Writing – a skill to learn or a talent to uncover?


Authors have numerous stories of people who come up to them and tell them that when they retire, or have some time, or can be bothered, they too will write a novel.  The grumpier authors point out that this never happens to brain surgeons.  Of course some brain surgeons retire and write books (the excellent DO NO HARM by Henry Marsh is a very interesting read.)

It is frustrating to hear that someone wants to do your professional job as a hobby, but writing is hardly a skill on the level of brain surgery – is it?  Of course not, a badly written novel has never killed anyone but there is skill in writing, and it can be learnt.

How can you tell what skills you need to acquire and what’s the best way to go about it?  Every author’s style is unique and their mistakes and foibles will also be specific to them.  An editorial report will give you personalised advice but there are some ways every author can brush up their skills.


  • Read.  Read widely and deeply.  Re-read the books that give you comfort.  Read the latest books in your genre. Read outside your comfort zone.  I’ve never come across a good author who doesn’t read.  Authors sometimes worry that by reading other writers, their own style will be infected or they will unwittingly copy something.  Don’t let that worry stop you from reading.  If you want to reach out to readers, you need to be a reader too – to know what works and what makes you put a book down half-finished.


  • Writing books.  There are thousands of books out there about writing and some are dreadful and some are wonderful.  I asked some authors recently what their favourite book on writing was and the one that comes up time and time again is Stephen King’s ON WRITING.  If you’ve not read it yet, make it your next read.  Find a book that encourages you with whatever your stumbling block is, such as procrastination or lack of confidence, such as Anne Lament’s BIRD BY BIRD or WHEN A WRITER ISN’T WRITING by Jenny Alexander.   THE WRITERS’ & ARTISTS’ YEARBOOK is the invaluable reference book all authors need and is also full of useful articles.  Genre-specific guides can be useful too to unlock inherent problems.


  • Practice.  Every time you write, you get a little bit better and a little more fluent.  Practice writing and practice editing.  Anyone can be a great author ‘one day’ when they have the time, but make the time now to work on writing to become a better author.  Make writing part of every day.


  • Workshops and conferences and courses.  I think conferences are a fantastic place for authors, somewhere to meet other authors and share ideas and problems and just come out of their writing corners.  Workshops focus you on specific areas of writing or editing and can spark improvements for months to come.  Courses can be very expensive so shop around before you commit to anything too pricey.


What ways are you using to develop yourself as a writer?  And have you ever considered taking up brain surgery as a hobby?




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September 4, 2016