Developing your skills
Once you have made the leap to start writing, there are lots of things you can do to develop your skills further.
The more you read, the more familiar you will become with how different authors write, as well as what you enjoy, what you don't and why. You will expand your vocabulary and gather ideas.
Some people find watching films or TV programmes and listening to the radio or watching stage plays can also help them develop their own ideas.
There's a common saying that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something. The first things you write may not be the best – but as with anything, the more you write, the better you will get at it.
'How to write' books and writing exercises from books, magazines and websites can help. Take a look at the writing resources section for some books about writing.
Ideas to kickstart your writing
Have a go at these exercises from our contributors:
A picture paints a thousand words
Find any picture or photograph from a paper or magazine, preferably without text, and see if you can jot down a few words about it, or try to make a 100-word mini story or poem out of it. You might want to try coming up with a caption by putting a few words in a balloon.
Think of 5 things, objects or people that mean a lot to you and describe what it is that makes them special. Make it as vivid as possible, add a colour or a feeling, and make the reader see what you see.
Take something like shopping, exercising, housework, even lying in bed or looking out of the window, and pretend that it's a television soap or it's being filmed. Make it a mini script, add a bit of drama – it's an episode of your life so call it what you like. Lights, music, action!
Explain it to an alien
Choose one of the following words (or another of your choice) and pretend you are describing it to an alien: elephant, autumn, breakfast, rain, yellow, television.
Make your descriptions accurate and concise, with as much detail as possible. You may like to share your description with someone else to see if they can guess what you've described.
When you're out and about in public, watch the other people around you and pick someone you think looks interesting. Compose a detailed physical description and then fictionalise them.
Give them a name, a job, and a home. What is their daily routine, what has happened in their past to make them the person they are today?
Go into real detail – what is their favourite meal, what does their bedroom look like, how would they cope if something were to go wrong in their life?
Find other ways to be creative
Any practical task that allows space for the creative side of the brain to work will stimulate creativity – such as walking and spending time outdoors, going to art galleries, knitting, cooking, woodwork, colouring books and crafts in general.
Such activities are also calming, help you focus and can put you in the right frame of mind for writing.
Take a course
Classes from local colleges and writing promotion organisations, and university short courses that are available to the general public, can help you gain skills, feedback and confidence.
Some universities run mass open online courses (MOOCs) which are free to join. See Future Learn for lists of courses and their start dates. There are also other online courses (eg from the Open University, Open College of Arts, The Poetry School).
Many universities run MAs in creative writing and some run undergraduate courses in it, or have creative writing as part of a BA course.
You may even want to combine a holiday with a writing course, either in the UK or abroad.
Book and writing groups
Joining a book or writing group is a great way to meet new people and learn from others. You could also think about setting up your own group. You can meet up regularly in a local café or community centre, or take it in turns to meet at a member's house. Or you can make it a virtual, online-only group.
You’ll need to decide if you want to start (or join) a book group, where you read other published works, or a writing group, where people share their own work. Both can help you improve your own writing skills and can be great fun.
Book groups for published works
In groups of this sort, a book is chosen at each meeting – sometimes agreed through a democratic voting system – and all members go away and have a specific amount of time to the read the book before the next meeting. At each meeting, the group comes together to discuss their thoughts about the book.
The person who originally put forward the chosen book for a vote can introduce the book, saying something about it and why it was chosen. Then others can start to offer their thoughts.
What is interesting is that you inevitably get a real diversity of viewpoints! It can be a good way to understand how others engage with literature – they may see things in the book you didn't or vice versa. Your own opinion of the book may well change too after hearing others' views.
You can find more information about joining or starting a book group on the BBC Skillswise website. Reading Groups for Everyone can help you to find existing groups in your area and offers many other resources too.
Writing groups to share members' writing
If you want to join or start a group where people can share their own work, there's a lot to be gained. A group of this sort can also be a workshop environment – an opportunity for everyone to write together and develop their skills.
Sharing our own work can help improve our writing and also build confidence.
It's a good idea to send copies of your work to members of the group in advance, so that everyone can read it and then give their feedback (either in a group discussion or online/by post).
It is important that feedback is honest and a mixture of praise and constructive criticism.
