13 Strategies to Improve Your Creative Writing Skills

As a fiction enthusiast, you want to improve your creative writing skills. And some of us might think we’re on the right track, as I was back in mid-2017. Little did I know, I was beyond wrong and it took a year to correct the mistakes I made when writing my first draft of Northern Knights.

Therefore, I want to save you heartache and headache. So I comprised a list of 13 strategies you can implement today which will allow your creative writing to flourish.

I’ll give you one warning, however: This is a tough love post which may force you to rewrite your entire manuscript. The good news? Your work will shine greater than 99% of competing authors.

Action, Action, Action

The first tip is straightforward. Always show your characters in action. Whether it’s dialogue, or even mulling thoughts. Show action and keep the story moving.

Okay, how?

Use beats. Allow characters to speak more. Use less narration. If you’re writing their thoughts, show them in action. They can be eating, walking, lifting, anything works. Make sure it’s relevant to the story and you’ll be golden.

Showing Beats Telling

Show the mood, weather, etc. For example, don’t write ‘Cain was beat. He collapsed on the couch. “I’m exhausted.”’ Instead, write ‘Cain collapsed on the couch. “I’m exhausted.”’ Don’t say ‘it was cold and rainy.’ Something like ‘Cain fastened his cloak and turned up his hood as rain pelted the lot.’

You can show hot and cold with someone’s attire. You can describe taste and texture, talking about how chewy food sticks to teeth or how food breaks when bitten. Just one of many suggestions.

Power of Said

People cough, laugh, wheeze, snicker, cry, everything in between, but they rarely do these things and speak at the same time. Every now and again? Sure. But in 90% of conversation, people say things. I’ll use tags like ‘mouthed,’ ‘whispered,’ etc., but rarely if ever do I use the above. Again, I’ll show the action before (and in small cases after) dialogue to cue the reader.

But people say things. They shout, yell, and mumble, but most of the time, they say things. Log your daily conversations throughout the day. How many times do you say your words? I’d say most often you’re talking, not yelling, coughing, or laughing as you talk.

By Zombies? Get Rid of It—Most of the Time

If you can place zombies after the word ‘by,’ get rid of it. You don’t have to do this all the time, but ‘by’ is often a cue for passive writing. You might have a character who talks in a passive tone, or you might be describing a scene that requires a passive voice. Many have cited the 85-15 Rule. 85% of the time, use an active voice and 15% of the time, use a passive voice. ‘Cain was passed by Micah’ is an example of passive voice. ‘Micah passed Cain’ is active. ‘The report was read to the group by Lira’ is another example. ‘Lira read the report to the group’ is another example of active voice.

Again, passive voice is appropriate at times, but most often you want to be active.

Subtract Adverbs

Don’t know what adverbs are? Words that end in ‘ly’ are good examples. We all do this in our first few drafts but there are stronger words out there in the forms of nouns and verbs. For example, ‘ran quickly’ is weak and it’s lazy. ‘Darted, bolted, sprung, etc.’ are stronger terms.

Any common word with very in front of it is a cue that a stronger word can be used.

Ingsoc Says 1 + 1 = ½

Anyone who reads my writing knows my work involves a strong anti-statist message, so you’ll see some fun headings like this in my posts. This means that using too many adjectives to describe someone waters down writing. Excess adjectives worked in the past before the advent of TV, radio, and event he laptop I’m writing this article.

People also want to form their own visions of characters. Lightly describing them works well and it allows one’s inner-theater to work in favor of forcing them to remember every little detail you describe. Be light with your adjectives unless you need to describe a specific character.

You Don’t Need an Explanation

Don’t narrate explanations for every little thing. In Northern Knights, I didn’t even do this with my premise. Instead, I let the characters do the talking. In standalones, you might want your characters to explain key points through action, but in a series, you can leave a few ends loose, which will allow your readers to find answers as they progress through the novels.

Too many novice writers make the mistake of explaining every key point via narration. But you don’t need to stop there. Instead, let explanations of key points evolve throughout the story, not just clumped in one or two scenes. Let things develop and readers will get it.

Final Cut? Why Not Unneeded Words?

There are tons of unneeded words in manuscripts. We covered adverbs, but words like very, only, and others can be eliminated. To be is a phrase that can be eliminated in many circumstances. As a Pittsburgh-area native, we don’t use ‘to be’ in our sentences anyway. Remember, if you’re writing fiction you can be layman and use unique voices.

Very can often be replaced with a stronger word. Only is unnecessary. If there’s ‘only one,’ ‘only two,’ or ‘only a few,’ the reader will get the hint if you say ‘one, two, few,’ etc.

One word I want to zero in on is ‘that.’ That appears unneeded often and in most cases, can be eliminated. Look through your document and use the ‘Find’ tab in Word. Find ‘that’ in each sentence and see if it makes sense to eliminate the word.

Don’t Be the Stage Manager

You don’t need to describe the entire room or setting to your readers unless it pertains to the story. So if your scene is set in a classroom, we all know what a classroom looks like. The same goes for hospitals, schools, dining halls, hotels, etc. You don’t have to describe everything.

