What are the Basics of Writing Well?

by Joe Bunting | 59 comments

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“How do I improve my writing skills?” Nearly every day people email me questions like this. The questions come from the most unlikely places, from fourteen year old aspiring novelists, from corporate and government leaders who want to help their colleagues communicate better, even from people trying to improve their English.

“Practice,” I often tell them. But what do you practice? What are the basic skills you need to learn to write well?

Improve Writing Skills

Over next few months in my Friday articles I'm going to be focusing on this question: what are the basics to writing well? But first, I need your help. What do you think the basics are to writing well? 

I'm not talking about writing novels or short stories or poetry or blog posts here. I'm just talking about regular, everyday writing. How do you write better emails, reports, essays, memos, not to mention those blog posts, short stories, poems, and yes, even novels.

What are the ten or twenty things you need to learn and practice to write well?

Do YOU Want to Be a Better Writer?

If you'd like to improve at writing, you know by now you're in the write place (oops, the “right” place… sorry, bad habit).

So what are you struggling with in your writing? In which areas would you like to grow? Have you received any negative feedback and know you need to improve your writing skills?

Share your insights and struggles about the basics of writing in the comments section. In the next few months, I'll answer your questions here. Looking forward to it!

What are the basics of writing well? What are you struggling with in your writing?

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Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

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  1. Chloee

    For me the basic of writing well are a deep plot line, action, and a few twist though the story just to make it daring.

    But I get so wrapped up in the action I sometimes forget to describe the details in short quick sentences instead of a few words.

    Then whn I think I have the perfect ending I get wrapped up in it and forget about the rest of the story.

    And all my chracters look the same.

    • Chris

      I totally agree with you on the basics of writing well 🙂

      I have trouble with the ability to know if my story is interesting, original, creative, not clichéd, and not predictable.

    • eva rose

      You create some beautifully scripted scenes with excellent detail. I am curious to know where they will lead next? Focus on grammar, spelling and sentence structure will hold your reader’s attention.

    • joncarllewis

      Add some people of color!

  2. themagicviolinist

    I think the first step to writing well is starting by writing about something you’re passionate about. If you’re excited about what you’re writing, your excitement will show, and will–hopefully–get your readers excited. 🙂

    I really struggle with balancing my dialogue and my description. Instead of weaving both of those things together, I often have one or two page chunks of just dialogue or just description. I have to make a conscience effort to try and balance myself.

    • catmorrell

      PASSION is the most important tool in a writer’s tool belt. I just figured something out. My passion is not necessarily for writing, it is for the learning. I am a life long leaner. I give myself permission to write for the fun of it. Thanks for that epiphany in one word.

  3. Karoline Kingley

    I think clear communication should be the primary objective in whatever kind of writing you’re doing. Using effective vocabulary while being succinct, sets good writers apart from the average person trying to compose a business email. Talking about something you have some experience in, or are at least passionate about it can also be a good first step to becoming a better writer. I’m looking forward to this series!

  4. Paul Caudell

    I’m struggling with giving my characters their own voices at the moment. I want to go back over my dialogue but I’m forcing myself on as I’ll just end up editing it all and never finishing the first draft.

    • Chase G

      Do you talk to people a lot? I find that the more you “just talk” in conversation, the easier it is to write dialogue that is believable.

    • Mirel

      Actually, I think it’s listening to people rather than talking to people that helps you write effective dialog. To do that, you don’t have to engage in conversation. You can listen to people who call in to radio shows, talk on television, the movies etc.

      My current WIP is written from the viewpoint of four different characters. Before I started writing them, I devoted thought to what is unique about each character to make sure that they all had distinct voices. One is more philosophical, and talks using more high blown phrases and fewer contractions. One is more down to earth and humorous, another one is practical and very short and to the point etc. The same with more minor characters. I ask myself, what is different about these two people, and then try and reflect it in their voice. Actually, it’s been a lot of fun developing their voices.

  5. purple dragon

    It’s hard to argue with other posters’ nominations: distinct voices, varied and precise vocabulary, passion, and action. In terms of mechanics, I am focused now on: 1) good idea structure (I write non-fiction), but this can benefit from an eye to action and plot twists as Chloee suggests, 2) solid and varied sentence structure, including especially more short sentences for punch, 3) making the “so what” to the reader clear, which requires showing my passion per magicviolinist but also clearly knowing who my reader is, and 4) , echoing Karoline, efficient word use (in other words, per Elmore Leonard, leaving out the parts the readers skip over).

  6. Debra johnson

    I am currently writing non fiction ( because it pays the bills right now) but often struggle with A)style, B)word choice , and C) organization of chapters. I am greatful because the topics i am writing about are things I have some experience in because these things have happened and I can make non fiction into fiction at times. So my new writing venture incorporates both.

  7. Israel Luna

    Some basics I think. Not in any particular order.

    1. Know your audience.
    2. Say more with less words.
    3. Understand the difference between written word and spoken word
    4. Read more

    • Chase G

      Completely agreed.

  8. catmorrell

    As with anything to become better one must have a desire and be open to learning new ideas. Practice with no fear, like a toddler learning to speak or walk.

