From paid critiques to writing workshops and courses, there are a lot of good ways to spend your money on improving your writing abilities. Fortunately, there are also a lot of good ways to work on your writing without spending a penny. I’ve listed ten (well, technically nine) below.
1. Use Your Library
What if there were a club in your town, as large or larger than your local bookshop, where they’d let you hang around all day and read all the books, without ever hassling you to buy anything? What if they even let you borrow the books and take them home for free? Sound good? Now, what if this club also laid on qualified staff, trained to answer questions from “What new fiction is doing well these days?” to “I’d like to write crime fiction; what are the classics? What should I read to get to know the genre inside out?”
Finally, what if you could use most of this club’s facilities without even joining, and if you did want to join—so you could take their books home with you—it was free?
Use your library.
2. Free Online Writing Courses
Several universities now offer free teaching materials and even short courses online. The Open University in the UK has a whole department, called Openlearn, dedicated to this. I know a couple of people who’ve tried out their Start Writing Fiction course, and they’ve said good things about it.
3. Broaden Your Reading
A lot of people who think they read broadly actually don’t. Statements like “I read anything I can get my hands on” often have silent qualifiers: …as long as it has a dragon on the cover. “I read all genres,” …pirate romance, Civil War romance, medieval romance, astronaut romance… doesn’t cut it either. Do you say “I read anything from William Burroughs to Somerset Maugham,” when what you really mean is I only read William Burroughs and Somerset Maugham?
The fact that you don’t want to write in a certain genre doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything you can learn from reading it. Think seriously about the parts of the fiction section that you never usually visit, and try paying them some attention. (If you’re not sure where to start, see #1 above, and ask your local librarian.)
4. Deepen Your Reading
A lot of readers and writers read, and write, for escapism. That’s fair enough, but if you think a book’s doing a particularly good job of helping you to escape, set aside some time to try to work out why. What techniques does the writer use to make this character interesting? How has he or she managed to make you turn those pages quite so breathlessly? Exactly what is it about that piece of dialogue that makes it feel so realistic? What purpose do those two minor characters serve in the overall narrative?
If you were learning how to build an engine, you’d start by taking a few apart. Do the same with the books you admire. And this isn’t something you have to do alone, because you can…
5. Join a Reading Group
If you find it hard to get disciplined about close reading, consider doing it in company. Regular reading groups may be some people’s idea of hell, but others find them a great way to investigate books and what makes them tick.
6. Join a Writing or Critique Group
Like reading groups, writing groups aren’t to everybody’s taste. A lot can depend on the people in the group, and whether they share your enthusiasm and, to a degree, your approach to writing. (It doesn’t matter so much whether they’re interested in the same genre, though, so don’t worry if you’re the next Salman Rushdie and they’re the next Terry Pratchett. See #3 above, and remember that there’s a lot you can learn from different genres.)
If you’re having trouble locating a reading or writing group in your area, allow me to direct you once again to the top of the page: visit your library, check the noticeboards, and ask the librarian.
7. Write More
It’s surprising how many people don’t realise that a great way to learn how to write is to… write. Try not to always write with the eventual aim of publication in mind. Practice makes… well, if not always perfect, at least better. The first thing you write isn’t going to be worth much. The same might go for the second, and the third, but as you write, you’ll be experimenting with new techniques, and learning new skills.
8. Stop Using Txt Spk.
I’m not saying that every line you write, in every context, should be beautifully crafted (this website would show the lie in that), but if you regularly write SMS messages, here’s a challenge for you: stop using text speak, and start writing your messages using full sentences. Not enough room? You’d be surprised. Start thinking about whether you really need those adjectives and adverbs. Look at ways you can restructure the sentence to fit into that character limit, without losing any of the information. (If your phone allows multi-text messaging, without character limit, either turn off the function or be strict about trying to stick to a single message.)
You can learn a lot about brevity and clarity in prose by properly crafting your text messages.
9. Read Book Reviews
This serves two purposes. Firstly, it will help you to keep up to date with what’s being published. (That’s really, really important if you want to be published yourself.) Secondly, it’ll help you to think about the way you analyse the books you read, and it might give you some new ideas to think about.
There are book reviews all over the place, ranging from professional to amateur, from brilliantly insightful to stunningly oblivious. Most newspapers post their book reviews online, and many of the reviews here on The Fiction Desk are written at least partly for writers. You’ll find perceptive reviews on other blogs too.
Again, try to read reviews of books both inside and outside your genre.
10. Buy (and Use) a Good Dictionary
Okay, this one isn’t free, but it’s relatively cheap, it’s important, and it’s going in here. Words have specific meanings, spellings, and ways in which they can and can’t be used. While owning and using a dictionary the size of a small car might not be part of the romantic ideal of writing, it’s important.
I generally recommend the Oxford Dictionary of English to British writers, and direct Americans to its cousin, the New Oxford American Dictionary. Both are of a decent size, and contain plenty of examples of word usage. Mac users shouldn’t forget that they can access the New Oxford American Dictionary through the Dashboard.