, read, write and then write some more. And after you've written, completely dismantle your words and discover that they fit together in a different, yet utterly wonderful way.

  • Leigh D’Ansey

    >All of your suggestions at the same time and different times. Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Although competitions have great value, I think writers can get too hooked on them. we need to keep forefront that the goal is being published, not winning or being placed in competitions.

  • Anonymous

    >I really learned to write in school — private high school, followed by an excellent small liberal arts college (where many classes required a paper a week) and law school. I've also honed my skill through practice. But to be honest writing is like many other artistic professions, whether it's fair or not the natural talent you start out with makes a big difference. We can all improve our golf game but we can't all play on tour.

  • Judith Mercado

    >It's quite simple. I learned by reading and writing, both voraciously.

  • Melissa Ann Goodwin

    >I think I learned pacing, plotting and dialogue from reading voraciously as a kid. But showing-not-telling and using active voice only came through writing writing writing. A workshop helped me learn how to include vivid descriptions – the hardest thing for me. Now I make descriptive lists in my journal: How cold was it? How did the room smell? And so on..

  • Mary Anne Graham

    >I think learning to write takes a lifetime of practice. Writing full time is my dream job, but my day job is practicing law. I like that phrase. It's the same that applies to doctors – it's the practice of medicine.

    So, the best way to think of learning to write is to consider it "the practice of writing." Like the law and medicine, you're always practicing because your craft will never be perfect.

    I think you write best by loving what you write, listening to your characters, and most of all – by writing and then writing some more.

  • Beth K. Vogt

    >First step: I earned a journalism degree, which effectively beat all the adjectives out of me and taught me to write tight and meet a deadline.
    Second step: After veering off the writing road to live life as a mom and a military wife for quite a few years, I scraped the rust off my journalism degree by taking the Christian Writers Guild Apprentice Course. And attended their conferences.
    Third step: Best thing I did, bar none, was join a critique group. Once you're in a trustworthy group, your writing improves tremendously because of the constructive feedback.
    Fourth and current step: When I transitioned from nonfiction to fiction, I joined a fiction critique group and attended ACFW and all of Susan May Warren's writing retreats. (And I'm repeating some of them!) These coaching retreats, which are small, intimate workshops, were invaluable in helping me learn how to write fiction well.
    And, yes, I read. Read, read. I'm reading James Scott Bell's books and Donald Maass' books. And books Susie's books . . .

  • Stacy

    >I think reading is a must. It not only allows you to learn from other authors but also helps to keep the creative juices flowing.

    I read both fiction and nonfiction in the mystery/suspense/thriller genre.

    Having a critique partner is a must, and a good critique group is even better, if you can find qualified writers. I think this is a fine line, however, because there can be such a thing as too many opinions. That's where you need to be a bit selective.

    Most of all, practice, practice, practice! My writing has improved dramatically in the 18 months I've been diligently working on it.

  • Jerry Eckert

    >My learning began because I grew up before TV and Mom took us to the public library every Saturday. I went to school overseas with British English teachers and graduated with a 9,000 word active vocabulary. Then, 50 years later, retired and bored, I started taking creative writing classes at my university. One prof. gave me hope, one became a mentor and a local author took me under her wing and did "slash and burn" edits on each draft. Then I attended writers conferences, coffee workshops, and read everything entitled "On Writing". so, look out world, here I come.

  • Gus

    >One of the best sources that I've found so far was a weekend writing workshop called Beyond Structure that is usually held in LA and NY. I traveled to the NY one from NC. It's not a shameless plug for the workshop. I was a real student who got a lot out of it. It's mainly geared toward screenwriting, but there were plenty of novelists there, too. Most of what was learned in that workshop focused on the editing process, rather than the first draft. I definitely recommend it.

  • Happy

    >I think you really need to be passionate about what it is you are writing- because if you're serious about your work-in-progress then you'll have to be spending a boatload of time with it. The only way not to get burned out is if your love for it is stronger than anything (and obviously that passion is going to be woven through those pages…)

    I read a ton of fiction and I also think books on writing are invaluable. You may be an instinctively talented writer, but you need to understand the underpinnings of the structure of a plot and the nuances of setting and character, etc. I feel as though the authors of the writing books I read are like my mentors.

    Having other people read your work is a huge part of the whole process. You can't skip it. Get involved in critique groups or find beta readers who know what they are talking about. And don't be afraid of the truth! It's the only way to improve, move forward and become a better writer.

