First of all, read. Read a lot.
What sort of writing calls to you? Read widely in a range of genres, but of the writing you yourself hope one day to do, read the undisputed masters. And then compare that work with the work of lesser writers. Learn to see where the finest excel, and others fall short. Read a work the first time for the love of it. Read the second (or third or fourth) time with attention to technique. If it doesn’t hold your attention, if it feels unsatisfying, that’s worth exploring as well. Why? Where does it go wrong?
How do you learn to evaluate technique? For most of us, that’s where study enters the picture.
Read critical reviews. Once you’ve read a work (but only once you’ve read it), read reviews by well-known critics in established publications. Can you see the work in this way? If you’re reading classic works, you’re in luck. There are generally plenty of critical reviews, often with varying points to make, for works that have been around for a while.
Do the insights of these reviews deepen your understanding of the construction, the characters, or other aspects of the treatment? Do you agree with these critics? Disagree? Reading good criticism can give you a fresh perspective, fresh ideas. It can also help clarify your own initial response. If you’ve been inspired, can you take it further and write your own informed review?
Read books about writing. There are more of these than you could hope to read in a lifetime. How do you narrow it down? Find out what books writing teachers are using (search for class syllabi online, or take a trip to your local community college or university bookstore), and explore those. Go with the ones that resonate with you. Looking to see what books a teacher uses can also tell you whether you’ve found a class you might like to take.
And of course, you’ll be looking for books that explore the type of writing you’re interested in, though there is some cross-application. Books that break down the writing of a scene for a film, for example, can be mighty useful when applied to novels or short stories.
Deconstruct some published works. There are books out there that can teach you about various foundational aspects of structure and style, focusing on whole works (fiction or nonfiction, long or short) down to the sentences themselves. You find those books by talking with other writers or by looking into what writing teachers are using. (Some of my favorites are included in this list.) When you’ve mastered the basics of some exploration of technique, try applying this newfound knowledge to a book or a piece you really love. Can you see now more of what makes it tick?
Got something you think doesn’t work well? Take that one apart as well. One caution: it can be easier to see where something goes right than where it goes wrong. And easier to see where something goes wrong than to know how to fix it.
Practice other styles. Purely as an exercise, try your hand at writing in the style of various writers. Can you do it? Can you take five different writers and write something in the style of each? You must eventually find your own style, of course, but consciously writing in different styles can help you flex and develop those writing muscles.
You might be able to mimic the style of a given writer simply by having read enough of that particular writer. Or you might find you need to analyze more deeply (cue: writing books) and then apply those techniques.
Consider joining a writing group. Or taking writing classes. Or both. Learning any skill takes practice and study — and, in the case of writing, a structure within which to discover and develop your own creativity, your own voice. You may practice 10,000 hours, but if that practice is not guided, if it does not include feedback on what works and what doesn’t — coaching, in other words — all that practice might never amount to anything. We all of us need teachers when first starting out.
If you join a group or take a class, and you find it’s not working for you, quit and look for another. Not every group, not every teacher, will provide what you need.
Work with an editor. If you’ve gotten to the point of producing material, most particularly if you’re thinking of publishing, find an editor to work with. There are agencies springing up all over to meet this need. Ask around in writing groups, in classes, on LinkedIn, for recommendations. Look also at samples, investigate education and experience, test several out. To test out an editor, work through a couple of your pieces or a healthy selection of pages. Ask for explanation, not just the recommended changes. The right editor should help you to fine-tune your writing further.
If you care enough, if you persist, if you practice, if you seek out good teachers and coaches — if you seek to learn — you will certainly develop and hone your skills. Once you’ve enough polished pieces, you can (depending upon your audience and writing goals) develop a portfolio or think of self-publishing, but first you’ve got to develop the skills. Going public and marketing yourself comes later.
Updated April 2018