Writing is just another form of art like painting or sculpting. Almost no one is good at first. You have to practice, practice, practice. But failing that, I thought I would share some of my thoughts and experiences on learning how to write well.
First off, you have to have pretty good grammar. It is the essential foundation of any written work. I don't think anyone has perfect grammar. English is too clunky a language with our thousand rules. It's part of the reason professionals have to go through several drafts of their works and we have editors.
Don't use numerals. Don't say "She was 7 years old." Say "She was seven years old." I can't tell you how many times I've seen fanfic writers do this. It breaks the flow of the narration for me.
Watch out for tense drift. This was one of my greatest hurdles. Sometimes when I am particularly investing in a scene, I switch over to present tense when the rest of the story was in past.
Use your spellchecker. If you don't have one, get one. I prefer Microsoft Word for my writing, but Open Office is acceptable. Notepad is not. It simply does not have the tools you'll need to build your story.
I (and I would like to think most people) will not read anyone's writing whose grammar is atrocious. You could have the most amazing plot ever and I would never know because I don't feel I should have to translate someone's writing when it is written in the same language as mine.
Second, avoid wordiness and redundant phrasing. You really don't have to repeat that person A is looking into person B's eyes for the fourth time in five paragraphs. Don't have your character sigh every other time they speak. Try to not use the same word multiple times in one paragraph. Avoid run-on sentences.
Use your thesaurus extensively! I can't tell you the number of times I caught myself saying the same word over and over. Pull up your thesaurus (physical or virtual) and expand your vocabulary!
Word count does not make you a good writer. I would rather read a two thousand word story that was concise and clear than a ten thousand word story that is overloaded with unnecessary description. For god's sake, I do not need a seventeen page description of France's sewer system.
Third, avoid adjectives. I got this from Stephen King's "On Writing". Adjectives are
Fourth, don't be afraid to write. Every source I have ever seen recommends that you try for an average of two thousand words a day. It can be hard. There are days were I can't get one sentence down. There are others I write a seven thousand word chapter.
Sit down, open your Word Document and just start writing. Last night I went to a book signing of Brandon Sanderson's newest book "A Memory of Light" and he gave this advice, "New writers are afraid to put down a scene they feel isn't good because they don't want to commit it to paper. Go ahead and write the scene because while you're writing, your subconscious starts filling in the gaps that will lead to the scene becoming right."
To add my own voice to this advice, we live in a digital age and we should take advantage of that. I had a hard time writing when I was younger because I only had pencil and paper. I know there are so many times I will write a paragraph and realize that it's better placed a paragraph before where I currently have it. A simple cut and paste later, I have my words flowing the way I want instead of having to erase it completely or needing to type the whole page out.
When I think of writers from two hundred years ago, I am in awe of their ability to have gotten words to print. I feel the same way for writers from twenty years ago. It's definitely a different experience than today's word processors.
My first "novel" was written when I was fourteen. I think I still have the battered notebook somewhere and if I were to read it, I would cringe because frankly it would be horrible. Writing should change and develop as you change and develop. I have managed to complete NaNoWrimo twice and I have written four or five character journals for various roleplaying games in that time.
I can read "Darkness Rises When Silence Dies" and there is definitely a marked difference than my later fanfictions. I whimper whenever someone tells me they read "Diana Dragonborn" first because I feel like they're going to feel a slide back in the experience because my writing feels stilted in that piece.
I literally felt like I was learning to walk for the first after a terrible accident when I wrote the first paragraph of "Darkness Rises." I remember thinking it sounded like bad purple prose, but I kept going because I knew those first lines would be the hardest. I'm pleased that
Constant writing is like physical exercise. It hurts when you first start, but the more you do it, the better you become. Push yourself constantly. One of the reasons I got into writing smut was because it stretched my mental muscles. I like giving myself new challenges and seeing how they work.
Sometimes when I get stuck, I like to go back and reread my previous chapters. It helps me find the thread I was following before I dropped it.
Fifth, read! Read, read, read! Read for the joy of reading. Read for the story, but watch the voice. How does your favorite author talk through his world? Sometimes when I am writing a combat or smut scene and the words are stuck, I look at a story I know that has something similar so I can study the language they used.
Don't be afraid to do research. We may write what we know, but that doesn't mean we can't learn as we write.
Take notes. Make a timeline. Use what tools you need to help keep all of your information straight. I know there have been many times I started to write a secondary character's eyes or hair and thought, "Oh crap, is that right?" It would have been nice if I had started a concordance (extensive author's notes) sooner so I wouldn't have to constantly go back and search through thousands of words to find one descriptor.
Sixth, be able to take constructive criticism. Professional writers will typically get back copies of their work torn to shreds. Red marks bleeding like fatal wounds running over every page. It's going to be discouraging. No one wants their baby to be put down. But this is another essential step of where it's hard, but doing it will make you better.
An editor (or beta reader) is more likely to catch the little grammar mistakes you missed. An editor can tell you if a concept is unclear, if you forgot to put description, if the character's voices have drifted. Familiarity breeds contempt and no one is more familiar with a piece of fiction than its author.
Seventh, have an overactive imagination. I've always been a bit of a daydreamer. I was lucky in that I was mostly able to keep in under control during school hours and it never affected my grades. But I remember even when I was as young as five running "What if" scenarios in my head about the cartoons I watched.
I write because a particular idea or scene bounces around in my head filling up my thoughts until I have to write to get it out. I am currently looking for that original idea to lodge into my brain much like a piece of grit in a clam so one day I can pop out a pearl.
Sometimes, especially after a strong piece, I'll sit back and feel physically and emotionally exhausted. I have to wait a few days to recharge, but when the well fills up again, then I'm ready to go to keep writing.
Eighth, be shameless. I got this from an article on how to write smut, but I think it's true for writing in general. Don't feel you have to hold back because something is inappropriate or wrong. If you want a scene to leave your readers in tears, laugh so hard their sides hurt, or feel joy so intense they can't help but have a goofy smile, then you need to go through that emotion first.
Ninth, don't rush. I know all of us have that one scene that we are DYING to share. It's the penultimate reason we wrote to begin with. For me, it was writing Cicero's death. I had this vague idea of "What would it be like if Cicero got himself killed because of his extreme devotion to the Night Mother? How sad would it be for a Listener who had held herself back by never sleeping with Cicero or from completely loving him and once he was gone really regretting it?" But in order for that scene to have any emotional impact, I felt I had to establish who the Listener was. Why did she matter? Why do we care?
It only took two whole series to set that up and to some degree I'm still expounding on that idea with my current story.
I don't regret one word of it.
Finally, and you guys are going to love this one, break the rules. Sometimes it is appropriate to use poor grammar or be wordy or use every adjective because that's what your story calls for. I know Stephen King used to love using all lower case words to show inner dialogue. It set it apart from the rest of the prose and (I assume) gives a more primitive feel to the narration. Have your character ramble because he loves the sound of his own voice or because she's shy and is socially awkward.
In regards to fanfiction, I am a strong believer of "It's okay to break canon, IF it is intentional." I may not agree with every writer's choice of depicting a character, but if that's the intent of your story, then go for it.
I'm sure after I post this, I'll think of several more things I wished I had talked about. That always happens.