Have you ever heard what people tell kids who want to play sports? Practice. Did you grow up with music lessons? You’ve probably heard the same thing. Keep practicing.
But can you apply the same philosophy to writing?
Not only is practicing writing a good way to improve your writing skills—it's essential to becoming a better writer.
And like all honed skills, you need a good teacher or guide to push you—to help you practice. In this post, you'll not only learn four steps to help you practice, but exercises to improve your writing skills along the way.
This article is an excerpt from J.D.'s new book The Write Fast System, teaching you to write your first draft faster than ever before.
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I Spent Two Years Practicing My Book (And Then I Published It!)
Practicing is hard work, especially when you just start writing. Still, when you practice exercises to improve your writing skills, it will make a big difference.
It will push you to become a better writer—one who finishes, revises, and publishes a book.
I spent two years practicing before writing my novel Headspace.
I read books, wrote short stories, studied and learned.
I often asked myself if this was all worth it. Am I really learning? Or am I just fooling myself? When you’re in the grind of the day to day, it’s hard to see the improvement.
But when I finally sat down to write the book, it all came together, almost like magic.
Not only was my overall writing improved, but I was able to identify what I needed and how to best utilize different parts of the story.
Headspace is now published, and you can pick up a copy now.
An alien game show. A deadly challenge. The fate of the world is on Astra’s shoulders. Will she emerge from the arena a hero, or just another headline?
The Myth About Writing Skills
There is an assumption both among new writers and non-writers that writing is something that comes innately. In other words, you are either a good writer or you are not and there is no way to change that.
This is completely and utterly false.
I was once one of those people who did not believe in learning or practicing writing. Skills that involve practice are usually associated with “muscle memory”—sports, playing an instrument, even making art.
Writing is a terribly cerebral process, and the idea of practicing something that’s all mental and very little physical seems absurd. Work out your brain? How does that work?
The fact is, mental skills can be practiced just like physical skills—your brain is just as much a muscle as your hamstring. It may be a little difficult to comprehend this at first, but it need not be. Not when you have a system that will help you practice writing well.
What is Practice?
What is practice, really?
It’s common to think of practice as doing something over and over. Images of athletes running laps and doing drills come to mind. But it’s actually a little more complicated than that. Practice is not simply a linear line of repetition. It is incremental. If I had to put it in a formula, I put it like this:
Practice = Knowledge x Repetition
Without learning, practice is just mindless actions. You start your journey of mastering any skill by first learning the fundamentals of that skill. You then put that new knowledge to use until you feel comfortable with it. Next, you learn something new, and practice that until you’re comfortable with it. Rinse and repeat.
This might sound like a tedious process. However, bear in mind that this is the exact process followed by any and all professionals in any field. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, artists, musicians . . . the skills vary, but the process does not. Learn something, practice it, learn something else, practice it again.
Even past their years of school learning, these professionals continue to learn on the job, and then practice what they learned by using that acquired knowledge in their work.
Practicing without learning is inefficient, and learning without practicing is ineffective.
So how do we apply this to writing? How can use exercises to improve writing skills?
4 Steps to Effectively Practice Your Writing
Practicing need not be hard or boring. There is a misconception that the repetition of praciting something can be dull and tedious. And sure, sometimes it can be. But it doesn’t have to be boring all the time, not if you’re doing it correctly.
Let’s take a look at the four simple steps to practicing:
1. Find a target
Notice I didn’t say “set a goal.” This is because targets and goals are different. Goals are defined tangibly—write a short story, finish a book, take a class. There is a definitive “end” to goals. Targets are more abstract.
You might wonder why I would encourage you to choose something abstract when I’ve emphasized the importance of clear, achievable goals in the past. This is because practice has no end.
As anyone who has practiced anything would tell you, there is no true end to practicing because no one ever really “masters” a skill of any kind. We all practice continuously to improve. Even the old art and music masters continue to practice until their final days, seeking to become just a little bit better.
Fortunately, we don’t need to master writing. We only need to improve.
How do we improve our writing skills?
We define a target—an area in our writing skills we need to improve.
There are many aspects of writing to study: point of view, sentence structure, word choice, character development, just to name a few. The choices are endless.
The best way to approach defining a target is by looking at your ultimate goal, what is keeping you from achieving it, and the steps needed to overcome that obstacle.
