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20 Things That Will Make You A Better Writer

So, it’s a new year … and no doubt you’re limbering up for some serious writing and smashing of your goals. Why not chew on some of these for size? HAPPY NEW YEAR!

1) Read Screenplays

I’ve been working with screenwriters fifteen years now, yet STILL there are wannabes out there who’ve never read a script in their lives! WTAF. Put yourselves on the naughty step AT ONCE.

Also, 5-10 in your entire writing lifetime won’t cut it. Commit to reading a script a week. That’s right – 52 in a year! A great script only takes 1-2 hours to read, after all. If you can binge-watch an entire Netflix series in one weekend, then you HAVE TIME. (But okay, maybe you don’t. You can still read 1 a month. 12 new scripts a year is better than NONE).

BTW, if you’re a novelist, it’s still a good idea to read screenplays because it will help you with plot, plus it can be very enlightening seeing what’s on the page versus what we ‘see’ on screen (thus helping you with your own visuals). Check out sites like the BBC Writersroom and Simply Scripts to get started.

2) Read novels

Lots of writers – both novelist and screenwriter – tell me they ‘haven’t time’ to read books – but 6-10 books per year are not out of the realms of most people. Some screenwriters will even say books are somehow different to screenplays. WRONG! Yes, they are different mediums, but storytelling is storytelling … Plus it’s ALWAYS well worth knowing which are the ‘hot’ novels and why, considering what starts in books usually makes its way to movies and TV, via adaptation or issues (or both). Convergence, baby! Friend me on Goodreads for recommendations.

3) Read threads (don’t comment)

Think of an issue you don’t know much about. Go in search of people who live with that issue, problem or reality. Then read their threads. DO NOT COMMENT. Go away and think about why they’re angry, upset, or think this way. Yes, even if you think they’re hopelessly wrong (especially if you think they’re wrong). I’ve read some enlightening perspectives on Brexit, Trump, Men’s Rights and Radical Feminism this year for example. That doesn’t mean I suddenly agree with those perspectives (or even condone them), but it’s given me plenty of fodder for antagonists if nothing else!

4) Ask questions

Following on from 3, ask questions about said issues to improve your understanding further – but crucially, don’t hassle people. There’s a difference between crowdsourcing (good) and sea-lioning (bad). So instead of popping up on marginalised people’s TLs demanding explanations (or what may *seem* like demands), use question-based platforms like Quora to help you get more context and information.

5) Identify/describe the craft elements you need to work on

I’m always surprised by the number of writers who will tell me they ‘know’ about plotting, characterisation, structure or whatever — yet are totally unable to DESCRIBE these elements and how they work (or not!) in their writing (or even other people’s). But get this straight: you need the vocabulary to really understand what’s going wrong. So read up on craft and then you will be able to apply to it your own writing.

6) Work out WHY your writing idols are so good

Following on from 5, enjoying your writing idols’ work is just the surface level. If we’re going to be able to emulate our heroes’ successes, we need to know WHY, at craft level, they are so good. So what is it you love about your favourites’ movies, TV or novels?

7) Figure out your submissions strategy

Make 2018 the year you stop throwing spaghetti at the wall. Without a submissions strategy, any success you have will be accidental, rather than by design. Figure whom you want to submit your work to, plus when and why – IN ADVANCE.

8) Evaluate how far you’ve come already

It’s easy to forget how far we’ve come when we’re set on the road ahead. Don’t forget to reward yourself for jobs well done, or the fact you’re no longer wet behind the ears. Also, knowing where you are on the4 road keeps your feet on the ground and helps you make decisions on what you want to do next. So stop obsessing about ‘making it as a writer’ – if you’re writing? You’re a writer. Done.

9) Set some goals for the year ahead

Every New Year’s Day, I open my diary and write out my list of goals for the year ahead. It’s usually a mix of the outlandish and the achievable. I then evaluate what is possible by what date by breaking it down into things like wordcount (ie. X words per week), or what I need to ensure gets done so I can commit to my goal (ie. money, childcare, hours, etc) and who I need to get to help me do this (Mr C and other family; fellow collaborators, etc). So write down what you WANT to do, HOW you’re going to do it (plus WHO you need to help) and BY WHEN. I double-dare you.

10) Create a writing ritual

My writing ritual is very simple: I try and ensure I dedicate 4K words to my novel per week. That’s gone by the wayside lately (it always does in the autumn term), but I’ll be back onto with a vengeance in the new year. So, what’s yours? Remember, it all adds up.

