11 ways to hone your writing craft

11 ways to hone your writing craft | Witty Title Here

No matter how long you’ve been writing, or how good you are at it, there’s always room for growth.

I find that comforting, as I do the idea that no matter how bursting with love your heart may be, there’s always room for more. (D’aww.) With that in mind, here are 11 ways to continue honing your craft as a writer, whether you’re just starting out or have been going at it for years.

1. Read widely

In his book On Writing, Stephen King wrote, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” Better keep a steadily rotating stack of books on your bedside table, then. While you’re at it, get a library card. Read a lot in your preferred genre, and read books by authors who don’t look like you. Read books with challenging prose. Read books with short, snappy chapters. You’ll be inspired in ways you can’t predict, and your writing will be better for it.

2. Reread

Wait, what? Yup. Turns out you unlock the secrets of great writing when you treat that page-turning drama like the textbook from which your teacher lifted all the test questions verbatim. Read once for enjoyment, then read a second time to study the tricks the author has used to switch perspective, go back in time or drop a major plot twist. A great writer will do these things without you even noticing what’s happening. Go back in search of those pivotal moments or scenes, read slowly and pinpoint the exact sentence or sections that did the work and dissect them word for word. Those discoveries will manifest themselves in your own work, especially when you make this a regular practice.

“Those discoveries will manifest themselves in your own work.”

3. Expand your vocabulary

If you read constantly, this will come easily. Don’t just fly over words you’re unfamiliar with. Study them. Context is helpful up to a point, but be sure to look up the words you don’t know or jot them down so you can do it later. (Then write down the definitions so you don’t forget.) You can also check out sites like Otherwordly for a daily dose of unusual words. Won’t it be wonderful to use serein in a sentence? When you learn a new word, you start to see it everywhere, and that’s when its meaning finally soaks in.

4. Seek feedback

When you’ve tweaked and blinked at a piece for too long, it can be near impossible to know if you’re hitting your mark. If you’ve hit that point, it’s best to hand your story or article over to someone who can look at it with fresh eyes. Find a trusted teacher, mentor or friend who will read your work closely and give helpful, honest feedback. Seek out people who read a lot and will say more than just “it’s good!” If you’re looking for feedback on one thing in particular, say so, but be open to suggestion elsewhere, too.

5. Know your weaknesses

What part of the writing process do you dread, or where do you most often get stuck? Instead of avoiding the problem (or getting exasperated every time you write), identify what gives you the most trouble in your writing. If it’s spelling or grammar, seek out a tutor, have a friend proofread your work or read up on Grammar Girl’s quick and dirty tips. If making sense of a rambling, disorganized first draft gives you problems every time you write, spend the extra time mind-mapping and outlining before you get to work. If you fall prey to procrastination or give up too easily, come up with a plan to help you combat those urges. Whether it’s a regimented routine or rewards system, don’t let yourself fall victim to the thoughts and temptations that crop up in moments of weakness.

6. Challenge yourself

Write outside your genre. Set intimidating goals. Tackle the classic novel you never read in high school. Enter a writing contest. Participate in NaNoWriMo. If we only wrote when the conditions and timing were perfect, we’d never write. No excuses.

“Write the truest thing you know in the least amount of words.”

7. Emulate your heroes

One of the best things about writing is that you’re allowed to experiment as much as you want, and that includes letting your work be influenced by the styles of writers you admire. If Joan Didion is your literary crush, spend a couple thousand words on a piercing review of your own psyche. If you love Charles Bukowski’s bare-bones truth bombs, write the truest thing you know in the least amount of words. And if you believe you were Jane Austen in a former life, ask yourself, “What would Jane do?” when writing the final scene in your romance novel. Let yourself be inspired by greatness and see what comes of it.

8. Develop your own voice

There are always a few books in your to-read pile, you’ve studied the greats and you’ve learned all the “rules.” Now forget everything you know and write something only you can, in your voice. That requires not only writing constantly, but cutting out the bullshit or anything that rings false. Your voice is influenced by your gender, age, race, religion, sexual orientation, beliefs, family, upbringing, where you’re from, who you grew up with, the stories you’ve been told and so on. It’s already in you. Voice is a tricky thing to master because it’s so deceptively simple, but you’ll know it when you’ve written something that feels utterly true. Your voice evolves right along with you, which means you’ll always be developing it in your writing.

9. Revise, revise, revise

Nothing comes out perfect the first time. Let me reiterate: Nothing comes out perfect the first time. This is no reason to be sad or frustrated. Look at it as an opportunity—the opportunity to get better with each draft.

