How Writers Can Develop Stronger Skills and Knowledge

If there’s anything I’ve learned as a writer is that writers are lifelong learners. They are naturally curious about the world around them and they tend to ask a lot of questions. They’re intrigued by new ideas, or even a fresh take on an old one, and are usually willing to experiment with a new ways of doing things.

Fortunately, there are plenty of situations in which writers can continue their learning. Our profession requires it. Stop and think about how you learned to do what you do, and you’ll realize that there are more sources of learning than you thought were possible.

It’s important to keep up with the latest skills, technology and tools available to help us do our jobs better, or at least help us become better writers. Where to find that information will depend on what type of knowledge you seek. You won’t find it all in one place. Yes, at the same time, you find opportunities to learn all around us.

Think about all the different types of learning you’ve gained on your writing journey. Notice what areas you need to improve.

  • The craft of story telling. It’s one thing to be a good writer, it’s quite another to know how to tell a good story. I’ve always been a good writer and had strong technical skills. But I knew nothing about creating a work of fiction until I took several classes at a local writing studio. Not until then did I begin to understand plot structure, character development and how to create tension and suspense. I’m still learning. Different rules apply for writers of poetry and memoir. If you want to specialize in a particular style of writing, you have to learn the craft.
  • Research. As a freelancer, I’ve been assigned to write articles about some of the most obscure topics, such as high-performance homes, blockchain technology in real estate, and refrigeration phase-down policies affecting facilities managers. But with each assignment, I’ve become a mini-expert. I had to so I could prepare for the interviews.  Whether you’re working on an essay, a magazine feature or a full-length novel, it’s necessary to do research so you understand your topic inside and out.
  • Communications skills. Writers may be called upon to make a speech, negotiate their fees or interview sources for feature articles. That requires solid communications skills, but not all writers have mastered these skills. That requires confidence and a lot of practice. If you’re lacking in any one of these communications skills, you might consider taking a class to build that confidence.
  • Copy-editing and proofreading. Writers need to master copy-editing, proofreading and grammar skills. Many editors expect writers to proof and edit their own work before submitting the final draft to them. While it helps to have another pair of eyes review your work, it’s also important to be able to proof your own if no one else is available. If you lack these skills but are a good writer, you can easily develop them with practice.
  • Organizational and time management skills. Writers may get so caught up in the act of creation that they might lose track of time — and deadlines. Writers need to balance their work load, especially when working with multiple editors and projects. Whether you develop your own system for tracking projects and deadlines, or you use a platform that does most of the work for you, you’ll learn to stay organized no matter what clients or employers throw at you.
  • Math aptitude. Writers may work with words, but there are times when a basic aptitude for math will be necessary. Sure you might have an accountant who does your books, but when it comes to writing, there are times when you need to solve a complex math equation or calculate percentages?  Math is necessary to balance the books, and your checkbook.
  • Marketing and social media. Many writers I know aren’t very comfortable about marketing themselves, including yours truly. The thought of promoting themselves makes their stomachs churn. Yet successful writers know that marketing is a part of their arsenal of skills. Marketing is necessary to showcase your writing and attract new clients. Just like the communications skills above, it might be helpful to take a course in digital marketing or social media to know how to navigate the landscape and build confidence in your marketing abilities.
  • Technical know-how. If you had told me 20 years ago that I would need to know certain software programs and configure my own computer equipment, I would have rolled my eyes. I’m not known for my technical ability, but I know enough to get by. Anything more difficult and I have to call in an expert. I enjoy the challenge of learning new software. As technology continues to grow, writers need to keep pace to stay relevant in our industry.
  • Business side of writing. Writers might focus so much on the creative side of their careers that they overlook the business side. If your business acumen is lacking, it might be time to update your knowledge in that area. Consider a course in basic accounting, project management, or business planning. At first glance, these topics might seem dry and dull, but they can help prepare you for the day you hang your own shingle as a self-employed writer.
  • Advanced degrees. If you feel an advanced degree will help your writing career, there are plenty of MFA and MGA programs. (Personally, I don’t think you do need one these days.) However, some industries require it. For example, some health and wellness blogs require articles be written by nurses, doctors and psychologists. Another thing to keep in mind is that MBA and MFA programs are pricy and require a huge chunk of time. You need to weigh the cost of getting specialized advanced training against your future career goals.
  • Informal mentoring from other professionals. Whether meeting with a former boss over coffee or networking with other professionals at a workshop, you have a chance to learn from others. You can bet that whatever work problem you may be grappling with is something that someone else has already dealt with. The beautiful thing about networks is the opportunity to learn from others.
  • Volunteer work. Many years ago, when I wanted to expand my portfolio, I sought volunteer opportunities to write newsletter articles for a local membership organization. By contributing articles and planning some of their education programs, I was able to gain valuable experience that I could share with potential employers. Don’t overlook volunteer work as a means of gaining hands-on experience.
  • Practice, practice, practice. The key to becoming a better writer is to practice—and practice often. Even if you spend only ten minutes each day writing, you continue to improve your skills. It’s much like learning to play the piano. You get better with practice.
  • Life experience. Don’t overlook your life experience, which can fuel your most creative stories.  That experience can be anything from moving to a new neighborhood to fighting with your best friend or finding out you have cancer. Tap into those deep emotions from your life experience to fuel your writing.  

