Almost every published writer gets asked one particular question: How did you become a writer?
The answer may vary from writer to writer, but almost every one will say that he or she started out as a reader.
Long before I became a writer, I was a reader, and I believe I will be a reader long after I cease to be a writer (unless, of course, I drop dead at my desk in the middle of an exciting scene, but let's not get too specific here!) Reading stories, whether fact or fiction, inspired me to want to write my own stories. And once I decided to become a writer, I read even more.
I must have spent a small fortune on "How to write" books, some written by popular authors (including Janet Evanovich) and some by writers who seem to only have "How To" books as their credentials. And, much to my embarrassment NOW, I actually followed a lot of the advice given in those books! Like not using sentence fragments (as you can see, I finally came to my senses on that one!) Or not using contractions (the only time I do not, er, don't use contractions is during November when I'm trying to boost my word count on my NaNoWriMo project!) Or only writing what I know (murder mystery writer here!)
I have also taken many writing classes which turned out to be merely extended lectures (sixteen weeks long) on how the INSTRUCTOR writes. The grading curve on those classes had a lot to do on how well we parroted the instructor's advice and sacrificed originality.
I wasted a lot of time and money on books and classes that were supposedly the key to becoming a writer. It took a long time for me to realize that I only really needed one class--basic English grammar--and lots of books. But not necessarily the kind that tell me how to write.
The books that taught me most about the art of writing are the ones that I enjoy reading. I loved reading mysteries and what better place to learn how to write one than by reading and studying how my favorite writers wrote the stories that I loved? In this instance, the "how to" books were valuable in that they explained how the author brought their characters to life, used dialogue and exposition to move the story along, and used description as a tool for setting the scene, not as a means to an end. The books then showed me how it was done. You may look at a recipe for a complicated dish and manage to pull it off, but it's so much easier when you can see someone go step by step through the process.
Obviously, it's not an easy thing to learn. One of the best tools for learning how to write is, again, reading, but reading out loud. Read a passage written by one of your favorite authors, then read your own work. No matter how many times I visually read my work, my eyes know what I'm supposed to have written and "see" it correctly. It's amazing how any awkward phrasing and rough pacing in your writing becomes evident when read out loud... and even more so when you have someone else read it out loud (this is where having a trusted first reader is indispensable!)
And here is another thing... anyone who reads extensively has no business making mistakes in spelling and punctuation. There, I've said it! After all, if you're reading a professionally written and published book, any spelling and punctuation mistakes should be minimal, if they exist at all. Your favorite books should have the proper use of their, they're, and there and the proper placing of commas within quotation marks and--this is my biggest one--the proper use of apostrophes (it's true; just because a word ends in "s" doesn't mean it needs an apostrophe before that "s"!) If you read a lot, you should be familiar with the way certain words are spelled. If you consult any book at all in the course of your writing time, it should be a really good dictionary. Not the pocket kind. I mean the desktop kind that would cause serious injury if you ever dropped it on your foot. All the spelling, grammar, and language usage rules that you should have learned in school are in that book. Don't be afraid to use it!
In the end, what it boils down to is the sage wisdom I've received from many mentors and heard from many admired writers: write a book you want to read.
It all comes back to reading.