How to Master your Craft
So you’ve caught the scribbler bug but don’t know where to start? Don’t worry—we’re ready to help you with the finer points of writing, starting with grammar, vocabulary, and exercises to improve your style.
Once you’ve mastered your craft, take a look at our Writing Resource Center, where we’ve outlined every step of your publishing journey—from building a publishing platform to writing a query letter. Good luck, scribblers. Let your literary adventure begin!
Creating a Writer’s Toolbox
Vocabulary, Grammar, and Style
The idea of having a writer’s toolbox comes from Stephen King’s On Writing – A Memoir Of The Craft
“I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work” (King 114).
Half the battle of writing is starting—forcing yourself to sit down and write. Writing is a craft that requires dedication and practice to master. On those days when you don’t know how to start, having a toolbox of skills gives you the direction and the building blocks to tackle any writing task.
King suggests the following requisites for every writer’s toolbox: vocabulary, grammar, and style. We couldn’t agree more! We will help you develop each of these tools in the following sections.
Words are the primary tool of the writing trade. More words mean more options and a greater number of ways to approach a story. But most importantly, more words lead to more ideas. Learning a new word may provide fresh inspiration for your writing, whether or not you ever actually use the word itself.
How do you build a great vocabulary? That’s simple: read…a lot! If there are two things that writers should do most, it’s read and write. TV time? Hell no! It’s curl-up-with-a-good-book time. On your couch, on the train, in the doctor’s office, in the morning, on your lunch break, or before you go to bed. Read like you’re starving and only crisp pages full of literary prose can nourish you.
When you’re reading, we recommend you get a notebook and write down all the words you don’t know—even if you think you might know what they mean but can’t quite match definitions to them. Look up all these definitions and write them down. Read over your “vocab words” notebook every couple of days. It’s like learning a new language—repetition leads to absorption and understanding.
One piece of advice—when you are writing, the words you use should mimic your voice, not the thesaurus, no matter how phenomenal those flashy synonyms might be. Often, new writers will randomly throw in huge words to sound more intelligent. NEVER, EVER DO THIS! As King says, using inappropriately loquacious words “is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed” (117). Editors find this tendency incredibly frustrating—so frustrating, in fact, they’ve been forced to write rant articles about it!
This doesn’t mean you can’t occasionally use verbose language—it’s simply best to use those words when it’s authentic to your voice, or when a character or narrator intentionally speaks or writes in a voice that warrants such words.
We at TBL have absolutely no sympathy on this one: suck it up and learn the rules, especially if you are one of those writers who wants to bend or even break them. The more you know, the further you can push the conventions of language into untapped territory.
The editors at TBL carry The Grammar Bible by Michael Strumpf around with us like a detachable appendage. While there are several great grammar books, this particular book is incredibly user-friendly and has nice, big margins for taking notes. Regardless of what resource you use, study it religiously. Even if you are working with a writing coach or editor, you, as a writer, have a responsibility to learn the rules of the game.
Read more about the most common grammatical errors from our team of editors here!
If you are a writer of poetry, The Art of Syntax by Ellen Bryant Voigt is also a terrific resource for understanding the craft more deeply. This book explores the musical structure of poetry, dissecting the various ways that poetic syntax invoke meaning. Writing and reading poetry can be incredibly difficult—and while much of it is intuitive, there are certain techniques and stylistic choices that really serve to inform one’s relationship with poetry—both as a writer and a reader.
Nothing is more difficult in writing than finding and developing your voice. After you decide if you want to write in first, third, or even second person, you still need to develop a rhythm, vocabulary, sentence structure—all the fun stylistic techniques that make writing great (and so terribly difficult)!
Luckily, for this we recommend something you should already be doing: reading and writing. Reading will expose you to more styles and voices, offering new ideas about what you like and don’t like. Writing, especially experimentally, will help you discover your own perfect voice.
In addition to reading and writing, certain writing exercises can further spur your creativity and mastery of style. The following is a TBL staff favorite:
Style Writing Exercise
Find a writer who has a voice that you really love and study one of their short stories or chapters. Now, write an in-depth manual of how to write like them. Your manual should include—well, everything you notice about their work.
Here are some questions to get you started: How many sentences are in a paragraph, on average? What kind of sentence structure is used? How much description and detail can you detect? When are characters or settings described? How long is the story or chapter? What kinds of adjectives and adverbs are used, and how many? At what point in the story is the major plot element introduced?
The goal of this exercise is to make it so that any writer could take your manual and emulate the style of the author you chose—without even knowing the author’s name. Now, once you’ve perfected your manual, follow it. Take a stab at recreating that author’s style in your own writing, with characters and plot elements that appeal to you.
We’re not saying that you should mimic another’s style professionally, but if you are looking to develop your own voice, start by studying the masters. Do a couple of these exercises with different voices and start combining them. Write, rewrite, and rewrite again.
As you begin this journey, consider the following tips:
1. Read your work out loud. Many of the transition problems or awkward sections will become blatantly apparent.
2. Edit on paper with a pen in hand. It’s strangely difficult to find your own errors on a computer screen.
3. Let your coterie of quills (your group of writing friends) take a look…and believe them when they tell you something is awkward or confusing. To that effect, it is imperative that you trust and admire your writing friends so you can take their advice. If you are looking for new writing companions, try meeting fellow TBLers in our forums!
4. After you’ve completed a draft that you really love, go back and cut 10% out. This is another great Stephen King suggestion and is perfect for those writers who tend to work on the flowery side of life (something of which many here at TBL are guilty!). Go through and highlight everything that you feel the story could live without. If you are hesitant to keep it, then it needs to go. If it rubs you the wrong way, it needs to be rewritten. Great writers don’t have filler sections; every line serves a purpose.
5. Always remember: If you’re getting bored reading it, imagine how your reader would feel!
Writing is a difficult craft to master. We know how arduous the task might sometimes seem. Nonetheless, our advice to you is this: if you love writing, if you can’t imagine yourself enjoying anything more, if you are willing to sacrifice some of your time and resources on the altar of creativity, then stick with it.
Passion and purpose are rare. If you possess these qualities, hold onto them. It is up to you to boost your talents and grow as a writer. These tools are invaluable in helping you on your journey to success.
And remember, you’re not alone. We’re here with you. We believe that those with talent, those with drive, and those with fervor can watch their words come to life and spring forth from their fingertips.
“Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe. Imagine, if you like, Frankenstein’s monster on its slab. Here comes lightening, not from the sky but from a humble paragraph of English words. Maybe it’s the first really good paragraph you ever wrote, something so fragile and yet full of possibility that you are frightened. You feel as Victor Frankenstein must have when the dead conglomeration of sewn-together spare parts suddenly opened its watery yellow eyes. Oh my God, it’s breathing, you realize. Maybe it’s even thinking. What in hell’s name do I know?” (King 135-6).
Dani Hedlund published her first novel, Threads of Deception, at the age of eighteen. Experiencing the difficulties of breaking into the market, she founded TBL in 2007 to help other new writers perfect and publish their works. Offering free writing coaching, editing, and publishing guidance, Hedlund expanded TBL into a global community of writers, editors, and artists. In 2010, she pushed the company to new heights, creating TBL’s literary journal, Tethered by Letters Quarterly Literary Journal which has since evolved into F(r)iction Series (published by Sheridan Press), a literary and art collection that pushes the boundaries of conventional storytelling.
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