Sunday Writing Discussions #16: Action Steps to be a Better Writer

To write is a verb. It is something that a writer does. There are no magic manuscript fairies that live in the walls, come out when the writer dreams, and ooze their blue-black blood onto the page. No computer daemons that compose while the computer is powered down.

I have been spending a great deal of time and energy thinking about plot and structure and ways to approach the way that I write to improve my writing. To think is also a verb and for me analyzing and thinking about a piece before I write it is a necessary step in the creation of a work. But inevitably my roundus tuckus needs to be settled into my chair and I need to feel the ever so slight pressure of the keys of my mac under my fingertips.

Knowing myself and the way that I approach writing this is useful for me.

Today, I was thinking about additional active steps that I could take to improve my writing and what advice I would pass on to other people who want to write. Since you have drunk the sweet wine, enjoy the addictive thrill of writing, and have stopped by my blog for a bit of a pick-me-up, I will share what advice I have for you that I am doing myself:

1. Do it. Write. Find ways to sneak writing in at every opportunity. Write prose poems for facebook posts. Write small six sentence stories and send them as email gifts to friends and family. Write before breakfast. Write after dinner. Write on your hand. Be chic and write in a moleskin. Write on paper napkins. Write on bathroom walls. Write.

2. Read. Read poetry, fiction, blogs, non-fiction. Take every opportunity to let words flow into your mind. It is like being a literature dragon accumulating gold. Immerse yourself in the rich cultural collective of words. Know the pride of Achilles, the tragedy of Juliet, the beauty of Tinturn Abbey, the rape of the lock, why vampires shimmer in the sunlight (even if you feel this is the most debasing thing the trope has ever suffered), the conviction of Howard Roark, who kissed Ryabovich, why Katniss volunteers, and what expecto patronum means. Find sites like www.paperbackswap.com and www.bookmooch.com to supply you with material. Visit that most wondrous hall of wonders– the library and declare the librarians your book goddesses.

3. Think about what you read. Study it. Take apart a passage that worked exceptionally well and theorize why it worked. Write down phrases that struck you with their beauty and eloquence. Savor the words. What makes Hemingway, Hemingway? How does Graham Greene pack so much into his novels? How is it that Angela Carter’s dense prose comes off without being purple? Why is it that the best of classic science fiction had such enthusiasm that it is still worth reading even if dated?

4. Learn about diverse things. Engage with knowledge. Explore the world. Try new activities. If you have never been to Blantyre or Alexandria, how can you know the response to a tall, white American as he walks through the crowds of the market? What really is nano-technology? How did people in the middle ages make clothing? What is the history of the development of guns? What does a person feel the first time they… watch an elephant walk down the road? gaze at one of Monet’s waterlilies? ride in a hot air balloon? swim in an ocean? Our world is so vast. So many things to see, do, and learn about. Let your curiosity set you free and enrich your life.

5. Improve your writing. Get feedback. Critique the writing of other people because it will make your writing better. If you don’t know the rules of grammar– learn. If you have no idea of how to transition from one scene to the next– ask people, keep experimenting, and improve your abilities. Sites like www.critters.org can help you find other writers to critique your work and manuscripts for you to critique. Use the spellcheck and grammar check on your computer. Get familiar with books like The Well-Tempered Sentence and The Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. Invest in The Elements of Style or a couple style books.

5. Make friends with other writers. They are not your competition. They are your comrades with pens. They can give you feedback, engage with you in exploring ideas about writing, help you network, and be there for you when you receive disheartening rejections. Find community because no one can do something as grand as become an author on their own– even if it is true that writing is a solo act.

6. Believe in yourself. This is actually quite a hard thing. All of us have a voice. Sometimes because of life events we get silenced. Sometimes our hearts are broken or responsibilities weigh so heavily that we lose our buoyancy or we get told by well-meaning people that we cannot write, believe in yourself and your talent. Don’t let circumstances or others silence you. Dr. Carter G. Woodson once said, “If you can control a man’s thinking, you don’t have to worry about his actions. If you can determine what a man thinks you do not have worry about what he will do. If you can make a man believe that he is inferior, you don’t have to compel him to seek an inferior status, he will do so without being told and if you can make a man believe that he is justly an outcast, you don’t have to order him to the back door, he will go to the back door on his own and if there is no back door, the very nature of the man will demand that you build one.”

7. Recognize the value of your work. Don’t give your work away for free to others to make money off of it, demand its value. If publishing a poem or a story in a semi-pro magazine and seeing your work in print is enough payment for you, great! But you decide what is sufficient payment and expect some value to come from your work. Writing is work and should be paid as work. While every writer has to advance in their career and may start at a lowly spot, continuing to improve and persevering will pay off. It is possible to make a career of writing, many people do it. Expect that your work will be given its value.

