Disclaimer: I am still working on becoming a better writer, so these are merely suggestions for how to start your own journey towards improving your own writing.
Last year, I wrote a blog post about finding a writing mentor. It covered what to expect, how to present oneself, how to find a good fit–all the necessities for better understanding what/how/why of the process. Today, I’d like to talk about something else that is so important but is not talked about much in the Writing Community.
We all want to be published.
A lot of the writing world is dedicated to querying. Everyone talks about finding an agent, GETTING THAT BOOK IN PRINT, but other important things, like improving your craft, is pushed to the side.
It’s understandable that every writer wants to be published and be able to call themselves: “author.” Most book and story writers I know have the ultimate goal of becoming a published author. There’s no reason why anyone should feel this is an unworthy goal. Being published garners clout, which usually leads to a steady paycheck of some kind. Until you’re published, you’re really working for free. Even hardcore, die hard writers like myself want to make a buck or two if we can.
Many writers find becoming published through the traditional route to be difficult, tiresome, daunting, or just not for them. So, they turn to indie publishing or working with a small imprint. Some people even pay-to-play. No shame to anyone’s methods or processes. One thing to consider, though, is that one of the roadblocks a writer may be facing is that their writing is not up to standard–or it doesn’t improve from one book to the next.
Maybe it’s time to…get better.
Why is this important?
My first instinct is to bonk someone over the head if they don’t understand why continuing education is important for any skill or profession. Very few people can pick up a pen and just be a master storyteller and writer. Most of us need a basic education, practice, and continued education. There is always room to be a better…whatever you are. There’s always room for improvement.
It’s important to become a better writer with each story that you write because that’s what your readers expect. They want quality writing and storytelling. Readers do not grade you the same way on your debut as they do on your fifth book. They expect you to keep their interest with your stories. If you want to keep publishing and keep making money, you want to keep getting better.
Furthermore, there’s a sense of satisfaction a writer gets from learning a new way to write their stories. Whenever I sit down and write a sentence that I never could have constructed ten years ago, I feel a sense of pride. It’s also earned pride because I put in the work. There’s no better feeling than that. If for no other reason, keep getting an education because it feels good.
Why isn’t querying as important?
Querying agents is important. Don’t let me be misunderstood. If you want to get published through traditional routes, an agent is almost absolutely necessary. Some publishers accept unagented manuscripts, but it is not the norm. It’s also a difficult path to publishing if you don’t have an agent. Not impossible–just much harder.
Agents only want to represent the best of the best–and publishers certainly only want the best. If your writing is merely average, that’s another roadblock on your way to becoming a traditionally published author. Why not avoid that if you can?
Lastly, if you devote all of your energy to simply trying to find an agent, you’re stunting your education and growth. Your creativity gets lost in the mix as well.
You can’t write stories without those things.
What will work for me in becoming a better writer?
All of us writers have different abilities, different strengths, different financial resources, and contacts. There is no single method that works across the board for us all. We have to consider our time, our energy, our money, and our commitment to our craft. However, there is most likely a method to help any writer that fits their life.
Critique Partners/Groups/Beta Readers
Do you know a writer who is out there getting their hustle on as well? Are they struggling to write, query, and grow as a writer? Buddy up! Read each other’s work(s), be brutally honest (but fair) with each other. Tell each other, as readers, what you liked and didn’t like. Just make sure you are going into this agreement clear that you will each be completely honest and helpful. If you’re the type of person who does not take critique well, you need to learn quickly.
Critique groups are also a great way to get feedback and learn your strengths and weaknesses. Again, you will want to find a group that fits you (consider meeting times, personality types, how honest each person is) but they can be a great resource as well. Many critique groups “meet” on social media, so you can participate at any time of day–which is great for a working person or someone with kids–OR BOTH! Asking around in the writing community on Twitter is a great place to start. Most of the groups are very welcoming and kind–and will be happy to be brutally honest if you request it. There’s a group for everyone’s personality type and genre of writing.
You can also look for a more experienced and successful writer to be your mentor. Which I covered in this post. This isn’t always easy, and mentors are not there to sugarcoat issues with your writing, but they are invaluable. If you have a strong backbone, can take a harsh critique, and are extremely dedicated, a writing mentor can change your life.
Beta Readers are also invaluable tools for the burgeoning (and even experienced) writer. These are either volunteer or paid readers who will read your work and give you feedback on what they thought. They can give you general ideas of what worked or didn’t, or can work off of a check list that you provide. Some are the harsh critique kind and some are the sugarcoating kind. If you ask in the writing community on Twitter, you’ll find many beta readers of all kinds to suit your needs. Most of them are eager for free reading material and love to help burgeoning writers. Just make sure to pick the right beta reader to fit your needs.
Personality matches matter with critique partners, critique groups, writing mentors, and beta readers so much!
Writing Classes & Retreats
Almost any mid- to large-size city has at least a community college that offers creative writing classes. This is a great resource for people with the money to participate in such a class. I’ve seen classes range from under a hundred dollars to thousands of dollars. If you have some money to throw at your problem, this is a great option. It’s just up to you to contact your local community college or university and see which classes they offer. Many of these are at night, so they work with a lot of schedules.
