How I Went from Being a Lousy Writer to a Better One

LOUSY TO BETTER WRITER

It took a dash of moxie, a thicker skin, and lots of determination

I wished I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say they’d be a writer if only they knew how to write better. I’d be a millionaire by now.

Writers are made not born

I used to think that writing was a talent — something you either did or did not have. I had bought the notion that writers were born not made.

For as longest time, I secretly wished to see my name on the front of a book cover. I knew that wouldn’t be me, though, because I was lousy at writing.

Although a solid student, I was never one of those kids who’s writing made it to the top of the pile. If the assignment was to complete a three-page paper on any particular topic, my finished work barely made the limit. The final page was empty except for a sentence or two, just enough to claim I’d finished the homework.

My writing skills took another hit in graduate school. I’d thought I had been lucky when I tested out of the freshman college English class. However, I didn’t realize until much later I’d missed another opportunity to learn the rudiments of English composition.

This gap of knowledge became more apparent in my doctoral program. As I advanced through school, professors began to make comments. One said he was shocked I’d made it that far. Unfortunately, my skill level was so low that I failed to see the problem. With plenty of stumbling and lots of help from the Chairman of my dissertation committee, I graduated.

A decade later, I had a book idea, wrote a rough draft, and hired the best editor I could afford. It was then I received a crash course in writing. My manuscript was filled with subject-verb agreement errors, verb tense problems, shifting points of view, and problematic punctuation. At one point, the editor wrote editing my work was “a nightmare.” He returned my manuscript with an attached final note that said it was not publishable.

After spending the next two days sobbing, I got angry enough to dig deep so that I could listen to his advice. I re-wrote it, and then paid him again to edit it. This time I heard it was a job well done.

I wish I could say that experience was all it took to become a better writer. It wasn’t. Each project I undertook, course I sat through, or book I wrote taught me new techniques and skills. The learning has never stopped.

Writing well requires practice

Writing is more than an art form. It’s not merely a talent some of us have, whereas others of us don’t. It’s a learned skill that requires lots of practice. Write. Write a lot. Write every day.

Ray Bradbury said it best with this piece of advice:

The best hygiene for beginning writers or intermediate writers is to write a hell of a lot of short stories. If you can write one short story a week — it doesn’t matter what the quality is to start, but at least you’re practicing, and at the end of the year you have 52 short stories, and I defy you to write 52 bad ones. Can’t be done. At the end of 30 weeks or 40 weeks or at the end of the year, all of a sudden a story will come that’s just wonderful. ¹

Writing requires help

Good work requires us to put out plenty of mediocre pieces. Just as a winning marathon runner must first master walking, so must we learn the fundamentals. This happens if we surround ourselves with good role models who can teach us a thing or two. We need to be not afraid or too cheap to hire an editor. Honestly, that’s been one of my best investments.

It helps to join a writer’s group or workshop. Currently, I’m attending a year-long online workshop course. It’s been a fantastic experience. It’s become a safe place to tackle the sticking points in my latest pieces. Does the dialogue work, is the plot moving along, and does the content engage the reader? This is the place I can explore the nuts and bolts of writing.

Writing requires a thick skin

To learn to write well, we must prepare ourselves for the eventual naysayers. Stephen King wrote in his memoir, On Writing, “there’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt.” He warned next, “If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it.” ²

Failure paves the road to success. I still remember Lynn Austin, a prolific Christian author, taking the stage at a writer’s conference and sharing she usually brought along with a good-sized box filled to the top with rejection letters. Kathryn Stockett, the author of the bestseller, The Help, had her manuscript turned down sixty times. To succeed, we must develop a thick enough skin to endure inevitable failure and rejection as a necessary rite of passage.

Writing requires a burning desire to share

All of this bearable if we feel emboldened to tell our story. John Steinbeck said it best in his letter to new writers.

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it.

We must listen to that burning desire within us. To identify what makes us upset, disturbed, or filled with joy. What so compels us that we cannot help but share it with the world. It is these things about which we must write.

I recently received an LinkedIn anniversary notice reminding me of the date that changed the trajectory of my life. It occurred a warm June morning in 2006, when I woke up with a book outline and the imperative to write. This notice reminded me I’d been at this for fourteen years. It may have been a bumpy road, but it’s undeniably the best thing I’ve ever done.

¹”Telling the Truth,” the keynote address of The Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea, sponsored by Point Loma Nazarene University, 2001

² King, Stephen. On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: a Memoir of the Craft. London: Hodder, 2012.


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