10. Submit and pitch

Congratulations—you’ve written something. Now set it free. Submit your story to a publication or pitch a story to your dream magazine. Open yourself up to the possibility of rejection while keeping faith that you will be validated. Don’t keep it to yourself.

11. Write every day

Make the time.


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How to be a good host (in a tiny apartment)

A small apartment feels significantly smaller when there’s an extra person taking up space.

And yet, when you finally have a place all your own—a place that’s yours to decorate, and I’m talking grown-up, the-art-on-the-walls-is-actually-framed place—you want to invite the people you love into that home, no matter how small it might be. Still, it can be a challenge.

Last week, my randomly-paired-college-roommate-turned-best-friend Justine came to visit all the way from New York. My and John’s apartment is just big enough for two people (and a dog, ideally) to live comfortably, but with three people, it becomes a little tight. Luckily I had months to impatiently await and meticulously prepare for Justine’s arrival, and I learned a few key things.

how to be a good host in a tiny apartment

To be a good host in a tiny apartment…

Start with the bed. Whether your guest is staying a night or a week, they’re likely going to be exhausted, yet sleeping in an unfamiliar place can lend itself to crappy rest. If your parents or any older relatives or friends are coming to stay and you don’t have a spare private bedroom, offer them your bed with fresh sheets and take the couch. For other guests, make sure you have all the bedding essentials (don’t forget a pillow) and try to create some privacy. We have a $50 air mattress that we use while camping that Justine slept on, and every morning after she got up, she folded up her blankets and put them off to the side, and we leaned the mattress up against the back wall where it would be out of the way. That way, our living room didn’t feel like a bedroom the rest of the day.

Designate spaces for the basics. Outlets and closet space can be hard to come by in a small apartment, but make the effort to free up an outlet near where your guest will be sleeping so they don’t accidentally unplug your only light source or TV to charge their phone. If they’re staying for several nights, go the extra mile and make a few closet hangers available for them to use. When Justine was here, I also let her borrow my (clean) robe so she could go back and forth between the tiny bathroom and her suitcase comfortably. I let her change in the bedroom, too, so she didn’t have to get dressed in the small, steamy bathroom post-shower.

Show them how they can help (and how to help themselves). Dishwashers don’t come standard in most apartments in L.A., so we wash everything by hand here. After showing your guest where all the food, utensils and coffee are, encourage them to wash up afterward and show where clean dishes can dry. If they’re good houseguests, they’ll be happy to help out, and your apartment won’t suffer from piled-up clutter.

Help them spend as much time out of the apartment as possible. Even though they might be here to see you, it doesn’t mean your guest wants to spend their whole visit at your place. (We’re talking tiny apartments, not hillside villas.) Get a sense of the kinds of things they’d like to do before they arrive, and whether they’re exploring off on their own or you’re playing tour guide, have a loose itinerary planned. Think of your apartment as their crash pad to cater to their basic needs, not the main attraction.

And just some good hosting etiquette in general:

Stock up on snacks and toilet paper. Show your guest where they are and they won’t have to ask your permission to eat (or, y’know, wipe themselves).

Give them your Wifi password. Why make them use up their data plan unnecessarily? Their phone will likely feel like even more of a lifeline when they’re traveling away from home, so help them use it for free.

Recommend local publications/guides/resources beforehand. Whether they want to scope out the nightlife or learn something about your town, your favorite go-to sites will probably be helpful to them, too. For the best Los Angeles-centric lists (of rooftop bars, places to eat brunch, hikes to check out), I recommend LAist.

Give them options. While I had a loose itinerary planned when Justine came to visit, I also made it flexible enough to accommodate different moods. Mexican or Italian food? Fancy drinks out or a casual happy hour around the block? If they’re relying on you for getting around and seeing the sights, giving them the power to decide in the moment what they’d rather do makes them feel like they’re not completely at your mercy.

Finally, cook for them or treat them to a meal out. No one knows exactly what to expect the first night they’re staying in someone else’s home. Treating them to dinner is your way of welcoming them and showing that you value their company. Even if you have a tiny apartment, it’s a nice gesture to give them a home-cooked meal. (John made pizza one night and Justine politely offered to help. I told her, “It’s too tiny for you to be any help” and refilled her wine glass.) A night out—your treat—is also a perfect way to welcome them and show them your town. They’ll remember your generosity when they’re cleaning up after themselves at home.

Have you ever played host in a tiny apartment? How did you make your guests feel comfortable? Or, if you’ve been a guest in someone else’s home, what gestures have you most appreciated from your hosts?