8. Write for an audience. Not everything everyone writes will be universally received. However, write keeping in mind that the intent of the writing is for other people to read it. The goal really is to produce a piece of writing that entertains, challenges people’s conceptions, informs, etc.

9. Get creative and take risks. Break new ground. It keeps the endeavor fresh. Enthusiasm is something that reads through. If you are passionate about what you are writing, this will come through and will help to captivate readers.

10. Get businesslike. I am going to admit that I am not good at this. I enjoy the creative side of writing. I am stimulated by analyzing how good writing works and new ways to approach fiction. I am not so good at thinking pragmatically about my writing. So as I write this, I am setting this as a goal for myself. Create a spreadsheet or some other system, send works out for possible publication, and keep track. Save receipts that cover the cost of doing freelance work. Get systematic about sending out inquiries. Accept writing work that is paid even if it is not preferable. Learning to write and follow someone else’s style guide is part of the business of writing. Get creative about finding new markets. Try new ways to market publish. Think “monetize”. Getting paid for a piece is a grand reward. Seeing your income increase as your writing works its way out into the world reinforces the value of the endeavor in your mind’s eye and everything flows in an upward cycle from there.

When I started writing this post, I didn’t know how many things would be on the list. I could add other items like try new forms or forget any delusions about being “A Writer,” but I think this list is pretty good. If you are reading this and you can think of other items to add, please put them in the comments. I am always working on improving my writing and perhaps you will help me.

Reaching One’s Personal Best is Rarely an Individual Effort

Recently I had the good fortune to participate in a think tank about coaching, in particular about coaching teachers. We were asked to read an essay by Atul Gawande titled “Personal Best” that had appeared in The New Yorker. Dr. Gawande who is a very talented surgeon came to the conclusion that he wanted to improve his surgical skills. He had the opportunity to hire a tennis professional and in the short lesson with the tennis pro improved his serve and his game. This inspired him to ask a former medical professor to observe him during his surgeries and give him feedback. Dr. Gawande talks in the essay about how his former professor was able to watch him and take notes. The professor made suggestions about small things that could improve the surgeries and Dr. Gawande saw his complication rates edge downwards. He also talked about how by opening up to this type of coaching he made himself vulnerable and how people questioned his competence if he was bringing in a coach.

I have been an artist and a writer for over 25 years. A great deal of learning how to do visual arts or writing simply comes with actually doing the work. Over time one learns how small amounts of bright primary colors can lead the eye across a painting, how to create surface movement with line and contrast, how to create subtext with the minimalist amount of specific details, how to use one character as a foil for another and highlight themes and conflict, or any of the other hundred elements that can make or break a piece. All of this is not enough. No one can look at their own work entirely objectively. It takes time for an artist or a writer’s inner critic to develop and out of necessity the process must include other people.

When a writer or artist first begins to pursue their craft, words and images come quickly and easily. It is all a great deal of fun, but those first critiques of one’s work can feel brutal. While critiques should not be personal and should be about the work, sometimes at first they do feel personal. One’s baby and talent are being scrutinized at the same time. It can be hard to take and an artist or writer needs to find a teacher, class, or critique group that they feel comfortable in and trust. Creating art or writing is a risk taking endeavor and trust is essential. Trust has to be built up first in what the teacher or critique group says so that it can be used to learn and guide the production of new and better pieces. With this feedback from other people, eventually over time one’s own internal critic learns criteria to be able judge the work and the artist or writer learns to trust their inner voice. The inner critic must be trained to do this and other people are needed to make this happen.

Even after an artist or a writer has been creating their work for awhile, there is always room for improvement. Humbling oneself, making oneself vulnerable, and asking for feedback is a way to push one’s work farther and make it better. Artists and writers mainly do their work in isolation but they need community if their work is to become their personal best. This does not make them entirely subject to the opinions of those that are giving them feedback, it gives the artist or writer information to think about and to base decisions on. Writing and the creation of art are thoughtful acts and the decisions to be made about where to take a piece are those of the creator. Just because a teacher or a critique group says that something should be done a particular way does not mean that it must be done that way. It is information to be analyzed and the decision is the writer or artist’s to make. Critiquing can be a dialogue meant to spur thought and discussion. The community of artists that were known as the Impressionists would not have created the movement that they did if they had not had all of the members contributing their individual thoughts and commentary on one another’s work, general philosophy, and techniques.

Whether a person does art, writes, races bicycles, teaches small children, etc. all of us need other people to reach our personal, individual best.