  • Stephonavich

    >I've always found wonderful people who want to help. But an aspect that I've kept is the learning process doesn't end. Knowing that reminds me to listen to the one giving advice openly.

    Help is everywhere. There is a saturation of help. But I've chosen a selective few to keep me on track.

    All the suggestions given are ways I've learned. I think what helps me the most is listening.

  • R.D. Allen

    >Paragraph role-playing. I learned discipline, how to form a plot line, how to create realistic characters, and how to motivate myself through it. I've been engaging in original play-by-post role-playing for the last five years, and it's improved my writing amazingly. Most of the characters I use in my books are run through one of my RPGs first, to make sure I know their voice.

    It's also my main way to connect with other writers, and get constant feedback. :)

  • Neil

    >If you are hoping to publish a first novel, read other people's debuts, either first time novelists or the first novels of your established favourites. Ask yourself, what are the particular qualities of this work that enabled the writer to break into the market?
    And then, when your work is in full swing, restrict your reading to outside of your genre, to avoid being overly influenced by the voice of another.

  • Rebecca Bradley

    >I read a lot. I read books in the genre I'm writing in and I've also started reading in other genres that are completely different to see what the differences, if any, are. (I write crime, but am now a not so secret chick-lit fan!)

    I also read a blogs, specific to crime and specific to writing.

    I'm hoping that I have my head screwed on enough to be at least heading in the right direction and know that I have a lot of work in front of me.

  • Marleen Gagnon

    >Wow. Reading all the comments above I wonder if I'm even qualified to add something, but I started with the thought that I had something to say. I took a correspondence course. After completing a book I joined a local writing group who gives various classes of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and plays. I explored my writing through these classes. I've got a couple good critique partners who help. My shelves are filled with how to books. I read all the time, but I'm a really slow reader. And I write and write and write some more until it feels right.

  • christa

    >I found my voice through journaling (a la Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones).

    I read, I read about writing, I write about reading, I read. If you haven't checked out Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer, do so.

    But if you're writing to reach an audience, eventually you have to open yourself up to a critique partner or a group.

  • Lynne Hartke

    >Very few people have commented about taking a class from a community college – I will be taking my fourth one this fall. I found the professor's extensive knowledge extremely helpful, along with his critiques. Many of the young writers in the class did not have the life experience to be helpful, but in each class I always found 3-4 other students whose work I admired and who had good advice. I have formed a critique group from a class I took last spring.

  • Ane Mulligan

    >I first wrote and published plays. When my actors changed the dialogue slightly, I listened and rewrote the scripts. So I learned to write realistic dialogue from them :)

    When I started to write novels, I joined a critique group. There, I bonded with a few others and we formed our own inline crit group. We were all very serious about publishing, so we peeled off our thin skins and donned rhino skin. We worked hard to learn and hone our craft.

    One of my CPs is now a bestselling author. We all grew so much and none of us would write like we do without each other. :)

    Joining ACFW was another huge part of my growth as a writer. I had access to multi-published mentors, and met agents & editors and listened to what they advised. The day one of Zondervan's editors told me I was ready, that I'd learned my craft well, I was thrilled. It was worth the hard work and the years it has taken.

    I'm still waiting for a contract, but that's okay. Now it's in God's hands. :)

  • Fatboy

    >"→ You hire a professional editor to evaluate or edit your project."

    I've done this and been lambasted for it by other writers.

    I'm on my eighth book out of ten and I attempt to dissect and understand plotting. I've purposefully chosen shorter novels, 300 pages or less. At the end of each chapter I'll write a short synopsis beginning with the opening sentence and finishing with the last. Between is the synopsis.

    When I've finished the last book, I'm going to write a scene card for each and every scene. Then take each book individually, lay out all this material and refer to books I've read on how to plot and attempt to identify how the author weaved their plot thread through the novel. Time consuming and alot of work, but I feel it's helping already.

  • Jodi Whisenhunt / Magical Mouse Schoolhouse

    >Every one of your suggestions is great! I think I would add join Twitter! I have learned so much from so many experienced writers, editors, publishers, etc., by reading their 140-character snippets of wisdom and clicking through to their blog posts and articles that elaborate on those topics.

    You ask who has given me the best feedback. Honestly, you rank up there near the top of the list! I am still very grateful for that email you sent me a few months back. You didn't have to take time out of your day to encourage me, but you did. Thank you!

