No matter what kind of writer you are (or aspire to be), there’s always room to grow and improve your craft. While I’ve written in some form or other since childhood, and written freelance and professionally for nearly a decade, I often find myself going back to the same basic advice I was given when I first began.
Write what comes naturally.
Many folks say, “Write what you know,” while others counter that you should, “write what you don’t know,” encouraging you to invent new worlds or characters or angles in the process. I often struggle to write about certain subjects or in certain formats that I feel seem to work for others, but when I attempt this, it feels forced. And while it is good to push ourselves to do new things as writers, I find that my best pieces are more often than not the ones that simply pour out of me. Sometimes we simply need to write what we really want to say. For you, that might be a poem or a short play, or maybe an essay or a song. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and see where your words take you. They often know the destination better than we do.
Create the endings you want.
Some years ago, I was writing a short story about an ex. I could not figure out a way for the life of me to end the story so I sat there, staring blankly at the unwritten words. Then I recalled a piece of advice from a friend: “This is your world. You can do whatever you want. Make up the ending you would have liked.” Not revolutionary advice, but it is incredibly freeing once you realize you have full control of how it all ends. Maybe the two main characters run away together. Maybe they find new partners and stay friends. Maybe the human race is suddenly enslaved by an alien population and their relationship is all that keeps them alive. Who knows?! Or maybe you’re writing an essay or some other non-fiction piece. As the writer, you get to choose what information you want to give the reader. You control how they feel after reading your piece. You don’t always have to give the full story, especially if keeping some details out makes the story better. Your endings are what your reader will take away, what will stay with them for hours, days, maybe even years after. Work hard on these. Make them count.
Do the work: Write as often as you can.
Some folks are fortunate enough to have a ton of free time they can dedicate to their craft. They get out of bed, put on some coffee, and work diligently at their desks, putting out work like well-oiled literary machines. Others have to work day-jobs or go to school or raise families–or all three. If you’re in the latter category, don’t worry. You’re not alone. I used to have a ton of free time to dedicate to writing, though I admit I didn’t take nearly enough advantage of it at the time. Not that I’m a freelancer while simultaneously raising a family, time is difficult to come by. But I do my best to sneak away a few minutes here and there when I can. If the baby is napping, I am most assuredly writing (or taking a shower, because those are nice, too). Sometimes (like today) I wake up exceptionally early to sneak on to the computer before anyone else is up. Other times, I write bits of novels and blog posts on my cellphone while my kid runs circles around me. Or I wake up in the middle of the night and use a notepad, pen, and flashlight to jot down ideas for later. Maybe you can get some writing done during your lunch break at work. Or use the voice recorded on your phone to dictate your next chapter while you drive home from school. I know it can be frustrating to constantly be interrupted or never have alone time when all you want to do is write, but it can be done. You just need to get creative and get the work done. It may not happen as quickly as you’d like it, but spend at least 10-15 minutes writing a few hundred words, and it will pile up before you know it.
When you’re not sure what to write next, take a break out in the world.
Sometimes the muse escapes up no matter what we do. And when you finally have an hour to spend on your WIP but no words will come out, your time might be better spent elsewhere. Get offline and take a walk or a drive. Go into the world. Have coffee with a friend and ask them about their day. Or stroller your kid around the park and watch the other littles at play. Grab a drink by yourself at the bar and jot down what you hear on some napkins. Visit the library and immerse yourself in the words of your favorite authors. Maybe unfold your yoga mat and take some time to connect with yourself. Set your clock to a half-hour or hour to disengage from your work, and then force yourself to return to it. Temporarily escaping the work can just as easily become avoiding the work altogether. You don’t want to do that. Make sure you always go back to what you were avoiding and at least write one sentence. Like I said before, do the damn work.
Find your tribe.
Having a writing community can help writers find encouragement and support. Some are fortunate enough to have a significant other or best friend who provides this, exchanging written works with them for critique. Others seek out local writing groups via MeetUp or Facebook, taking notebooks and laptops to their local coffee shops for workshops. Those who can’t commit to attending a group in-person can always join an online group (I started the Truth Benders Writing Group for this very reason) or take part in Twitter hashtags (#writeclub and #talesandtea are some of my favorites) to find fellow writers to encourage you (and vice versa).
Don’t be too proud to accept help.
One of the difficult things about joining a writing group is knowing that your writing is not only out there, but that it is being judged, sometimes harshly, by others. Many writers will instantly get defensive of their work, feeling that only they know what’s best for their particular WIP. They might sneer at their peers and decide to keep those unnecessary lines or keep the ending the way it is even though it’s wholly confusing to anyone else or, or, or…you get the picture. Others will become wholly discouraged by the response their work gets and may even want to give up. Neither of these reactions are what you want to take away from joining a community of writers. What you want to do is accept every bit of criticism, every suggestion, every bit of advice, and then look at your work again with fresh eyes and see how you can improve the work. Even if you think the work is perfect, if more than one person is noticing that you use a certain word too much or they think a specific scene is completely unnecessary, really give it some thought and make the necessary changes. Otherwise, what’s the point of joining a group if not to accept help? None of us are perfect, and like I said at the beginning, there’s always room to improve upon our craft. Don’t let pride or hurt feelings get the best of you. And yes, sometimes there will be someone who’s kind of a jackass and whose critiques aren’t all that great or constructive. Go with your gut, grab your red pen, and perfect the hell out of your piece.
Never give up.
Being a writer is tough. It doesn’t always pay the bills…or ANY bills. Many might think you’re foolish or selfish to go into this line of work, to let yourself become absorbed by this lifestyle. But fuck ’em. Do it anyway. Do it because it feels good and because you’re consumed by your all those thoughts and ideas that need to get out onto the page. Do it because it makes you happy (and sometimes miserably–but in a good way!) and because without it, you might cease to be. Screw the haters and make your passion shine.
What bits of advice have you been given to improve your craft? What would you add to this list? Feel free to let me know in the comments!