  9. Maymunah Rose

    The very kindergarten basics, which complex further on, is mastering

  10. MA Scott

    Start your writing day with a warm up exercise. Choose something that isn’t critical (whether you send it or not) like a product, book or movie review; an op/ed piece; or even a description of what you see outside. Organizing, structuring, and using language are ‘cross platform’ skills so it doesn’t matter what you write as your warm up. Like with exercise, this brief warm up will get the blood pumping for the real work that follows.

  11. Hao Ja

    I have always encountered these issues in my writing.

    1. Idiomatic expression
    2. Syntactic ambiguity
    3. Choice of words
    4. Didacticism
    5. Verbosity

    Do you think these issues are more common among writers whose first language is not English?

  12. Chase G

    I find that writing well means realistic dialogue and only revealing enough to keep your audience interested.

  13. Tanya Bain

    I struggle with grammar and sentence structure.

  14. Bookerthewriter

    I’d admit that I have an above average vocabulary. However, when writing, I seem to have this “constriction” in the types of words I use. How is it that I broaden my arsenal of word usage when writing- in the natural way and not in a forceful measure?

  15. TheCody

    I’m presently working with some bigger picture stuffs, like:

    1. Always ensuring my character has a goal and obstacles that stand in the way of that goal.

    2. When someone mentions a “weak narrative”, I’m not completely sure how to address it.

  16. csarp

    I’m a big picture kind of person and I struggle with having something worthwhile to say! Once I decide on a basic message, then I struggle with all of the things listed below.

  17. Jim Beard

    Jim Beard
    I struggle with: voice, person, tense, punctuation, and formatting and use of inner dialogue. The C M of Style is my constant companion.

  18. eva rose

    To me writing well means a strong opening to capture a reader’s attention, concise sentences, care to avoid cliches (find a different way to express a thought), paint a picture with words to carry your reader to the scene and create realistic dialogue.
    I struggle to find strong character names, consistency of point of view, building the magic of a memorable story.
    Thanks Joe!

  19. Shay

    I mostly struggle with showing instead of telling when I write. Also, my villains tend to be very corny , cliched and flat.

  20. Shay

    I meant showing instead of telling lol

  21. T Hopkins

    I have no problems with beginnings, ends, or with the characters. It’s that dreaded “meantime” in the middle of the story that always gets me. How to get from Point A to Point B. Or sometimes transitioning to another scene and feeling that something needs to be there to help the flow of the story. Grrrrrr.

    • LZ Clotho

      A good read for you may be Nancy Kress’s Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, obviously with most focus on the middle section, but her advice in the beginnings section may help you fix what muddles your middles most before you even get there.

  22. darlingbaba

    I feel that my writing is someplace inside, but can’t find the way out through my fingertips on a keyboard. I have a story of my husband’s 9 lives, yet it just languishes inside of me. That’s it.

  23. lyssa

    For myself I struggle with grammar after I have struggled with trying to capture the moment. Dialog comes easier than description. I can hear what my characters say, but how they look, how they move, that I struggle with. Those nasty descriptors. I find myself becoming enamored of a particular word or a sound so it sneaks into every phrase. And once there it wraps its tendrils around the paragraph so to remove it the whole of the days writing will have to be abandoned. Only after weeding those out can I begin to look at grammar. Then I ponder the comma, the semi colon, the colon over and over. Repeating phases till I drag out the diagramming techniques from eighth grade.

  24. LZ Clotho

    For me the basics of writing well are the same I give my students: 1) know what it is you intend to say, 2) know who your audience is and how they expect you to talk to them, and 3) structure your writing to say it effectively. Whether writing fiction or non-fiction, these are crucial questions a lot of my students don’t answer before they start writing. Then they often are mid-way wondering why they can’t finish, or why it sounds like gibberish when I ask them to read their own words aloud.

    • Sandra

      One thing I tend to have trouble with is the concept of writing for an audience.

    • LZ Clotho

      You’re Always writing for an audience. Even if that audience is your own eyes. But just think about what process you went through to write the comment above. You had to decide the best way to phrase the question that would elicit the answer detail you were hoping for. You had to consider what I wrote and decide what type of person would that be. How, you asked yourself, will she react? What words should I use to communicate? You had to decide not to ask all your questions at once. You had to hope for a response. You were, in all ways, practicing exactly what is necessary for writing well. IMHO.

  25. Traci Kenworth

    Grammar. Inspiration. Dedication. Practice. Rewriting.

  26. tylergregory

    Just reading the comments on here is a great lesson in writing. I learned a lot about writing by entering 300 word flash fiction contests.. My first draft takes 700 words and now I have to cut out 400, and when I do, I often realize I have a better, tighter story, which comes through with more clarity. Yes, verbosity can be the killer to good writing. And never, ever, use the word,”Very”!

    • Alexandre Leclerc

      I must say that I am very much in agreement with everything that you have just so succinctly written in your enlightening comment.

