Becoming a Better Writer

If you write, you’re a writer.

There’s no secret handshake, and no gatekeeper. The only permission slip that matters is the one you give yourself. And while you might choose to get an MFA degree, or to take a class, or get an agent, exactly zero of those things are required.

It’s easy to get lost in the forest of self-doubt! For years, I threw roadblocks into my own path. I told myself that I needed to do X or Y before I could be a Real Writer. And I convinced myself that writing was self-indulgent, not very respectable, and not important enough to spend my time on.

Look, most of us go through a beginner-angst-bullshit stage. But if you’re persistent, the day will come when you get over it. You’ll begin respecting your writing goals, and by extension, yourself. And once that happens, you’ll begin thinking about questions like these:

How do I become a better writer?
And how do I get faster?
And is this a hobby, a passion, a career, or something else entirely?

I love these questions! The second two remain a mystery to me, but I’ve been working hard on the first. And I’ll tell you what I’ve figured out so far.

Becoming a Better Writer

When you’re learning something complicated, there exists an awkward stage where you’re no longer a beginner but you’re not yet competent. Unlike a true beginner, you can see your flaws clearly. It can be discouraging, because you’re wise enough to know you’ve got a long road ahead of you.

That’s where I’m at, right now. When I write, I often feel like an untrained swimmer trying to doggy paddle across the pool. There’s a lot of struggle and splash for each small amount of forward motion, and I tire out quickly. I love the work, but I wish it wasn’t so difficult. And I’m often unsatisfied with my progress, even when I do put in maximum effort.

I’ve got some goals for my writing:

  1. I want to improve my storytelling skills. (Pacing, suspense, dialog, character motivation, and language)
  2. I want to produce books more frequently. (One per year is a minimum. But if I stick with short mysteries, 2-3 per year should be doable.)
  3. And I want to have more fun along the way. (Writing is already fun, but it’s also more difficult than I want it to be.)

Those are my goals. Why not take a moment and write down yours? I’ll wait.

Here I am. Waiting.

If you are reading this blog post because you want to write fiction, I’m going to suggest you pause here and order some books, either from a store or from your local library. These five books that will teach you much of what you need to know about authorship:

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
On Writing by Stephen King
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

There’s a wealth of information in these books, and I won’t reproduce their wisdom here. But I will offer a spot of advice for you rational types who pick up The Artist’s Way and think it’s too woo-woo. Hey, I get it. It took me three tries to get through that incredible woo-woo book.

Read it anyway. Do the exercises, anyway. Suck it up, left brains, and do the homework.

Think of those five books as your prerequisites for what I’ll outline below.

A Writer’s Development

While I traveled over the winter, I put together a model that I could follow to reach my writing goals. I was tired of flailing, and I wanted a roadmap like those I used to build for my clients, only focused on creative writing instead of leadership skills. What I came up with blends together what I’ve learned from experience, and what I’ve learned from books, and some tips I’ve gotten from other smart writers I know.

As you can see, there are four main elements. They are:

Self-Care means that I’m getting eight hours of sleep each night, I’m eating healthy food, and my stress level is reasonably low. It means I have a positive attitude about my writing, and that I’m being compassionate towards myself. Also in this category, I include financial wellness. I agree with Liz Gilbert’s assessment that you shouldn’t be relying upon your creativity to pay the bills, especially at first. For most writers, that means having a “day job” that can pay the bills, and which doesn’t leave you creatively depleted at the end of the day. When self-care isn’t happening, writing becomes far more difficult than it needs to be.

I want to offer a big “Thank You” to Seattle writing coach Peg Cheng who got me thinking about the importance of self-care!

Daily Practice refers to my habits behind the scenes of my current project. Julia Cameron suggests three pages of longhand journaling every day, which is the kind of thing that sounds like a massive pain in the ass but turns out to be indispensable once you get going. Daily practice also includes setting aside dedicated time to write on your current project, practicing your observational skills, and collecting shiny objects (words, phrases, images) like a crow might collect baubles for her nest. You need to think like a writer, even when you’re not in front of a keyboard, and that takes practice.

Craft is skill development, and for writers this begins with getting quality “intake” into our verbal diets. Stephen King famously said, “read a lot and write a lot” but I’ll expand that to all storytelling mediums, including movies, TV, poetry, and the visual arts. Craft also requires that we develop writing-specific skills, such as description, how to break a story into scenes, and how to create multi-dimensional characters that speak and act in interesting ways. Pacing, dialog, story structure— there’s so much to learn here!

Delivery is about getting your books to the people who will enjoy them. This element is about putting your work out into the world and convincing people to give your work a try. It also includes marketing skills like cover design, metadata, and how to build a mailing list. Ideally these activities will become an ordinary part of your work, and your week, but it will take some time to discover what works and what matters.

Writer, Teach Thyself

What I love about this model is that it’s non-sequential, meaning I can pick and choose activities from all four quadrants, based upon what seems relevant. Here’s what I’ve been up to the last couple months:

Getting enough sleep and improving my wake/sleep routine.
Completing my “morning pages” by hand before doing anything else.
Reading books and watching movies. (This hardly feels like work!)
Learning about story structure – and applying those lessons to my current project.
Learning about marketing elements like covers, blurbs, and metadata, and applying those to my finished projects.
Jotting down details of what I see, hear, and notice when I go someplace new, to hone my descriptive skills.
Setting aside time to work on my current book, at least five days per week.

How It’s Going So Far

These practices have already changed my my writing quality, output, and attitude in positive ways.

First, there was one surprise. Most of this “work” occurs when I’m not writing my novel. Sleep occurs at night, obviously. My morning pages take about thirty minutes upon rising. I read books and watch movies at night, like I always have, only now I do so with a sense of purpose because I’m studying instead of being passively entertained. Observational skills can be practiced anywhere, even in line at the grocery store. And the craft-work occurs as I need it. When I’m getting ready to tackle a piece of description, for example, I’ll do some reading on descriptive techniques before I start.

Second, my writing process has significantly changed. I used to sit down at the computer and feel like I was climbing a tall mountain with my teeth. Now I sit down at my computer with a short list of things I want to accomplish, and I do those things.

Old me: I GOTTA WRITE 1500 WORDS TODAY OR I SUCK AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M GONNA SAY AAAAARRRGGGGHHH…

New me: Okay. Yesterday I sketched out the setting for this murder mystery, including the floor plan of the lodge. Today I’m going to put that information into a scene where my heroine arrives at the retreat. I have two goals for this scene. I want to describe the setting where the story will take place, and introduce CHARACTER as he welcomes the party to the lodge. This scene is part of the setup, meaning it should be descriptive but not too long.

Most importantly, I see a direct connection between my development activities and the quality of my writing time. When I sit down at the keyboard these days, I’m well rested. By the time I wrote that scene, I’d been thinking about it for a few days. When I saw some relevant detail I could use, as I went about my daily life, I jotted it down. All those little things add up, and they’ve made my writing time more productive and more enjoyable.

So far, so good! I’m still slow, only getting between 500-1200 words written in a 2-hour writing session. But I have faith that if I stick with this, my speed will improve in time. My word count per hour is down, but my consistency and my writing quality is up. And I love knowing that I’m moving my story forward in concrete ways each time I work on it.

If any of this sounds good to you, I encourage you to download the writer’s development model and give it a try. And if you have any feedback for me, leave me a note on Twitter or Facebook.

Download the Writer’s Development Model (PDF)