Seven Ways to Grow as a Writer
Like most things worth pursuing, being a writer isn’t always easy. Like any job or artistic endeavor, it takes effort and practice. Shaunta Grimes is one of Medium’s most successful writers, and in her recent post What it Actually Takes to Make $18,000 in 31 Days as a Writer, she wrote:
Still — wrap your head around the idea that this is a long game. Think about the first three or four years as your learning years. Just like any professional, you need to put in the time to study. You might make some money during that time, but consider it a bonus.
I have been putting words down on paper since I was little, I started journaling prolifically at age 9, and have been through many iterations since. I wrote for my high school paper, then a local interest publication, I wrote poetry, I wrote copy for websites and article marketing. In the past few years I’ve gotten back to writing and started to really find and develop my voice. The most important thing I’ve learned is that if you want to succeed as a writer, working on your craft is imperative.
Seek out prompts and writing exercises
If you’ve done much reading about what it takes to make it as a writer, you’ve probably already heard that you should try to write every day. There’s a reason: it’s good advice. Like any habit or skill, writing more will improve your skill and strengthen your muscles. I’ll take it a step further and say that sticking to what you know and what you’ve done in the past isn’t enough.
Expanding your horizons and polishing your skills means going outside your comfort zone. Challenging yourself promotes growth, and seeking out writing prompts and exercises is a great way to do this. Pick up a copy of The Artist’s Way, find publications on Medium that post writing prompts, or search online for writing exercises. Sometimes, getting off the path you walk every day is just what you need to create something unexpected and special.
Practice Makes Perfect
If you’ve been writing for a while now, then improving is all about practice. Keep writing on a regular basis, and be conscious and deliberate about trying to make each piece a little better than the last.
#5: Correct Persistent Mistakes
Do you frequently confuse words like “its” and “it’s”? Do you muddle “affect” and “effect”? Spend some time learning the difference between them so you can easily correct these in your writing.
You might want to use a tool like Grammarly to help you edit your work. This will flag up grammatical mistakes (as well as spelling errors) and give you a brief explanation of what’s wrong.
#6: Practice One Element of Your Writing
When you’re aiming to improve your writing, it can help to hone in on specific areas. If you’re a novelist, try writing scenes that include lots of dialogue (my collection of posts on writing dialogue should help you) or practice creating brief but telling character descriptions.
#7: Keep a Writing Journal
You might want to use the materials in Supercharge Your Writing Session to help you with this. Make sure you print out the writing session planner, which has space for recording notes on how your session went and what you want to do next time.
#8: Go Through Your Past Pieces of Writing
This is also a great opportunity to see how your writing has developed. On a week by week basis, it’s often hard to see ourselves improving: by looking back at something you wrote quite a while ago, you’ll be able to see how far you’ve come.
Growth: A Journey of Personal Honesty
Growth is change certainly (just ask that protagonist of yours about his character arc). But it’s more than that. Just as your story’s plot can’t be advanced by any old flurry of activity, your own story can only be moved forward by the kind of personal changes that redefine everything you know about life: your identity, your personal narrative, your understanding of the world.
But most of this drama—including the drama of learning how to grow as a writer—will occur in such minute moments that you don’t even notice the changes building. For the sake of our sanity, that’s probably a good thing. Our poor little conscious brains aren’t always so good at swallowing the huge revelations and intuitive leaps that our subconscious take for granted.
So where is all this change taking us? Is it random? Or—like any good story—is it headed for a point? I think it’s headed for a point, and I think that point is personal honesty. It’s the ability to look past all the static and confetti with which life distracts us, to face the difficult emotions that prompt us to believe in the Lies that hold us back, and to face the truths we find.
As writers, we should be intimately familiar with humility. Most of us discover early on that learning how to grow as a writer is a bumpy journey marked by disparaging road signs that offer such enlightening messages as: “This stinks!” “No one will read this!” and “Turn back here, all ye fainthearted!”
It’s rough. But it’s also pretty awesome. However treacherous the caverns, deserts, and switchbacks we’re exploring in our writing journey, we are exploring. We’re adventurers. We’re pioneers. We’re astronomers and astronauts all rolled into one.
