Writing Practice Online: Improve Your Story – 8 Master Tools
Updated: Sep 20, 2020
After searching for months and editing down the list, I'm ready to share my top 8 tools to improve your writing. Try each of the 8 tools below, and you're guaranteed to improve.
Reading high-quality books in your genre will help you write your own story. Do you want to write an epic fantasy book? Try reading Brandon Sanderson's 'Way Of Kings'. Do you want to write a romance book? Read Colleen Hoover's 'It Ends With Us'. Reading a variety of books will ingrain the standard that the industry expects, and help you learn new vocabulary, prose, description, plotting archetypes, cliches and more to use in your own writing.
Want to know when you've finally read too much? For one, you should never stop reading, but there is a level of expertise where the benefit tapers off. If you can expertly critique a book, compare it with others, and know how you would improve upon it, then you're ready to go. That doesn't mean you should stop reading—but it means you can reduce your literary intake in favour of increasing your daily writing time.
Few books are 100% original, and just like every other human invention, most great stories are at least somewhat based upon existing clichés, plot archetypes and more. Building a bank of these archetypes can help when you least expect it, or you can actively think through examples to create interesting new storylines. Have you read Eragon? Well, what about a book where dragons tame humans. Liked Harry Potter? Then what about a magical school where human and non-human species are segregated. As long as you make the world your own, the characters your own, the systems your own, and clearly have your own flavour of writing, then inspiration in this manner is valid. Anything else is just an elaborate fanfiction. (And fanfiction can't be legally sold without express permission from the author.)
One top piece of advice is to read at a regular pace so that you can hear the voice of the characters in your mind. If you can't do that then instead consider speaking the dialogue aloud. This way, you can learn the various rhythms of speech, which will help you write your own natural-sounding dialogue. Remember that dialogue is very different from every-day conversation. When you usually speak, you have to respond at that moment, but in a book, the writer can spend months thinking up the perfect line. Reading how others have done this already is a great start.
As mentioned previously, this is a great way to find the rhythm of speech within your work. But much more than that, speaking aloud will force you to confront any written errors that are making your writing feel clunky. What your eyes skip over, your mouth will force you to confront.
Try reading this sentence silently:
"That sounds incorrect, Marty!"
Now try reading it aloud. Did you feel a difference?
Although functionally correct, it does sound a bit robotic doesn't it?
Perhaps I better way to phrase that would be
When we read silently, we tend to skip past anything too awkward, making it very hard to edit our prose. But before you hire an editor, it is a good idea to either read your work aloud or have text-to-speech software like Microsoft Word do the reading for you. Then all you must do is pause every time something sounds wrong, fix the mistake, and move along.
Writing a story is generally the BEST way to improve both your prose and your storytelling skills. By writing short stories instead of full-length novels or series, you can get used to thinking and writing different characters, scenes, motivations, and plot archetypes.
Writing short stories gives you something to share in writing competitions or online writing platforms. That lets you get feedback, awards, and reading stats you can use to push your future work before a traditional publisher all the faster.
This is a more extensive form of practice to short story writing. But you'll learn one extra skill and its big: dedication.
When you're writing a longer book, you have to right maybe 100,00~ words (more or less depending on the genre). You then have to re-draft those words. Edit those words. Have those words Alpha read. Beta Read. Gamma Read. Edited. The point being, the larger the story, the more steps there are, and the more dedicated you are going to need to be. Do all that and fail? Outstanding, you have just shown that you have what it takes to stick to a project long enough to see the fruits. Do all that and see any level of success? Great, you just got a fun bonus on top of all the skills you just learned.
Because no matter how your book turns out (published or shelved) going through that entire process will give you the skills to do so again—but better, faster, and with a clearer idea of how you will attack each stage of the writing process. These skills are invaluable and can become your launchpad to an enduring writing career.
Speaking of writing goals, when writing a novel the process is a marathon, not a sprint. Unlike a short story, there won't be much of a chance that you can pump something fantastic out in less than a few months. So you will need to devote yourself to a writing schedule, whether that be weekly or daily, decide on how often you write, for how long, then stick to it no matter what.
Sometimes we need just a little change to see things differently. By altering your font, you might start seeing errors were once were shining sentences. Record anything you get wrong often, and undo the patterns in your writing that was producing them. This might be especially useful in a very long story (a full-length book, for example) where it can be tiring to focus on every word without skipping mistakes.
Some fonts can also be much easier to read than others, and I would advise you to switch to one meant for helping those with dyslexia. Helvetica is an especially good one, seeing as most pieces of writing software has it as a standard option.
Perhaps this is a scene or short story that you have written already. Now write this scene from the perspective of another character, and ask yourself what this will change. If the story is limited third person, ask yourself how this character perceives the world, how the main character and antagonist's battle might appear, or how the actions of the main characters might be perceived to another.
Here is a scene through one set of eyes:
By hacking through the mainframe, Bolly Sod become a wanted man. But not if he could dig past the security protocols and disable the firewall first. Sweat slithered down his head as the ticking of the clock clicked closer to a life on the run.
At last! The firewall was down, the defences shattered, and with a click, the deed was done. Picking up his laptop, he turned with a triumphant grin, Hailey looking at him as if he were an idiot.
"Well?" she said and crossed her arms, "Did you do it?
"Yep, and just in the nick of time!"
And here's the same scene through another:
Bolly twitched and sniffed as he tapped away at his laptop. Hailey wondered how he could stand the smell of the open sewage outside, or ignore nearby explosions that sent the rubble trembling.
Faintly a grandfather clock of rich almond wood clicked dutifully, the last piece of decoration standing after the Redeemers had blown this block to bits. In the rubble Bolly tapped away all the same, and with a great sigh, relaxed his shoulders and ceased his clacking.
Hailey waited, heart pounding, eyebrows arching.
Bolly turned to her and grinned like a fool, a swarm of 1s and 0s trickling down his screen.
"Well?" she said, and crossed her arms. "Did you do it?"
Yep, and just in the nick of time!"
“Mi’ sheep could run this tongue waggin’ better.”
Other than painful to read, the ellipsis, reference to livestock, and odd phrase all provide a sense of character. If we wanted to, we could turn that same sentence into:
“My animals are better negotiators,” said the rough farmer.
Here the speaker is denoted by the tag ‘rough farmer’ which while conveying meaning does not engage your audience as much. While I would usually avoid messing with the spoken text too much (“hissss gettinssss awayssss” the snake hissed) as it can be distracting, it is a good exercise to see if you can tell who is speaking without modifying tags. This way you might discover new rich details about your characters to really make them feel alive.
At worst, you’ll have become a better writer for nothing.