Writers are an incredibly insecure group of people. It’s true. I’m even insecure about writing about our insecurities – what if people get upset about it? (If you did, sorry). But the fact is that we are very insecure, and an extension of that fact is that it isn’t an insult. In many way it actually makes a lot of sense. Fiction is hard to judge (people are entitled to their own opinion, unless, of course, it’s just plain wrong), it’s often difficult for writers to tell if they’re getting better, and each piece of writing takes so long to finish and is so time consuming that it’s not easy to finish it on faith alone. And while each book you write might make you a better writer, it might take two or three (read: a ton) of them for your improvement to be noticeable. Because of all this, confidence is something that writers are always chasing, and that makes it hard to believe that the simplest advice about writing is true.
To be a better writer all you have to do is write. It’s not only the simplest way, it’s the best way.
But there are a couple of things to understand about those two sentences:
1) As I said before, it’s true. No doubt about it – the best way to get better is to write. Sometimes it can be hard to believe because in school we learn by studying and memorizing, making flashcards and study guides, reading fat textbooks. We need to stop thinking like that. Weird as it is, writing is more like a sport than a class in many ways (though it’s also way less cool).
In a sport you get better by playing. There are drills that you can do, specific parts of the game you practice over and over again so when the time comes to really compete you can execute them perfectly without thinking about it. You can study the game to get better, analyze certain plays, but when it comes down to it, the player who spends 12 hours a day watching game film will never beat the player who spends two hours a day running around the field playing the game itself. You write to get better at writing, there is no getting around that, nothing you can do to replace the practice you need. It’s easy to lose sight of this, especially for those of us on WordPress reading other peoples’ thoughts and tricking ourselves into thinking that this somehow counts as writing practice. Don’t get me wrong, I want you to read this blog, maybe I should tell you that reading this blog is different, that it does count as writing practice. Come on in, get addicted, stay a while. But the truth is that it doesn’t. We always need to remember what is most important when trying to get better at writing, and that is to write. Committing to this piece of information can often separate the people who love writing, who will put in the time and effort to make it happen no matter what, from the people who love the idea of writing and just hope that one day it’ll happen for them.
2) Sticking with the sports analogy here, a person who plays pick-up basketball for five hours a day will never beat a person who goes to practice, listens to his coach, works on his shooting, dribbling, and passing form, plays the game for two hours a day, then watches his film or takes advice from other people about his technique. Writing is important, but you can’t simply place word after word in an endless march until the end of time. Yes, you’ll still get better, but you’ll never reach the level of someone who is mindful of what they’re doing. Practice specific parts of a story (plotting, characterization, theme), focus on one thing for a certain amount of time, like making each character speak in his or her own unique voice, or trying to weave a certain theme into a piece of writing, and eventually you’ll always write that way. Read your own work and revise it, making sure to understand what you can improve on so that in your next piece you can focus on one specific technique to take it one level higher. Practice every day, listen to advice, pay attention to your own game and learn how you can get better, do drills to work on a single skill. Then when the next match rolls around you might be surprised at how much better you’re playing.
What about you? Do you spend more time writing or reading and thinking about it? What tricks have you used to keep yourself motivated and committed to practicing the actual act of writing? Do you always write before you blog, so that if you don’t write one day you aren’t allowed on WordPress? Do you look closely at your own work to see specific things that you can do better? Do you think you might start now?