  27. Helen Scheuerer

    I think persistence plays a major role in writing well. We often forget that writing doesn’t always come out how we intended it to, at least not the first time round. We need to remember to be persistent – to draft and redraft. Most of the best writing is actually re-writing, so writing well also means to re-write well, and be willing to do so time and time again.
    A friend of mine wrote a great post about getting past the fear of writing your first chapter, which I think applies here: http://www.writersedit.com/resources-for-writers/getting-past-fear-first-chapter/ which puts emphasis on giving yourself a break when you’re starting out on a new writing project…

    Thanks for a great post!

    • Sandra

      yes definitely.

  28. Gamsii

    Like many people, sometimes I just get suddenly stuck. It could be in the dreaded middle of a plot that I hadn’t completely planned out, or even right in the middle of an important, interesting scene when I suddenly just don’t know what to do with my characters.

    I also tend to either have too much dialogue without enough action/small stuff going on during it, or the reverse. It’s easy enough to go in and tweak but while writing it’s a pretty common issue.

    Two things I do that help out a ton:

    I keep myself planned out and writing to the script by creating quick bullet points of key action, thoughts, emotions, etc. Anything that I need to remember to include. Even if it’s just word/idea vomit I try to go from the beginning to the end of the scene with this so that I have at least the important thins planned out – that way, even if I get stuck working on details or middle-stuff, I can just mark that spot up and continue writing according to script.

    I also tend to mentally imagine my scenes as if watching a movie. It really helps me imagine small details, just like acting out actual actions (and, yes, totally looking like a crazy schizophrenic person) helps me work out those sorts of details.

  29. Tea, the Spirit, and a Pen

    One of my biggest struggles is finding a committed critique group. I feel as if no one will read through my work and yet they expect me to give my full attention to theirs. I’m not in an area where I can go out and find other writers so this is a real challenge for me.

    • Mirel

      I do online critiquing with a bunch of other writers. We started a loosely formed group from Joe’s story cartel, where we send each other what we write, and each critiques the others. Now we have a group on facebook: Skywriters. We have skype meetings once every two weeks, in which we discuss stories/chapters that the people in the group have uploaded for us to critique. It works really well. We have people from around the world who get together for critiques (Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Israel, Wales, US, etc). It’s fun.

    • 709writer

      Do you need a facebook account to access the Skywriters group? Thank you!

    • Mirel

      I would assume so. But basically the idea could be adopted in similar fashion by others as well. Before this group, a bunch of us who interacted on Story Cartel traded contact information and emailed each other stories for critiquing. The skywriters is more “formal” if you wish, since we have time frames for meetings, (once every two weeks on skype) and we upload for the meeting, review it before, then discuss at the meeting. Nowadays you don’t need to rely just on your own locale to find a critique group.

    • 709writer

      Thanks for the info. I’m hoping that I can critique others and be critiqued myself with the group on this website. : )

  30. Gigi Thomas

    I wish I could write beautiful sentences!

  31. Brennan Reid

    Balancing character movement/action with internal dialogue.

  32. Isha

    I am not very good when it comes to writing conversations. I find it pretty bland compared to other parts where i describe a scene or thoughts invading the characters’ minds. Please let me know how to better myself at writing dialogues..

  33. Denise Golinowski

    Business writing requires a different mindset than creative writing, however, the basics are consistent. Grammar, punctuation – Skip them at your peril. Peers and managers will notice, to your detriment. Be specific. Be concise.

    Creative writing is framed by the genre. Literary writing defers from genre. Non-fiction from fiction. Know your genre and be consistent. In critique groups, I often have to remind others (and myself) to remember to include setting. No character exists in a vacuum. Even a spaceman has the stars, his ship, his suit. Show us through interaction with that setting rather than straight description.

    Thanks for the opportunity to remind myself about these things.

  34. CarolynB

    I think writing well is when you are able to write anything you want the way you like it. Its when you have a firm grip of the pen, and your able to move it with your command, but at the same time staying true to your voice.

    For me, I struggle with entwining my ideas naturally in a story. Showing versus telling especially when describing the world. I wish I could write in a creative way by sentence variety, dialogue, and character relationships.

    • CarolynB

      *by using …to my advantage. I’d really appreciate on an article that tells how to execute these three things. 🙂
      Sorry hard typing on my phone.

  35. Mirel

    I tend to be pretty minimalist on descriptions. I have to force myself to remember to add it, and so it gets peppered in unevenly. And I need more discipline.

    But I think the fundamentals of good writing require a decent acquaintance with good grammar and punctuation so that one can get an idea across clearly. The rest is craft and practice.

  36. 709writer

    I write well when I don’t let my inner editor control me.
    I struggle with becoming so familiar with a character that I feel like I can’t learn much more about them.

  37. Xenia Rose

    I have horrible grammar issues and I come from a family of grammarians. My youthful rebellion has come back to haunt my writing career. I am actually taking a grammar class designed by one of the grammarians. The only negative comment I have received about my writing said I had a good premise and interesting idea, but the grammar made it almost impossible to read. Ack!

  38. Christy

    My writing is just awkward and vague. I want to improve but I don’t know how.

    • Christy

      I can’t explain things well either which makes it even harder to write.

  39. Lucy James

    id like to make nicer articles that epople will love and want to read.. help me



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