Are you still struggling with where to put the comma in a dialogue tag (or was that a period)? Forget mixing up peek/peak/pique; are you still struggling with it’s/its or they’re/their/there? Do beta readers make more remarks about your grammar than your story?
These are signs that you need more practice and development learning to write.
Professional editing is overkill when you’re still getting basic writing skills under your belt—grammar, spelling, punctuation, usage, and fiction-specific narrative techniques such as dialogue and point of view.
Readers may embrace a book with merely adequate writing, but only if the storytelling is remarkable indeed. For the most part, readers expect you to show a mastery of the basics of your craft. They expect to be able to relax into the story. They want to feel confident that clunky writing will not repeatedly rear its ugly head to break their immersion.
Learning to write
So patience, grasshopper. Don’t waste time and money seeking one-on-one feedback and edit-by-edit corrections when you’re still light on writing skills. It makes no sense to pay a professional to marginally improve writing that’s simply not ready for prime time.
If you’re still learning to write, don’t invest in editing. Invest in writing. Take the time to master your craft before jumping into the water and attempting to swim with the sharks. You’ll be much more likely to write a book that keeps it head above water.
Investing in your writing means working through multiple practice manuscripts, some of which may feel marginally promising and some which may utterly fail. It means voracious reading. It means a conscious effort to tune your story sensibilities.
You can learn to write better for very little money, if not for free. Here’s where to begin.
Find a local writing class
The first place to turn for basic writing skills is often your local community college. The benefits are multiple: lots of writing practice, built-in accountability, a constant stream of expert feedback, and the opportunity to meet like-minded writers.
A formal certificate or degree simply isn’t necessary.
In this situation, simpler options can be best. Don’t run yourself into debt trying to educate yourself as a writer. A formal certificate or degree simply isn’t necessary. Of a dozen North American authors who’ve won the Nobel Prize in Literature since 1901, none hold an MFA.
As Elizabeth Gilbert (author of the blockbuster Eat Pray Love) writes in Big Magic: “But I worry that what students of the arts are often seeking in higher education is nothing more than proof of their own legitimacy—proof that they are for real as creative people, because their degree says so. … But if you’re considering some sort of advanced schooling in the arts and you’re not rolling in cash, I’m telling you—you can live without it. You can certainly live without the debt, because debt will always be the abattoir of creative dreams.”
If you can afford more expensive options such as an online certificate from the renowned University of Iowa , feel free to indulge. For smaller budgets, stick to community college classes. If there’s nothing near you, try the online classes at Gotham Writers, which even offers one-on-one options.
The big learning companies and free MMOCs (massive open online courses) can expose you to ideas from esteemed universities and colleges across the world. These make good supplements to your learning, but they cannot replace the practice and feedback of a traditional, face-to-face writing course.
If you’re interested in the MMOC experience, look for options at Class Central, as well as companies such as The Great Courses, FutureLearn, Coursera, and top-drawer resources such as MIT Open Courseware.
Read more books
If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.—Stephen King
The single best way to level up your fiction writing sensibilities is to read more books.
- Be a More Effective Reader: Learn to read like a novelist
- More reasons novelists should be reading
- 10 kinds of books anyone who writes fiction should be reading right now
- Author’s Storycraft Reading List: Recommended craft titles for fiction writers
Writing podcasts and YouTubes
Many people listen to podcasts or watch videos while they’re working or commuting. I wish I could, but I need complete focus to edit manuscripts, and my office is right here in my house. Even so, I heartily recommend podcasts and videos to writers with the time and inclination to tune in.
Many of these shows focus more on the storytelling side of fiction writing, but you’ll find good stuff about how to learn to write on many of these as well.
- Writer’s Digest: Best podcasts for writers
- The Write Life: Writing podcasts
- Kindlepreneur: Best podcasts for writers and self-publishers
- The Write Life: YouTube channels for writers
- Reddit: Best YouTube channels for aspiring authors
- Brandon Sanderson’s creative writing lecture series
Find a critique group
Writing partners and critique groups are generally better at helping with storycrafting than they are with writing. Chances are that most of your peers picked up their knowledge of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and usage back in school, just as you did. Unless they’ve been keeping up at a professional level (university courses, professional editing and language organizations, and so on), their savoir faire is likely to be at least a decade or three out of date. Misconceptions and a reliance on false rules of the road abound.
Still, you never know if a writing group’s going to be filled with knowledgeable, helpful peers until you check it out. So check it out, but don’t expect it to be the best, most reliable way to improve the writing side of writing a book.
Here’s how to find a critique group.
Websites and blogs
There’s always the internet. Most good writing resources are rather dry reference sites—dictionaries, style guides—rather than more lively blogs where you can still learn a thing or two about writing. Here are my favorites from among the latter.
- Grammar Girl Grammar explanations you can actually follow.
- The Editor’s Blog From the author of the author’s reference shelf must-have The Magic of Fiction.
- Grammar Underground Nitty-gritty grammar basics.
- 36 writing essays by Chuck Palahniuk A nice collection about the art of actually getting the ideas and words down on the page.