You'll need to be aware of how much people can manage to read at a time and how much workshop time there is to discuss each writer's work.
One way to work is to concentrate on a small number of pieces at each workshop, but allowing everyone a chance to read/have their work discussed either at each meeting or over a few meetings.
Don't make people have to wait too long or they might get fed up and stop attending. People should be gently encouraged to share their work but not pushed to if they'd rather not. It is important that feedback is honest and a mixture of praise and constructive criticism.
The Writing Magazine website has a list of groups but you can also try searching Google for 'Creative writing group in...' (with your location) to find a group local to you.
You might also like to join an online group or forum such as the Creative corner on our forum.
Jane's group poem exercise
- Everyone in the group contributes a sentence. It can be on any theme. For example it could start with a phrase – eg 'Parkinson's is…' or 'spring is...' – or it could involve a description of one of these, or something like oranges, or anything else.
- Group members either write these down individually or a scribe could write them on post-it notes, paper strips, a flip chart etc.
- The group then decides between them in what order to put the sentences to form a poem. This can help with group cohesion and get round difficulties such as lack of confidence in writing, or people having difficulty with their handwriting because of Parkinson's.
- Then read the poem out loud and see what you've come up with.
Adapted from an exercise by Cheryl Moskowitz in the book Writing Works. See the section on Writing resources for more books about writing.
Point of view
Every piece of writing is told from a particular point of view, which can impact on the effect the writing has on the reader.
These exercises will make you consider which point of view you might want to write in, and get you to see how writing from a different point of view can change a piece of work.
- Write about your earliest memory. This is a writing exercise not a memory test, so feel free to invent details to fill in the gaps. Try to include things such as your size in relation to other people or objects, information from all 5 of your senses and any emotions you were feeling. After including as many details as you can, set the piece of writing aside. In a few days, write about the same memory but from the point of view of somebody else who was there. Take note of the differences that you’ve made in the tone, structure, vocabulary and details of the piece.
- Think about a well-known short story or fairy tale that we normally read in the third person (he, she, it, they) and try writing it in the first person. Have you focused on different points in this first person perspective? Then have a go at rewriting it from the point of view of the villain (for example the wolf or an evil step-mother). How does telling the story from another perspective alter the tone and change the sympathies of the reader?
- Think about a cause you feel very strongly about. Write a 200 word piece persuading somebody to come around to your point of view. To challenge yourself further, try to write a similar piece arguing for the opposite viewpoint.
Adapted from The Creative Writing Coursebook edited by Julia Bell and Paul Magrs. See the section on Writing resources for more books about writing.
Structuring your writing
No matter what genre you’re writing in, the structure of it is key so that you don’t confuse yourself or your reader.
Deciding in which order to present your ideas, and when to withhold them, will take your reader on a journey and encourage them to continue.
These exercises will help you consider how to structure your writing.
3 is the magic number
Plan a piece of writing breaking everything down into threes:
- 3 parts – a beginning, a middle and an end.
- 3 sentences – describe each of those parts in 3 sentences.
- 3 words – sum up the aim or tone of your piece of writing in 3 words.
If you're writing a longer piece, you could use this technique for each chapter or long paragraph.
Write an attention-grabbing opening
People tend to have fairly short attention spans so it’s important to get their attention straight away to encourage them to keep reading.
Think about a really mundane event in your daily life (for example hanging out the washing or going to the supermarket) and use this as the beginning of a story. How will you grab the reader’s attention through your use of language and make them want to find out what happens next?
Extend and advance
Knowing when to extend on a point and when to advance to the next point is something that can be difficult. This exercise of writing in intervals will help you keep your writing moving and the narrative flowing.
Choose a random word from the list below as a topic to write about:
Set a timer and write about the topic for the following time intervals:
- 30 seconds: Free writing to get going.
- 1 minute: Extend on whatever point you're up to when the timer beeps.
- 1 minute: Advance onto a new point.
- 1 minute: Extend on whatever point you're up to when the timer beeps.
- 1 minute: Advance to a new point.
- 30 seconds: Finish your writing.
Adapted from Belle Beth Cooper's blog, 10 minute writing workouts to improve your creativity, clarity, and storytelling skills.