Here’s an example:
- Ultimate goal: write a good, fast-paced commercial science fiction novel
- Obstacle: not very good/not familiar with how to structure a fast-paced novel
- Target: improve novel planning/structure skills
Using exercises to improve writing skills will help this. (I'll provide some for you to try at the bottom of this post.)
2. Find Your Resources
Now that you have your target, it’s time to evaluate what’s at your disposal. When you don’t have a target, the vast amount of knowledge out there can be overwhelming. But with a target, you can now easily narrow down what area you need to focus on.
In our example, we are looking for lessons on structuring.
In searching for knowledge, it’s also important to consider what method of learning what works best for you. Everyone learns differently. Here are a few common types of learning:
This one worked best for me. Reading books on writing has been extremely helpful and important. Books are also flexible and easy to pick up or put down. A lot of fiction writers also write books on writing, so if you are trying to write in a certain genre, it’s worth looking up books on writing by other writers who are in the same genre.
To get you started, here are some books I'd recommend you read:
On Writing by Stephen King. When I finally decided to sit down and read a book on writing for the first time, this was the one I read. On Writing is light on technique, heavy on honesty, and easy to digest. It's a look at the path of a writer in real life and how to not give up.
Write Great Fiction by James Scott Bell, Ron Zozelle, Nancy Kress, and Gloria Kempton. I read this series while struggling to understand how writing fiction works and how to define my own style. It offers detailed instruction on how to approach numerous aspects of writing, such as structure, dialogue, setting, and more. It's excellent for building foundational skills.
Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. This is a great reference to keep around. This book lists well-known novels and breaks down each one into a format that indicates how it fits one of a handful of plot templates. When you're trying to figure out your own writing, it's very useful to be able to identify a comparable book in your genre and see how it's laid out.
Online pre-recorded classes
There are numerous programs online that teach either writing in general or a targeted area. These classes are flexible and easy to access, and usually not terribly expensive.
However, the drawback is that they’re not interactive by nature and it’s completely up to you to get through the class and understand the material.
Whether in person or online, live classes can be a great resource. They’re interactive and allow you to connect with the instruction as well as your writing peers. They can be quite effective and also foster your connection with the writing community. However, these classes are also usually more expensive and may be held at a time inconvenient to you.
If you choose to attend live classes, make sure they work with your target, budget, and schedule.
Articles and blogs
Articles and blogs can serve as great quick references when you want to tackle a certain problem. However, they don’t replace a book or a class. You can find a quick writing tip or solution in an article, but to truly learn and improve a skill, there aren’t any shortcuts. You need to dig deep.
3. Set a Schedule
I can’t stress this enough—professionals set schedules.
A doctor doesn’t show up to work randomly, whenever they feel like it. A business owner doesn’t skip a day because they don’t want to oversee the shop that day. Setting aside time on a regular basis to both learn and practice is important. You can usually find some pocket of time in your day through a time audit, which I explain more in this post.
For learning and practicing writing, I recommend a weekly schedule rather than a daily one, as it’s not usually realistic to expect yourself to return to the task every day. Most of us do not have the luxury of making writing our day job, so while it’s important to be disciplined, it’s also crucial to be realistic.
When setting a schedule, remember to:
- Give yourself plenty of time
- Factor in a few extra days for when life gets in the way
- Schedule around busier times, like vacations when you know you can't write
- Decide on how to “make up” days you miss
- Use your time wisely and focus on your target
Practicing, in its simplest terms, means to implement something you’ve learned until you feel comfortable with it. It is the same as a musician playing a chord over and over, or a gymnast doing the same routine multiple times, or an engineer implementing the same formulas and methods on different projects. The more something is used, the better you get at using it.
Let’s go back to our example from step one.
The target was to become better at structuring. We’ve read the books, taken the classes, and understood the concepts. We’ve set aside time. Now, all it takes is to put it to use.
Here are a few exercises to improve you writing skills by practicing novel structure:
Write a short story
Short stories are easy and fast to complete but have all the same structural elements as a book. By practicing short stories, you can get more comfortable with how a story should flow. If you need writing prompts, this post offers 100 short stories ideas to get you started.
