Crafting a story for publication is a lot like cooking a meal for friends: The best outcome involves a strategic combination of following instructions, trusting your gut enough to wing it here and there, and employing a considerable amount in equal parts of patience and perseverance.
In the same way that you approach whipping up grilled salmon with steamed rice pilaf and sautéed lemon asparagus for a dinner party, you can find plenty of inspiration by studying the masters—but a quicker and easier route is to practice specific writing skills that ultimately will improve your writing and make your content more nourishing.
Here are our top tips for doing just that—a detailed and comprehensive recipe for success:
Stop telling yourself you lack talent
The science of self-talk is well-documented—however, it’s easier said than done to avoid talking yourself out of the things that you truly desire to do. Instead of tearing yourself apart, though, try reminding your brain that this is what you want, and that you’re good at it and you deserve to be a successful writer. Good things will follow.
Don’t be afraid to say what you mean in what you write
We all have a self-editor in our heads that pokes at us while we try to tell our tale. “You can’t write that!” it says, or “You’ll offend someone if you say it that way!” Ignore that voice, for at least three drafts. If it’s still nagging at you on the fourth, then acknowledge that the voice might have something to say, and address its concerns. But until then, say what you mean and see how it goes.
Do adequate research on your topic—or even more than adequate
There’s no excuse for not providing background and accurate facts in your stories. Research is easier than ever in this Age of the Internet, but remember that not everything out there is true. Find several sources, and if possible, connect with experts on the ground and in fields related to what you’re sharing—get them to corroborate your information whenever possible. For example, if you’re writing a story about surfing for the first time in Florida, be sure to talk to people who have been doing it for years to get context and perspective on things like the waves, the risks and the requisite gear.
Brush up on the basic principles of writing, grammar and spelling
As with research, grammar is a no-brainer these days. You can use a site such as Grammarly.com to run through your stories to identify problems, and you also can simply search topics such as “lie or lay?” or “its and it’s.” In addition, most document applications have some form of spellcheck, and they also underline or otherwise flag incorrect spelling and grammar. Don’t ignore those signs. If you’re not sure what fixes are required, find someone who is and ask them for help. Which leads us to…
Find a partner, and ask them to read your writing and provide feedback
This should be someone you trust to the fullest extent, because you’re going to ask them to be brutally honest—not just about grammar, but also about whether your story makes sense, provides all of the pertinent information, and reads well. It’s even better if you can find someone who also writes, so that you can trade and become comfortable critiquing each other’s work like a rue editor. The most important thing is to find an editor who demonstrates patience, so that you will be able to be receptive.
Write like it’s your job and practice regularly
It’s not enough to announce to people at a party that you want to be a writer—you have to actually do the writing. Practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect, but perfection isn’t the goal here: Getting it done as well as you can is the goal. Set aside time once a day, once a week, or whatever works for you, but if you really want to pull it off, you must get into the habit of writing repeatedly and routinely.
Make your story less like a snack and more like a full meal
Snacks can be just what we need, but we’re far more satisfied with a full meal. Readers feel the same way—we’ve all read stories that feel like the verbal version of cotton candy, all fluff and no substance. Dig deeper. Help your readers feel as though they’re there right with you. Offer a little something extra, whether that’s a more elaborate and well-thought-out description, or background that you discovered after interviewing locals and seeking out obscure trivia. Strive to help your readers gain a full understanding and appreciation for the experience you’re relating.
Read more so you develop an eye for what effective writing looks like
Good readers make for good writers—it’s well documented that the more you read, the better your writing will become, because it will connect synapses in your brain and help the words come more easily. In addition, it pays to go the extra mile by taking the time to analyze writing you admire and imitate writers you admire. That doesn’t mean copying them word for word, of course (that’s plagiarism). Instead, when you’re in the throes of trying to string sentences together and you hit a writer’s block, take a few minutes to peruse the work of someone you admire. This is a well-known trick that many writers use, because it has the effect of releasing the block and getting those creative juices flowing again.
Join a writers’ workshop, meetup, or take a night class
Find your tribe, your people, your fellow writers, and join them in learning more about the craft of writing. It will strengthen your skills, and it also will help you gain more confidence. Not to mention that the more writers you network with, the more insight you’ll glean into the world of writing and publications, and the more potential avenues will present themselves for pitching your stories or connecting with editors.
Outline your writing early in the process
Create a mesmerizing flow by outlining or reverse-outlining your content—play with the order and the flow to see what works best. It’s not enough to simply sit down and start throwing words on a page. Savvy writers take the time beforehand to organize their thoughts and come up with a plan for executing the tale. You don’t have to set up the outline like you did back in English 101, but some kind of list of themes, topics or tidbits you want to be sure to include will go a long way toward a coherent and cohesive narrative.
Edit your writing, again and again
Accept that first drafts are often bad, and revise, revise, revise. Make yourself a checklist of things to cover when you go back through, things like “eliminate unnecessary words from your writing,” and “become more conversational by including questions in your writing.”
Study how to choose the most flavorful words. Learn how to avoid bland phrases that make your writing tasteless and yucky. Compose smooth transitions so readers glide from sentence to sentence, and from paragraph to paragraph. Experiment with your voice by changing punctuation and adding a dynamic rhythm. Practice writing soundbites that linger in your reader’s minds. Cook up fresh metaphors to make abstract concepts concrete and entertaining.
Continue to learn how to write good sentences — a sparkling sentence is the basic ingredient of good writing. Read your work out loud to hear what your eye might be missing.
Review your earlier work to see how you’ve grown
If you’re like most of us writers, you’ll cringe when you look at your first attempts—but you’ll also be gratified when you see how much you have improved. It’s also great incentive to keep at it, because you’ll be amazed at how much better you get and how quickly. That will only continue.
Play with mini-stories to engage your readers
Not every story has to be an epic 2,000-word odyssey—most publications are looking for shorter pieces to showcase in the front of the book (literally the beginning pages of a magazine or the second page in a newspaper Travel section) or as sidebars to larger destination packages (what publications call more than one story combined with several smaller stories on a similar or related topic). Also, writing fewer words is actually one of the best ways to improve, because it forces you to consider each word individually and make sure it’s working hard for you.
Practice each mini-skill one by one
Now that you have read through these tips, go back and work at each one individually. Become comfortable with it before you move on to the next one. By the time you’ve reached the end, you’ll be significantly more proficient and more at ease with the process.
And finally, in the same way that you’ll be very hungry if you don’t cook something sooner or later, don’t delay writing. Get it done now so that you can soon savor the delicious rewards of seeing your well-executed stories in all their published glory.