Additionally, many writing classes are offered by teachers and professors outside of the classroom. Fees are paid directly to the instructor. These can vary wildly in price as well, but many are well worth the money if you have it. Just be sure to research each class thoroughly and get references and referrals from previous students.
Some creative writing classes can be found for free at community centers or public libraries (public libraries are one of the greatest American institutions, as far as I am concerned). Don’t think that these classes are of lesser quality because of the settings and that they were free. Many well-educated and experienced writers donate their time to teach the community how to improve their talent in a variety of skills. Don’t discount them. Contact your local community centers and public libraries for information. Most of them keep a calendar of events and classes on their websites. Even if they don’t have free classes, they are almost always cheaper than classes at a college or university.
If you do go to a less expensive or free class at a community center or public library, think of how nice it would be to bring chips, cookies, or something healthy for everyone to eat in class. Don’t forget that the library staff likes to snack, too! Or consider donating to the institution where you are taking the class if you are able.
Lastly, writing retreats abound. They are usually the most expensive option due to the fact that there is often travel involved, hotel rooms are usually needed, meals need to be paid for, and the instructor has to be paid for their travel, meals, accommodation and time. Some are a few hundred dollars and held in camps with cabins. Some cost much more and involve plane fare. I was once “offered” a seat at a writing retreat in Hawaii, taught by a moderately famous romance author. It only cost six-thousand dollars (all-inclusive, of course). Unfortunately for them, I found out that I could purchase a round-trip ticket to Hawaii that week for less than $300 and the Waikiki Grand Hotel had rooms for $80 a night, and I could easily have fun in Hawaii for a few days at less than one-thousand dollars, so I skipped the retreat. Actually, I skipped going to Hawaii that week completely because my day job, like, wanted me to do my job and stuff.
But hey, if you have 6k to toss around–that’s always an option, too. I will not judge you.
Carnegie Hall. How do you get there?
Practice, practice, practice. Yeah. I used that joke.
You’ll never become better if you don’t write often. Unless I’m on a break, I write something every day. Now, I’m not one of those writers that say you can’t be a real writer if you don’t write every day. Some people have disabilities and other illnesses to contend with, they have children or others who depend on them, or they’re just exhausted from their main job(s). Maybe it’s a combination of all of these things.
You don’t have to write every day to be a writer or to get better.
However, you do need to practice. Set some time aside each week to write. Even if it’s a one-page story. Have a notebook and pen handy at all times so if you’re stuck at the DMV or doctor’s office, you have an opportunity to write. If you can’t sleep at night, open your laptop for a few moments. Write on your lunch break. Write in the car while your child is in their piano lesson. Write at your bedside table in the few minutes you have before you turn off the lamp. Find creative ways to write when time presents itself if you find you can’t set aside hours at a time. We all have different circumstances, so we all have to create systems that work best for each of us.
You don’t need office space or anything fancy. You just need your creativity and drive.
Maybe you will find time to write an hour each day. Maybe you will have a string of days where you have hours to write each day. Maybe it’s five minutes here and five minutes there. Some days or weeks you might be so busy that you don’t have any time at all.
Don’t debase yourself on the days you don’t have time. Especially if you are someone with a lot of responsibilities or a disability/illness. But be proud of yourself when you do.
Lastly, I do feel that you can’t be a good writer if you are not a dedicated reader. Reading helps us learn how to structure sentences and stories. It opens our minds to new ways of telling stories and types of stories. It makes us love the written word. It also teaches us the things we like in stories and the things we don’t like. It helps mold us into the type of storyteller and writer we want to be.
You don’t have to read a book a day or a week, but just like practicing your writing, find time to read. Even if it’s a few pages while you’re waiting at the doctor–this reading is invaluable.
What do I need to work on the most?
I’m not going to sit here and lecture you all on how to improve without exposing my own shortcomings. We’re all in this together, after all.
I’m pretty good with dialogue. I think I can craft a mean story. My writing is accessible and engaging.
But my expository and descriptive writing can be awful at times.
When I’m writing dialogue or action, my fingers fly over the keys. But if I have to lay out a setting, my words per minute dwindle.
I’m learning new and creative ways to structure sentences. How to self-edit. How to kill my darlings (I know, I know, we’re all tired of this saying).
I’ve attended creative writing classes, had critique partners, and have had a writing mentor for years. Until the day I put down my pen (laptop, really), I’m committed to getting better. Even if I never get to a place with my skill that makes me happy, I won’t give up.
If you’re not learning, you’re not living.
I’m not sure who inspired the above quote since it’s disputed, nonetheless, it’s true. If you don’t learn something new about writing–and yourself as a writer–every chance you get, you’re not a writer. You don’t have to write every day. You don’t have to be published. But you are not a writer if you are not learning.
Just like any other profession, writing requires constant education and discovery. Anyone who tells you that you’ve mastered writing is trying to sell you something.
So, go forth and learn. Write. Make your magic. Tell your stories.
But never stop learning.
Tremendous Love & Thanks,