We’re discovering how to be better writers, and in discovering how to be better writers, we’re discovering how to be better people. In learning about ourselves, we’re learning about the whole world, and in learning about the world, we’re taking not one single moment of this life for granted.
How to Grow as a Writer in 5 Logical Steps
We’re all destined for change whether we’re consciously open to it or not. Even when we’re resistant, life itself forces us to evolve, day by day. However, when we open ourselves to the possibility of growth, this evolution becomes an adventure in which we get to take part. And when we start consciously pursuing it, that’s when things really get rolling.
Growth may feel like some airy-fairy thing over which you have no control. But that’s not entirely true. Become an active participant. Learn to recognize the patterns of growth. Rather than resisting the challenges of personal honesty, start pursuing them with a stick.
1. Be Brutally Honest
Learning to be honest with ourselves is all about learning to see through the subtle defense mechanisms we erect to protect ourselves from the parts of ourselves we are ashamed of. But like all Lies, these mechanisms hold us back from growth and improvement.
The first step in creating an environment for learning how to grow as a writer is to get real about the areas in which you actually need to improve. We’re all familiar with that icky feeling that something is drastically wrong with what we’re writing. Something is off. It just isn’t working.
That feeling, by itself, is of little use. It’s not specific enough for us to learn from or take action on. All it does is make us feel miserable. (Cue flopping on the couch, arm over eyes, and wailing about how somehow the magic genius-writer gene skipped your generation.)
Ironically, however, this feeling is often something we cling to. Why? Because self-pity is incredibly safe. As long as we’re moaning about how untalented we are, we don’t actually have to get up off the couch and do something about it. We get to play the victim under a seemingly admirable guise of humility and honesty.
Sometimes you will feel you are a terrible writer, when, really, you’re not. What’s holding you back is not a specific problem in your writing, but rather a fear of vulnerability in putting your best out there for all the world (and yourself) to judge. If this is where you’re at, you’ve just discovered a huge opportunity for personal growth. When you start really looking at those fears, what you’re going to find will go far beyond the issues of writing itself.
Other times, of course, what you’ll find when you’re brutally honest with yourself is that, yeah, there are some pretty definite and specific problems in your writing. If so, congratulations! You’ve just been handed the tremendous gift of knowing what you need to improve.
2. Start With Your Instincts
Emotions are not logic. How you feel about your writing itself and your personal ability as a writer won’t always offer you logical answers (see above). However, those feelings are never false. They always come from somewhere, and they’re always the first place to start when striving for deliberate growth.
Your goal here is figuring out how to step forward. Your instincts already know exactly in what direction that step should be. Listen to them. Don’t try to logically translate them right away. Just feel them. Try to go beyond the surface; sometimes there’s another feeling hiding underneath because it’s something you’re less comfortable with.
Maybe what you find is that you have a distinct discomfort when you think about your execution of show vs. tell, your understanding of theme, or your development of a particular character. Or maybe what you find is an outright terror of sharing your work with readers, of writing about a particular subject, or of risking failure.
3. Ask Logical Questions to Find Holes
Once you’ve identified what your instincts are telling you about your weak points as a writer, it’s time to bring in your logical brain. Start asking specific questions to get to the root of the problem and to figure out the best way to solve it.
Often, writers panic when they realize some aspect of a story isn’t working. Maybe the dialogue is terrible. It’s stilted, boring, and just doesn’t flow. These writers know enough to know there’s a problem, but they don’t know how to fix it. (Cue more wailing on the couch.)
Don’t ever try to swallow a problem whole. Keep breaking it down and breaking it down until you’ve got it in completely bite-sized pieces—each one with an obvious actionable next step.
4. Amp Up Your Contextual Knowledge
Your logical ability in solving your storytelling weaknesses and learning how to grow as a writer is only going to be as good as the information you have to work with. Although humans have an instinctive understanding of storytelling, few of us start out out with enough knowledge about the craft to consciously iterate problems and solutions.
So fill up your brain. Treatises on the craft, like this site, are a great aid in helping you understand the theoretical and technical constructs within which your own storytelling logic will best operate. But your best contextual knowledge for story will always come from story itself. Read widely; watch widely. But don’t stop there. Enter storytelling experiences with a critical eye, not so much on the story itself, but on your own reactions to it.