Become a Better Writer: A Recipe

Most writers write to be read. If we write a book and are unable to find a publisher, the only way our book will be read is if we self-publish. Self-publishing, however, is not for everyone. It requires marketing skills that not every writer possesses or wants to acquire, it takes time away from writing, and sadly to say it almost never pays off––especially if your goal is to be read by thousands rather than dozens.

Complicating the writer’s world is the shrinkage of traditional publishing––or at least that’s the rumor. Most writers you talk to believe that one’s chance of being published by one of the traditional publishing houses these days is less than it used to be because there are fewer of them and they are less inclined to take chances on newcomers than ever.

Compensating for the shrinkage of traditional publishing opportunities is the emergence of boutique publishers––small publishers many of whom specialize in genre fiction, women’s fiction, Christian fiction and the like, or only publish a few books each year, and boutique publishers may not have the marketing muscle to push a title onto a best seller’s list much less generate bookstore placement and library sales.

The latest concept small publishers offer is e-book only publishing. The advantage over self-publishing is that they provide editorial and marketing services that self-publishers have to purchase and therefore may not avail themselves of. The disadvantage is that millions still prefer to hold books in their hands.

Further, if you want to make your favorite would-be writer go jump up and down and scream vile oaths, remind him or her that more people are writing books today than ever before in human history. Writing has become a career goal for the young and a way of topping off one’s journey through life for the no longer young. In other words, the competition for readers in today’s world is what baseball would look like if players could tackle runners to prevent them from scoring. It’s not pretty and it can be painful.

A consequence of this competitive environment has been the enormous growth in the writers’ assistance industry––college courses, graduate degrees, conferences and workshops, how-to-write books, magazines for writers, websites, tweeters, bloggers, and other social media purveyors––all claiming to be able to help writers succeed.

I don’t mean to disparage the intention of those involved in offering assistance to writers. The danger is that writers can spend too much of their time studying writing instead of writing.

Frankly, the gold standard method to improve one’s writing is to obtain qualified feedback about what you have written.

If you only show your writing to family and friends, unless that group includes someone with professional credentials, the kind of feedback you will receive is not likely to advance your skill level or your career.

Qualified feedback can only come from fellow writers, writing instructors or trained editors. The reason is that a qualified reader will not compromise his/her professional integrity by failing to point out problems, flaws, and deficiencies.

In addition to availing yourself of professional critique partners or participating in a writers’ critique group, the instruction one receives from writing books, classes and workshops makes a hundred times more sense if you are working at your writing.

Reading a book on plotting after you’ve plotted a dozen short stories and novels will be much more helpful than if read it before you started or if you’ve only tried to plot one story. The same is true of taking classes and devouring writers’ magazines.

In many cases a writer doesn’t see or understand the issues involved in choosing to write in third person versus first person or writing an action scene or varying sentence structure until that issue has been brought to the forefront by a critique of his/her writing. Most writers are forest people––they see the big picture, but often fail to avoid running into individual trees (i.e., writing flaws) that reduce their effectiveness.

The good news is that while some people are more talented than others, all writers can become better over time if they observe a few simple guidelines. First, commit yourself to writing. That means telling significant others, friends, and family that you are going to work on the craft of writing and you’d appreciate their support. That commitment must be backed up by scheduled writing times. Most jobs require one to be at work during set hours. Treat your writing as a job even if you also have a 9 to 5, a family, and a social life. Schedule times when you are going to write––which means no email, Facebook or phone calls.

The third key to becoming a better writer is to find qualified people willing to critique your writing. That often requires one to reciprocate, but that’s not a bad thing. Reading other people’s drafts from a professional viewpoint is an excellent way to increase your understanding of the writing craft. It will pay off in making you a better writer.

Finally, avoid writer’s block by keeping your expectations in line with reality. Does an apprentice sculpture expect to rival Rodin in his/her first piece? Does a would-be actor win an Oscar in his/her first role? Experiment. Try different types of writing; work on several projects at once; and don’t worry about finishing pieces or submitting them. You’re probably not ready unless you’ve been at the trade for five to seven years at minimum.

Given the likelihood that you’re not the reincarnation of William Shakespeare, you can still learn to write well and enjoy the fruits of your labor––which may include an audience of thousands whether you find a traditional or boutique publisher or self-publish. Happy writing.

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