5 Specific Ways to Become a Better Writer Today

If you love to write and you’re looking for specific ways to improve your writing, I have five simple ways to help you become a better writer today. I just returned from a week’s vacation on the Big Island, where I managed to sneak in a complete read of my favorite book on writing, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. My wife knows me all too well, yet despite her objections…

I took five books, two magazines and IMAGE journal with me on vacation. I dabbled in one magazine and started The King’s Speech (my Oscar choice for Best Picture), but it was Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft that I devoured. With great enthusiasm, I poured over every page of this bestselling writing memoir. So, it’s only appropriate that I share 5 Specific Ways to Become a Better Writer Today. Not only is On Writing a great read, it provides specific, easy to remember ideas on how to make your writing clearer and more compelling to your reader.

1) Write in the Active Voice: Get rid of all those passive sentences filled with passive verbs. King notes, “With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something.” John eats. Bob shoots. Nancy stabs! King continues, “With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. In other words, the subject is just letting it happen.” Yeech! Way too passive! For more on active/passive verbs, check out The Elements of Style in my post, My Top Five Books on Writing.

2) Assassinate Your Adverbs: Anything ending in -ly is an adverb and adverbs absolute-ly weaken your writing. I try to use as few adverbs as possible because they are a weak substitute for creative active, vivid description. As King notes, “Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives or other adverbs. Like the passive voice, they seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind.” In other words, the adverb is not your friend. Assassinate your adverbs today. (My words, not King’s.)

3) Use “he said/she said”: Dialogue attribution is what it’s called. “You are such a dwit!” he said. Stephen King devotes several pages to dialogue attribution and what I like most about what he has to say on this subject, his strongest point is letting the reader’s intelligence figure out who’s doing the talking. King’s pet peeve is dialogue attribution filled with those pesky adverbs and yes again, those adverbs are to be used sparing-ly. “But I love him,” she said. Not…”But I love him,” she said pathetically (or passionately or contemptuously!). Every so often is okay, but use your adverbs judicious-ly.

4) Read A Lot & Write A Lot: When someone asks Stephen King how to become a better writer, one of his first questions is, “Do you like to read?” If the person answers “no” or says they don’t have time to read, King seriously doubts their commitment as an aspiring writer. Writing and reading are two interchangeable disciplines. Aspiring and proficient authors learn a lot about writing by doing both. I love this quote, “Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.” Amen!

5) You need a Room with A Door: Blow up your TV. Get off Facebook or email. Stop putzing around the house. I’ll leave you with these final words by Stephen King, “But you need the room, you need the door, and you need the determination to shut the door. You need a concrete goal (a daily page or word count), as well. The longer you keep to these basics, the easier the act of writing will become. Don’t wait for the muse.”

What are the best ideas you’ve discovered for improving your writing? I want to hear them…jump in, the water’s fine!

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive, snarky or off-topic.

  • http://lauradroege.wordpress.com Laura Droege

    Good stuff, Joey. I particularly agree with the need to write AND read a lot. I’m on an online review site, and there are so many poor writers churning out page after page of horrible stories. What’s worse is that they don’t see how bad their storytelling skills are because they don’t know what good story telling is! It’s as though they haven’t read a book since the Truman administration.

    I’m putting the link to this post on my Facebook page.

    • http://www.joeyo.org Joey O’Connor

      Wow Laura, you get a prize for the quickest reply! After reading Stephen King’s book again, instead of just reading, I’m really trying to look at what I’m reading. Not an in-depth analysis (don’t want to give up the joy of reading), but scanning key items as I read (sentence, paragraph structure, dialogue attribution and how much description is really necessary).

      Thanks for sharing the post on Facebook! And now, back to writing!

  • http://www.ramblingsabroad.blogspot.com Karey Fellers Draper

    Joey, love this…so motivating. After your last post, I ordered King’s book on Amazon. Question: Do you have a daily word/page goal?

    • http://www.joeyo.org Joey O’Connor

      Hi Karey! Yes (and LOL) as I write this. My goal is between 1,500 to 2,000 words a day (8-10 pages), but I’m only at 220 today! I tend to edit very tightly as I write, but I’m working on writing faster to get through my first draft and leaving the edits for later.

      Screenwriting has taught me a greater need (I wouldn’t say ‘love’ at this point) for editing. There’s so many more ideas that emerge once you step back and get away from the thick of the forest.

      You’re going to love King’s book! Enjoy!

      • Crystal

        Great timing on this one for me! I am often writing in the airspace between my ears and rarely commit a time to marry it to the actual page. I’ll be snooping around looking for more of what you are dishing out…

        • http://www.joeyo.org Joey O’Connor

          Thanks Crystal. I’ve been feeling a lot of that airspace the past couple days. There are times when I know I should be writing, but I resist. When I jump in, the water’s usually a lot warmer than I expected. Come back soon and thanks for writing!

  • http://freeencouragement.org Michael Wilkinson

    That’s cool, I didn’t know Stephen King wrote a memoir. The thing about my writing, it has been a time when I have been telling my readers and encouraging them to start new ministry goals.

    The fruit from this has been amazing. I think when we can stop and do this for others this love in us just comes out that we can not see when we focus on our ministry goals; to the extent that we forget love.

    I sit back, celebrate and see what God is doing around me. Then he sends me in sometimes to be the pastor I know he believes in and I can celebrate in the communities victories. But then God blesses us together with an edification of the body.

    • http://www.joeyo.org Joey O’Connor

      Hi Michael,

      Thanks for your post. King’s book is a great read. You are so right on keeping focused on love. We are to write out of the love of God in us to build up His people. And when we write, to write the very best we can as an act of worship to Him.

      Thank you for your thoughtful words.

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  • David Meacham

    Thanks for sharing this, Joey. I can’t think of better books on writing to make the top 5 list–great choices!

    I think writers can also benefit by reading memoirs of other gifted writers. Two recent favorites of mine are “Lit,” by Mary Karr, a prolific writer and colleague of Tobias Wolfe and other famous authors; the second is “Redeemed,” by Heather King. Heather’s is a wonderful story about how she left her seeemingly glamorous life as a Beverly Hills attorney to be a full-time writer. I highly recommend both books for all writers.

    Finally, here is a great quote about writing and discipline by Woody Allen.

    “I think that the biggest life lesson I learned as a boy, that has helped me and is still with me, is that you really have to discipline yourself to do the work. If you want to accomplish something, you can’t spend a lot of time hemming and hawing, putting it off, making excuses, and figuring ways. You have to actually do it…. I want to write, so I get up in the morning, go in and close the door, and write. You can’t string paper clips and get your pad ready and turn your phone off and get coffee made. You have to do the stuff. Everything in life turns out to be a distraction from the real thing you want to do. There are a million distractions, and when I was a kid I was very disciplined. I knew that the other kids weren’t. I was the one able to do the thing, not because I had more talent, maybe less, but because they simply weren’t applying themselves. As a kid, I wanted to do magic tricks. I could sit endlessly in front of a mirror, practicing, because I knew if you wanted to do the tricks you’ve got to do the thing. I did that with the clarinet. When I was teaching, I did that with writing. This is the most important thing in my life, because I see people striking out all the time. It’s not because they don’t have talent or because they don’t want to be, but because they don’t put the work in to do it. They don’t have the discipline to do it.”
    –Woody Allen

    • http://www.joeyo.org Joey O’Connor

      Thank you for the writing book ideas and for the incredible Woody Allen quote. That challenges me like nothing else! Wishing you the best in all your writing dreams and endeavors!

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