    Mary DeMuth is another amazing writer who gives selflessly of her time to share what she knows. Her books minister to her readers, and she herself takes time to help writers like me, who are in the early stages of our writing careers, to learn the ropes and to take steps that will guide us down the right path. I'm honored to call her friend.

  • Ellen Keim

    >One of the more unfortunate experiences I had as I tried to learn how to write was to take a college course in creative writing. What I learned was that others' opinions of my writing ability didn't matter; if my teacher thought my work wasn't up to par, that was it: it wasn't. For example, when I told my teacher that one of my professors had said that my writing had a lyrical quality, she flatly stated in front of the class, "That doesn't mean that it's good writing." I later realized that many creative writing programs teach a circumscribed way to write, and if you don't write that way, you're not considered to be an accomplished writer. I still have trouble judging the quality of my writing because she tore down all my preconceptions and made me start over. The problem is, there was no follow through because I never took another writing course.

  • Melanie

    >The thing that helped me the most was getting involved with an intimate group of writers. We critique each other's work – and the more we get to know each other, the more in-depth we feel we can be.

  • Anonymous

    >This may sound odd, but one of the things I like to do to improve my writing is to listen to country music. They have so much fun twisting and turning phrases around to give them new meanings. So, I listen or read lyrics, and then try it myself – just for fun. It's a hoot!

  • Julie Nilson

    >I would just don't just read, but read a lot, and with a critical eye. What about this book is making you desperate to pick it up and keep reading every evening? What about that book made you roll your eyes and return it to the library unfinished?

    And then write, write, write. Know that your first few efforts might not be very good, and that's OK. It took you a long time to learn to read, and it will take time to learn to write. Just keep working at it.

    (And as a side note, you MUST learn proper grammar, spelling, and punctutation. This can be learned. If you don't feel like learning it, then pay someone to check those things for you before you send any story out.)

  • Carol J. Garvin

    >With the exception of taking a writing class and finding an experienced mentor, I've done everything on your list, but still feel I have a long way to go… at least, that's what those instincts are telling me. Immersing myself in the writing community helps a lot — interacting with other writers and industry professionals via blogs, Facebook, and Twitter encourages me to be patient and keep learning and practicing. I suspect writing an exceptional novel is much like playing an exquisite piece of music — in addition to some degree of talent it requires learning technique and persisting through hours of practice.

  • otin

    >Writing for me is just like anything else. Sometimes it just flows effortlessly, while other times it is like pulling teeth. I only write when I am feeling it. I have learned so much over the past few years by blogging and the critiques that I have taken from some close friends who also blog. I think that your site has influenced me as well. Keep up the good work!

  • LV Cabbie

    >As others stated, it started out with reading. Every single OZ book in print in the 40's and 50s. A set of red leather books filled with children's stories. The Encyclopedia American, along with b&w AND color National Geographics. Book of the Month Club and Reader's Digest among a few.
    Did it help? I hope so. Have written books, novels and short stories. Right now have six publishers reviewing full manuscripts on two novels with three sequels.
    Will I get published? I have no doubt that I will. Just keep plugging away!

  • Shara-Rae

    >Hi Rachelle, I was wondering if you and anyone else reading this could suggest a good online writer forum or group? I read and write Christian contemporary fiction, especially romantic contemporary. Any suggestions? Thanks!

  • Violet

    >I went back to college after receiving numerous rejection letters for my first novel. I spent years learning how to edit, write and read critically in a professional context. Some of it stayed.
    Prior to college, I was involved in several different forums online, enough to make my head spin. I was looking in too many places to discover what was best. I have since learned that sometimes keeping it simple is better; to select a couple sources to learn from and stick with them. Overwhelming yourself won't do you much good.

  • Taz

    >How did I learn to write? My imagination told me when an idea once hit, "Quick! Go write this down!"
    I liked it, and wondered if maybe someone else would, too. In Jr High my little mini-books went around the classroom like wildfire and the content always made me think the girls (all leaning over each other's shoulders to read it at once) had better hurry up before it was time to get back into school work and the teacher returned.
    My love for English at school (yes, I was one of the weird ones) showed how to put things the right way, and reading lots in my genre showed not only what is out there but what has been done to death.
    Man, I'm still learning, and the biggest key to it is PATIENCE. Not everyone's gonna love it, and it's not always going to be perfect. If you can get halfway there, that's the road less travelled.

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