Write a detailed novel synopsis
A synopsis forces you to consider the overall logstics of the story, as well as allows you to see how structure works from a bird’s eye view.
There's a long line of debates between what's better, pantsing or plotting. Even if you're a pantser, some sort of an outline, like a brief synopsis, will help keep you focused when writing a book—and help you avoid burnout.
Write a chapter-by-chapter summary of your book
When you lay out what should happen in each chapter before you start writing, you’re forced to consider how the events of a book tie into each other without having to go into great detail of exactly what happens. This is one step further than the synopsis and helps identify when and how the different elements of plot take place.
For a more detailed outline of a chapter, turn to the six elements of plot.
I promise, knowing these editing (and writing) concepts will make a big difference.
Write a practice book
This may sound like a lot. However, practice books can be fun. There are no expectations of quality, no responsibility to readers, and no rules. You can test out anything you want, move and shift pieces, change characters halfway through, and really allow yourself to play and have fun.
Sometimes, a little fun is just what’s needed to make practice feel less dull.
4 Writing Exercises to Improve Your Writing Skills
To put these tips into action, here are four creative writing exercises you can start doing today:
1. Fill a Blank Page
Set aside an hour and fill an entire page. This can be the start of a book draft, a short story, a story idea, blogging, or just free writing. One page is not a huge demand, but is enough words to get the juices flowing. Sometimes all you need is to give your stream of consciousness permission to flow.
2. Write Flash Fiction
Flash fiction is an interesting piece of writing. It's short. So short that it can be only a few words.
I've read flash fiction that consist of only two words but speak volumns. If you're not familiar with writing flash fiction, or feel intimidated by the idea, try it in reverse: write out a story premise, then reduce the words to see how many you can cut out and still retain the essence of the story.
You just might be surprised at how few words it takes to still get your point across.
3. Use a New Word
Creative writers are constantly learning new things. Expanding your vocabulary is part of this. While you don't have to constantly fill your story with flowery language to achieve great writing, it's beneficial to have a good selection of words to choose from.
Try finding a word you've never used before and writing a little passage using it. This can be combined with any of the other three exercises, and is in fact encouraged because it will help you become more comfortable integrating new words into your writing.
4. Switch the Point of View
Writing a story from a different character's point of view can provide a lot of insight and flex your creative muscles. Writing from a different POV is more than just rewriting the same story, because every sequence of events presents a different story to different characters.
One person's joy may be another person's tragedy. Seeing a story's events from a different POV forces you outside the box and really consider how to reframe an event or communicate a different message.
Learn, Practice, Repeat
This is the tough part. This is the part that’s all up to you. You can do all the prep you like, find all the references, but in the end, you have to get into the practicing state of mind and keep yourself on task. Remember the process:
- Identify your target
- Study your target area
- Schedule your practice time
- Practice what you’ve learned
And when you're ready, find a new target to practice and repeat. Practice can make the difference between a good writer and a great writer.
There is some flexibility to this system. You can read up on multiple areas at once, try out multiple methods of learning, and schedule your practice in spurts instead of at a steady daily pace.
But the key here is to keep going and don’t give up.
You will have rough days. Days where you’re bored of studying. Days where it feels like there’s no end.
These are the days where you may have to step away for a bit, but always come back and keep going.
Because writing skills can be learned—and when you keep coming back to the page again and again to practice, you'll become a better writer.
What exercises do you use to improve your writing skills? Let us know in the comments.
When it comes to practicing your writing skills, it's best to find your target.
What's one target area you'd like to improve in your writing? Pick one thing you'd like to work on. Here are a few ideas to get you started: point of view, sentence structure, word choice, character development, story structure.
Next, pick one of these practice exercises: fill a blank page, write flash fiction, or use a new word. (Scroll back up for the instructions if you need a refresher on the details.)
Now, take fifteen minutes to complete that practice exercise. Keep your target area in mind as you write.
When your time is up, let us know how it went by sharing your work in the comments, and don't forget to give feedback on your fellow writers' works!
J. D. Edwin is a daydreamer and writer of fiction both long and short, usually in soft sci-fi or urban fantasy. Sign up for her newsletter for free articles on the writer life and updates on her novel, find her on Facebook and Twitter (@JDEdwinAuthor), or read one of her many short stories on Short Fiction Break literary magazine.