Since I am a professor and a published author, people often ask me about how to improve their writing. Fortunately, I do have some useful advice.
In regards to the actual act of writing, I have the following obvious suggestions:
First, think about what you will be writing and plan it out in advance. Outlines can be helpful, but not everyone likes using them. In my case, I usually think about what I’ll write when I am running. If I’ll be writing something long and/or complex, I’ll create a proper outline. Otherwise, I’ll just outline it in my mind. Why this is a good idea is shown by considering writing as analogous to taking a trip. Assuming that you want to get to your destination without wasting time, then having a map and a plan is an excellent idea. Of course, if you just want to ramble aimlessly, then a plan and a map are best avoided.
Second, find a quiet and comfortable place to write. Distractions and annoyances tend to break up the flow of wirting, causing a person to lose momentum and focus. This is why many writers tend to be solitrary folk when they are writing.
Third, once you have finished writing, read over what you have written. Better yet, have someone else read it over. Editing your own writing is better than no editing, but keep in mind that you probably like what you write (and hence are less critical) and you know what you were thinking (hence you might not notice problems in the writing).
Fourth, revise what you have written. In general, revision improves a work. Of course, there is a point at which change becomes change for the worse and getting a feel for that requires practice.
In regards to improving writing skills, I suggest the following:
First, work on your mechanics. Be familiar with proper spelling, grammar and such. If your writing is mechanically flawed, then your message will be wounded by all that broken machinery. If you are in school, be sure to do what I didn’t do: pay attention in English class. It took me years to undo the damage I did by being such a bad student in my first two years of high school. Fortunately, I was a good student in college and that helped. Naturally, the classic Elements of Style is very helpful.
Second, practice. Then practice more. Writing is like any skill-it improves with proper training. To use an analogy, writing is like running. If you train properly each day, then you will get better and do well in races. Trying to write a novel without proper practice is like trying to run a marathon with no training: it will be ugly and painful. Of course, some people have natural ability that can carry them quite a long way (in both running and writing). If you are lucky in that respect, you can either get away with less effort or get more out of the effort you put in.
While writing can be tiring, you don’t need to do a massive amount of it each day. It is a good idea to write something each day. Of course, it only helps if what you write is something that requires proper effort. Cranking out text messages like “ur a ho boitch” does not count.
Of course, just like exercise, there is the risk of overdoing it. Running enough is good for the body while over training will start breaking it down. Writing enough is good for the mind, bt overdoing it can lead to burnout. As with running, it is hard to tell the difference between a slump that can be worked through and a serious problem. As a rough guide, if your writing keeps getting worse, then consider taking a break to recharge.
Practice is a wonderful thing. When I first started running, I sucked. I got tired quickly and I was slow. But, years of practice made a huge difference. I never made it to the Olympics, but I was competitive in college and still place well even now. When I first tried to write professionally, I sucked. I got piles of rejections and even some mockery. But, I stuck with it. I’ll never make the best sellers’ list, but I’ve got a big stack of publications now.
Third, edit writing done by other people. One thing that helps my writing is reading student papers. I get to see many examples of poor writing and, more importantly, I show students how to fix the problems in their writing. Naturally, this focus on seeing and fixing problems helps train my mind for writing. I still make mistakes, but each year of teaching makes my writing that much better. Naturally, most people are not teachers or professors. However, you can still easily find writings to read over critically. The easiest and most obvious source is blogs. If you know other writers, exchanging writings can help. If you are in school, working with others this way can help. Just be damn careful-every few years I have to deal with a plagiarism case in which one student has stolen another student’s paper while they were working together. You will also want to watch for accidental plagiarism when working with others. For example, someone might use wording they saw in another paper after forgetting where she saw it.
Fourth, you can improve your creativity by exposing yourself to new things. Reading a wide range of writings not only provides useful examples, but also new ideas. Travel and such are also helpful. Talking to different people helps, to. To use an analogy, experience gives you all sorts of new Leggo blocks that you can assemble in new ways.
Fifth, you can improve your creativity by consciously striking off in new ways. For example, try writing as if you were another person with different views, a different gender or whatever. That can help break you out of the rut of being you.
Sixth, the greatest secret to writing is…never reveal your greatest secret.