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How to be a Better Writer in Four Steps

I have considered myself a writer for as long as I can remember. I have written in about every area imaginable – journalism, non-fiction, poetry, blogging, children’s lit, and the thriller, Christian, and horror genres. For the last seven years, I have taught freshmen through seniors in many of these areas. I prepared them for standardized test and AP Literature essays, literary analysis, creative writing, and research papers.

Someone recently asked me what someone can do to become a stronger writer, and I said write first and edit second. Yet, there are two steps before this. 1) Be curious 2) Plan 3) Write 4) Edit

I’ll review each of these steps, but I will mainly focus on my approach to writing invention as per the directions.

1) Be curious – You have to be observant of the world around you, and as a writer, you have to read. Writers notice things and store them away for later. Being attentive is helpful in any writing. I saw a line in a sidebar story on my paper in college that referred to our campus’ power plant as a “ticking time bomb.” The line jumped out at me, so I investigated the plant. I found out that it was so dilapidated that they said it would be cheaper to build a new plant than find replacement parts. The story ended up receiving praise in the newsroom. I changed that idea into a twenty-page work of fiction for my Genres class and appropriately titled it “Ticking Time Bomb.” That piece followed a college student as he fought to bring the horrors of the dilapidated plant to the surface, but his paper did not think it important enough to run. Consequently, the plant explodes at the end of the story. My curiosity produced a strong work of non-fiction and fiction. After all, truth is stranger than fiction.

As far as reading is concerned, read as often as you can and in as many different styles as you can. Say you enjoy writing fantasy. Definitely read JK Rowling, but branch out and read horror, dystopian, romance, etc. The Harry Potter series contains traces of all these different genres within its seven books. While I currently write in horror and thriller, I am presently reading Catch-22, and it’s broadening my scope of how twisted humor can add a new dimension to my genre.

2) Plan (Writing Invention) – Call it writing invention if you want to sound fancy, but it’s really just how you start a story, a chapter, a work. How does an architect start a major project? Depending on the medium, I approach this differently. If I were writing a research paper, I always map out a traditional outline where I follow the rubric. I fill in that outline with primary sources found through such search engines as LexisNexis or EBSCOHost. Then I put it all together, and I write. I always took notes when I reported journalism stories because they served as my rough outline. Then I would juxtapose those notes into my inverted pyramid style.

While I teach all writing styles, I write creatively (unless it’s for a specific grad school assignment). The way I go into these projects varies. Sometimes I talk a plot or a character through in my head and then write out their attributes. I may start a chapter or a book with research. I wrote a short story called “The Year of the Cicada,” where there were these mutated cicadas that took over a town. Despite it being a work of fiction, I wanted to really understand everything I could about cicadas. So, I scanned credible Internet sources and thoroughly read about the strange insect. I also read about grasshoppers and locusts because, in the story, they mutate with these close ‘relatives.’ Despite it being this horrific sci-fi world, I still needed some element of realism there. When I wrote my latest novel, Neighborhood Watch, I wanted it to take place over many years. To get the setting right, I researched what was popular in that particular year, down to the magazine covers that were out that month.

Lastly, I brainstorm and outline creative works differently depending on the situation. Sometimes I work through characters and plots in my head, and then I free write. At others, I jot down notes about where I intend to move on in the story. However, I always will write a rough outline of how I want characters or a scene to progress for the following day.

3) Write – This is as simple as it sounds, as difficult as it sounds. Stephen King said in On Writing that it’s essential to write every day and do so with the door closed. While some people may be able to write with music or even with the TV on, I think it is important to have a set time and place to call your own to sit down and write. When you get into the habit of writing, it becomes so much easier. I forced myself to wake up at 4:30 every morning for three years to turn out my latest novel. I find I only have early in the morning or late at night to tap my fingers on the keyboard, and usually, I am too exhausted to type at night, so I like to get up early when no one else is awake, and the house is quiet.

A first draft does not have to be perfect. Get your thoughts and feelings down, and then smooth them out later. Too often, my students go days without starting their papers because they “can’t think about what to write.” They’re thinking too much and not letting themselves be free in the writing process.

4) Edit – I tell my students that they will become much stronger writers if they just reread what they write and run it through Grammarly or even spell-check. While this is surface-level editing, it will get students in the habit of fine-tuning their work and noticing their errors. As I have progressed through my craft, I have worked closely with editors in all fields – journalism and the creative world. I have learned much about my strengths and weaknesses, and I continue to hone my skills.

I hope this analysis was helpful for you. You can write whatever you want, one word at a time, but you have to start somewhere. Start by examining the world around you and asking questions about it.

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