Below, I outline three common-sense things that present opportunities to hone your skills, and to sharpen your writing abilities.
1. Butt in Chair
Butt in Chair is the simple concept that the best way to improve at writing is to sit down and write. Most people who write have at some point in their lives encountered a non-writer who says, “Wow. I’ve always wanted to write a novel. Too bad I’m not good at writing.” Some fledgling writers say the same thing. This is the equivalent of telling a power-lifter that you’ve always wanted to bench-press 300 lbs, but never going to the gym. Writing is not a talent; it’s a skill. The easiest way to hone a skill is by using it.
This has two big implications. The first is that it’s in your best interest to write even when you aren’t inspired (or, if that doesn’t work for you, to become exceptionally good at finding inspiration). In most big projects, once you get the scenes that have been playing through your head down on paper, there’s still quite a lot of connective tissue missing. And then, there are some parts of the story that are just difficult to write. Knuckling down and writing them will both pull the story together and teach you bucketloads about craft.
The second implication is that you’re going to write a lot of crap, and that’s okay. Lots of people stop writing because they think that writing crap makes them a bad writer. The secret is that if you write a lot, some of it’s going to be excellent and some of it isn’t. Embracing the fact that not everything has to be brilliant means that you can give yourself permission to finish your story without worrying about who’s going to like it. It’s also a well-known fact that bad writing can be edited and made into great writing. A blank page, on the other hand, can’t.
2. Critiquing Others
Critiquing others is an opportunity to read like a writer and to pay attention to craft. Seeing what others do well tells us what works. Seeing what needs work—and being able to put into words why something was unenjoyable or difficult to read—helps us get a better sense of how we can resolve these issues in our own writing.
Critiquing is also a good way to pick up editing skills, since editing your own work can be difficult. With someone else’s work, you can be more objective, since you already have the requisite emotional distance from their work. You can set up your own swap or check out this handy list of websites for finding critique partners. (Personally, I recommend Absolute Write. It’s pretty friendly, and the forums are excellent.)
3. Reading Books
Reading like a writer is important. So is reading for fun. Reading in general gives us a better sense of how language is supposed to sound. It helps us internalize grammar, figure out how words should look on the page, and what syntactical constructions make sense. It’s also a good way to build vocabulary, and it provides a much better sense of how words should be used than vocab primers and dictionaries.
Reading within your genre gives you a better sense of common story structure, tropes, and clichés, which allows you to play with and subvert these things. Reading outside of your genre introduces you to new structures and tropes. Reading literature provides insight into craft, rhetoric, and what can be done when something is written with intention, especially because literary fiction tends to go outside the lines and to break genre conventions. Literary fiction is where people go to break the rules and get away with it.
(A caveat about literary fiction: Literary fiction should not be limited to the canonical greats. There’s a reason why so many of the so-called greats are dead white men, and it’s got little to do with the quality of their writing. There are some great books in the canon and they shouldn’t be disregarded simply because of who wrote them. However, we all need to start thinking critically about why certain books are canonical, what sort of gate-keeping goes on, and whose voices are being represented. Then we need to decolonize our reading lists.)
Blog Stuff: The Updated Update Schedule
All of this leads me to a few housekeeping notes. Blogging takes time and energy. I like blogging but writing fiction is my first priority, and I’ve noticed that since I began splitting time between the two it’s been harder to sit down and write. For this reason, I’m going to be trying out a new posting schedule, adding new articles Monday and Friday. There may still be bonus posts on Wednesday. There may be a few attempts at shorter articles. There may be a bit of wackiness as I figure things out to make time for writing and beta reading. The important thing is that the blog will go on, and will continue to kick ass on a biweekly basis.