Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Anyone out there think they've reached the pinnacle where they never need to get better?  Anyone?  Yeah, I didn't think so...

We should always strive to get better as writers.  That doesn't mean we should be falsely modest and not acknowledge when we've done something good, or even brilliant, but that we should never think we've gotten to the point where we can't improve.  Such a static position would end up being boring.  Imagine reading what you write ten years from now and thinking, "Gee, this is as good as stuff I used to write."

So, how does a writer get better?  Let me count the ways:

1.  Read, read, read.
If you want to write well, you need to know what good writing looks like.  And since there are as many authors out there as there are grains of sand(ok, not literally, but you get my drift...stop busting my balls), you should read a lot of different folks if you want to get a good sample of what good looks like.

However, it's not enough to identify good writing.  You also have to find bad stuff.  I've learned almost as much from shitty literature as I have from what's great.  I learn what not to do - clichés to avoid, sentence structure to stay away from, and how to avoid sounding like a ten year old.  Remember, for every The Shining out there, there are ten other types that are waiting to ambush you, so it comes down to economies of scale.  Basically, there's a lot more garbage out there than gold, so you have to sift through both.

2.  Learn to edit.
Writing is fun.  Editing sucks.  Most of us hate to go back through our babies and hack off the parts that we know we need to, even though we poured our hearts and souls into them.  Further, editing is going back over a story we've already written rather than bringing forth new life into the literary world.

Unfortunately, editing is a necessity.  Without it, our work will be inconsistent, jumbled with spelling and grammar mistakes, and likely missing key elements that we inherently understand because we wrote the book but which no one else will get.  It's necessary to edit and make your good work even better.  And just like with writing, editing will get better over time.  You'll learn to get a feel for what belongs and what needs to go, and it'll flow more smoothly.

If you don't want to edit, that's fine.  Just understand that your "final product" will suck and people will eventually stop reading it.

3.  Practice.
Anyone think Tom Brady or Drew Brees just go out and fling the pigskin on Sunday because of nothing but pure talent?  Yes, they have talent, but they also work their asses off each week to fine tune their skills.  It works the same with writing.

The main way you got better than you were years ago is because you've spent countless hour writing.  You've figured out what works and what doesn't, and you've applied that.  Now, when you turn that practice up a notch, you can find yourself improving in leaps and bounds.

4.  Learn to take a hit.
From an emotional standpoint, I hate being critiqued.  No one likes being told that what they wrote could be better.  We'd all prefer that if there were flaws in our stories, we found them ourselves, and everyone out there in Reader Land stick to gushing over our work.

However, being as attached to our stuff as we are, we often miss things that either don't work or could be done better.  It takes a strong person to take constructive criticism, discern whether it's warranted, and apply it accordingly.  For the most part, avoid friends and family on this unless you have experience with them giving you brutally honest feedback.  Your friends and family love you(hopefully) and don't want to hurt your feelings, so they may be more constrained in their critiques than you need.  That doesn't mean you should stand for someone simply being a jerk, but you need someone who can put aside trying to protect your feelings and give you feedback that's useful.

5.  Trust yourself.
Last on this list is for you to trust your instincts.  We've probably all read something where we could tell the writer was trying too hard, where they moved every which way but loose in an attempt to convince you, and probably themselves, that they can write well.

As a writer, you know when something is well written.  Learn to recognize it and trust that you'll get it right, if not in the first draft, then in the revision.  Over time, you'll hone your instincts into something much sharper, and this will come naturally.  But don't doubt yourself.  That doesn't mean be cocky, but people can tell when your writing has no confidence.  Know that you've given your best and that people will love it.  If they don't, then work on what you can fix.

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