11) Discover if you’re on the right path

It’s common for writers to go through periods of non-enthusiasm for their work or place in the industry, especially if they’ve had a run of rejection. However, if your lack of enthusiasm lasts for months at a time (3+ months is the danger zone, imho), then you might be on the wrong path. It could be a writer’s life is not for you (maybe you want to be creative some other way?); or you could be in the wrong medium. The only way you can work this out is by dedicating some mind space to it. If you come to the conclusion that no, you DO want to be a writer, then you need to find a way of getting enthused again … And in my experience, that’s usually some kind of new project.

12) Work on your grammar, punctuation and spelling

A simple one, but hard to enact. As writers, we are judged by the words on the page – it’s what we do. So you need to work out WHERE you have issues and blind spots on the basics. Whilst it’s true many of us have been taught badly, or have a learning difficulty like dyslexia, the good news is, improving is easier than ever. Just commit to doing a ten minute online test like these every day of 2018: before you know it. you will be proficient, or at least better than you were before. What’s not to like?!

14) Keep a writing diary or journal

Lots of writers say their partner, family or other commitments mean they have no time to write. But B2W has always said your best writing is done by THINKING. So mull your ideas, loglines and plots over WHILE you do the other stuff. But okay, life is busy, so make sure you take a diary, journal or notebook with you to note these things down as they occur. B2W is entirely powered by notebooks – and is one of the reasons I am so prolific. True fact!!!

15) Watch movies (not just TV)

There’s always a lot of talk online about how we’re currently living in a ‘Golden Age’ of TV. Whether you think this or not, these are the facts: writing television differs significantly to movies in terms of plotting to movies. It’s not hard to see why: one is episodic and one is ‘stand alone’ (even in a franchise, a single movie must speak for itself).

Perhaps because screenwriters typically consume SO MUCH television, they tend to do better with TV spec pilots than 90-120 page spec feature screenplays … Yet new writers are waaaay more likely to break through with  brilliant spec feature than TV pilot. I’m convinced it’s because they don’t watch ENOUGH movies. This seems like an own goal.

What’s more, novelists would do well to watch more movies, too. I see A LOT of samey, tropey characters in genre novels, plus plotting can be dodgy too (especially endings, with everything ‘backended to the resolution’). Yet investment in character role functions, plus a 3 Act Structure, could solve both these problems – and movies can illustrate both of these things for writers, quickly and efficiently.

16) Do peer review

You know the drill, people: join Bang2writers, find people you can swap work with. Helping your colleagues and being helped in return cannot be anything but good. Plus it creates relationships and connects you. Even if you find yourself paired with an asshole, you know who to avoid in future! Boom! There’s literally no downside, unless you’re the asshole.

17) Stop knee-jerking on feedback

It’s great writers are so thirsty for feedback – but that doesn’t mean the feedback is always right. In fact, some of it is downright crap; others will be good stuff, but just not relevant for whatever reason. There will be lots of other types too. This is the thing: you don’t HAVE to use other people’s notes, especially on specs. You can use it as a springboard for your own ideas … But to do that, you need to let feedback marinade in your brain. And that takes TIME. Learn how to use feedback efficiently.

18) Review movies, TV & novels from a craft POV

Harking back to point 6 on this list, this is where you break down WHAT WORKS and what needs MORE DEVELOPMENT about works you enjoy. I use Goodreads to do this on novels I like. Note, you won’t find reviews of stuff I hated. I don’t see the point. But even the novels I was lukewarm on get a review with a positive slant, because it’s far too easy to simply criticise stuff. A lot of work goes into writing books and there’s ALWAYS something that can be praised (even if you have to dig deep).

And NO, I’m not advocating LYING … If you don’t enjoy something, then that’s fine. But why not try and offer what you think WORKS from a craft POV first, then do similar on what needs FURTHER DEVELOPMENT. Try not to use emotional language like ‘this was crap’ or ‘I hated this’ etc – or if you do, back up WHY from a characterisation, plotting or structural reason. Re-train your brain to go beyond ‘hate-watching’ and ‘hate-reviewing’ into looking at the LAYERS of there work.

19) Follow useful and interesting people online

Social media makes it easier than ever to identify the people who can help us in our writing or careers – whether that’s for research or connecting with influential people, publishers and producers alike. So go out and connect with them! Just don’t shoot yourself in the foot, for God’s sake.

20) Work out what you’re missing

However successful you are in smashing your goals and getting ahead in your career, don’t get complacent. There are ALWAYS opportunities staring you in the face and pitfalls to fall into. But if you know what you’re missing, you can plan effectively and consider what’s possible for you and what’s not … That way you needn’t leave anything on the table needlessly. Sometimes you will have to say ‘No’ and that’s okay, as long as it’s an informed decision.

Good Luck!

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