When you consider the many ways we acquire knowledge, writers are well equipped to handle any kind of writing project that comes their way.

How to Give Writing Feedback — Thoughtfully and Effectively

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Whether you’re part of a writer’s group or manage a department of creatives, you may be called upon to give feedback about someone else’s work. It can be doubly difficult to critique someone’s work, especially if you like and respect that person. You don’t want to upset them or discourage them from writing more. On the contrary, you want to provide feedback that will challenge them to produce better work.

Most experts agree that it’s important to provide some positive comments along with negative feedback. Critiques without positive comments can be devastating to creative types, who are naturally sensitive about work that they’ve poured their heart and soul into. Negative critiques can make writers feel their work has no redeeming value, and they may be tempted to give up writing altogether. There is always something positive to find about someone’s work. A good editor will see it and won’t hesitate to share it.

So what’s the best way to handle critiques? How can you provide meaningful feedback that supports and encourages other people to produce better work without crushing their soul? Here are a few tips for giving effective feedback.

1. Read the piece thoroughly. If it’s a shorter piece, like an essay or news article, read it several times. Here’s how I like to assess a written work: The first time through, I read to get the gist of the story. During the second reading, I make notes about technical issues, like grammar, punctuation and run-on sentences. The third time through, I make notes about content issues. Are there confusing plot points? Does the story flow seamlessly, or are there sticking points where nothing appears to be happening? It’s usually during that third reading that the biggest issues pop out like a neon sign. If possible, avoid reading the piece right before meeting with the writer. It simply does not allow enough time to mull over the writing.

2. Find the story’s good qualities. Don’t just focus on mistakes and confusing content. Start with sharing the positive qualities of the story. Some managers and editors have used the sandwich method for critiquing a person’s work — couching negative feedback between two positive statements. According to the Grammarly blog, some editorial experts claim that this method isn’t effective in providing constructive criticism. I see nothing wrong with this approach, however. I suspect that its lack of effectiveness has more to do with not properly communicating constructive feedback.

Here’s how the sandwich method works:

“I love your story idea. I think it’s sharp and witty, and a lot of people will appreciate the humor. However, I noticed a tendency for run-on sentences. Perhaps you were thinking faster than you could write? Sometimes it helps to read aloud your story so you notice those run-on sentences. Once you fix those run-on sentences, I think you’ll have a stronger story..

You notice that I not only pointed out the weakness of the story, I offered a suggestion for fixing it.

3. Choose your words carefully. According to the Balance Careers blog, it might be helpful to begin statements with “I” rather than “You.” The “you” focus can be perceived as a personal attack, which you want to avoid. Focus on your own response to the story. Instead of saying, “Your story is boring,” say “I found the story boring in some sections.”

Be honest with your critique, but approach it with the intent of helping the writer improve their work. Always offer suggestion or tips, but refrain from directing the writer how to fix things. Respect them enough to give them space for resolving their own writing issues.

4. Provide detail… Don’t just mention the issue, but provide some detail. Don’t just say, “I thought your story was boring.” Explain why you thought it was boring. Was the entire piece boring to you, or just one or two paragraphs? Was there too much narrative when you were looking for more dialogue? Did the story need more conflict? Did the story move off on a tangent that was difficult to follow and had nothing to do with the story? The more feedback you provide can help the writer analyze their story with an eye on improving it.

5. …But don’t nitpick. You might notice a lot of things wrong with the story. In that case, for the sake of your working relationship, focus on only one or two things that the writer can easily fix. Remember, your role is to provide helpful, practical suggestions.

6. Call out recurring mistakes right away. If you have read several pieces by the same writer over time and notice that they tend to make the same mistakes over and over again, you need to call them out right away, suggests the marketing experts at Hubspot. Don’t just fix the problems for them without mentioning it. If necessary, make the correction and show it to them so they see how to fix it. The only way they will learn not to make the same mistakes again is to make them aware of them in the first place. The sooner you mention those errors, the sooner they can learn to correct them on their own.

7. Ask questions to guide the writer. According to Grammarly, when you ask the writer questions about their work, it gets them to thinking about how to solve their own writing issues. It guides them to resolve the issues on their own rather than you telling them how to do it. For example, you might suggest, “Is there a way to simplify this paragraph, perhaps edit it for shorter sentences? It might make the story easier to read.”

8. Don’t make it personal. Critique the work, not the writer. Set aside whatever personal feelings you have toward the writer and focus on the work in front of you.

Remember these are works-in-progress, not finished pieces. Your job is to provide feedback to help the writer improve their work and sharpen their skills. Think about those times when you’ve had your own work critiqued. How did you feel when you received feedback? Did you feel deflated and discouraged, or were you energized and excited about moving forward with your story? Be the editor you’d like others to be with your own work.