If you write in something like the high fantasy genre, this rule might not apply. The same goes for any kind of world-building. In certain instances, you might have to give stage direction but in most cases, it distracts from the story. If it’s a common setting, don’t describe it.

Ben Stein Doesn’t Sell Fiction

We fiction writers have a superpower called voice. We don’t need to follow all the grammar rules. If you write nonfiction, this might be a little tougher, but for fiction writers, our voice must match our characters.

And each character should have a different voice.

You can use tags to tell the reader who’s talking, or you can work on your voice and really hone down uniqueness in each character. A good way to do this is read your manuscript and don’t look at the dialogue tag. See if you can guess who’s talking.

In Lord of Columbia, each character possesses a different voice. Cain likes to swear at unnecessary times. Lira emphasizes words. Micah speaks in one-liners. Jed only speaks when called upon. The list goes on.

If you can guess who’s talking without looking at dialogue tags, you’ve improved at mastering voice.

Your Characters Aren’t Gods

Omniscient point of view is a thing of the past unless you’re a well-known author who can sell thousands of copies the second you release your next title. So, pick one character per scene and that’s your point of view character. Preferably, one character per chapter, and ideally, one per book. Now, some books might call upon several point of view characters. In my next work in Lord of Columbia, I have two. In future installments, I might have as much as five.

If you are going to use multiple points of views, NEVER use multiple ones per scene. You can use multiple POVs per chapter, but make sure you distinguish when you change point of view. You can use a typographical dingbat like four asterisks. It’s also wise to use first and last names as well.

Also, never tell what’s going on around town if your POV character doesn’t know. Don’t tell readers what the bad guy is doing if your protagonist doesn’t know. Something like ‘Cain erupted in a fireball outside an abandoned building. But little did he know Syndari waited inside.’

This description won’t cut it.

‘Cain erupted in a fireball outside an abandoned building. Syndari has to be here. He’d never go where action was heavy. He would be outside the battle, where hordes of troops patrolled a non-combat zone.’

Be Fashionably Late and Leave the Party Early

The best writers will enter a scene at the latest moment and leave at the earliest moment. In other words, don’t enter a scene if the characters aren’t contributing to the story and leave the scene before the characters stop contributing to the story.

The same goes with dialogue. Dialogue IS NOT real conversation; it’s only conversation that pertains to the story. If your characters are talking about a football game that has nothing to do with the story, don’t add it—or don’t be consistent.

I’m not saying to eliminate all unnecessary dialogue but eliminate most.

Avoid Clichés

Avoid clichés of all kinds unless you have a character who speaks in clichés. This goes for narration, dialogue unless again you have a character who speaks in clichés, and don’t use premise clichés either.

For example, premise clichés might be the main character looking in the mirror as the author describes their physical features, they awaken at an alarm clock or from a dream.

In other words, be original with your story, dialogue, characters, etc. You can base characters on people. You can base your setting on places. You can take elements from the plots of different works. But at the end of the day, be original and you’ll be satisfied.

8 comments

  1. This is a great guide to better creative writing. I’ve always been much more inclined to fact rather than fiction writing but your tips are applicable to both. I like the “by zombies” tip – that’ll be easy to remember! And I know I’m guilty of using too many adverbs, both in speech and writing, so this is a useful checklist for future reference, thank you very much.

    1. I’ve always been a sucker for passive voice so I had to eliminate a lot of it when editing. I was well over the 15% mark time and again. 

  2. Very interesting, and it makes sense. Although adverbs are grammatically correct and cannot always be avoided, I agree that they can be minimized. I have published several books and during the editing process I learned from my editors 🙂

    Passive voice, yes, don’t use it too often. I agree. I’m guilty of using the word “very” too emphasize, and I usually end up deleting a bunch of those unnecessary words when I check my manuscripts 😉

    1. Hi, Christine. One exception might go for a character whose voice revolves around adverbs. In narration, it’s best to minimize but in some cases, they understandably can’t be, so it’s one of those “only eliminate if you can help it” kind of things.  

  3. Wow, I can’t really believe I’m guilty of most of the “don’t”s you listed in this article. Well, there’s always a chance to improve and that what I’ll do from now on, I’ll use this article as a guide to improve My creative writing skills because my eyes are opened and if I continue with my errors, I might end up missing it finally. This post is really a blessing to me, I’ve learnt a lot from it and its gonna be very useful foe me and other people too. 

  4. Hi, Todd.
    Thanks for the suggestions made to improve creative writing skills in 13 ways.
    I agree with your action part which makes the story on the foot. Whenever the characters are in action the story moves fast and reader becomes the sticking rider.
    Be fashionable Late and leave early is also one of the important point. Thanks for all the knowledge.
    Warm Regards,
    Gaurav Gaur

    1. Definitely needing more and more action these days. Backstory is necessary but again, the times today suggests a different outlook. We definitely want to make our work competitive with other outlets and to do that, we must emulate them. 

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