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On Becoming a Better Writer

virginiatesta13 asked: “I wanted to ask you, what do you think are some major writing tips that have helped you become a better writer? What would you advise an amateur?” (This was a two part question – I’ll be answering the next part in my next post.) 

I don’t share a lot of questions I could answer privately, but you really wrote a good question that I think is worth a public blog post. There are two things I think that really helped me: 1) Reading a whole lot. 2) Finding a mentor. 

It’s really no secret. I credit a lot of my development as a writer to reading. I wrote a post recently, “What Writers Should Be Reading” where I talk a little bit more about that. The big idea is that you should be reading the kinds of books that you want to write – it will not only show you what to do, but it’ll get you in the habit of writing like a reader – what is missing from your favorite genre that no one but you sees the clear need to add? 

Basically, when you’re in the habit of reading often, your writing is going to be influenced by what you want to read. It’ll help you to police your writing to a certain extent. You’ll know what’s wrong with your story before you even show it to anyone, but also, I think, with practice, you’ll figure out what’s right about it and what you think you were able to do well. That is super important. You need to be able to see what’s worth keeping between what needs to be scrapped and changed. It takes a lot of time to figure this out, but I think reading and reading often helped me figure it out. 

I can’t say what exact skills reading has impressed upon my writing, but for me reading and writing have always been incredibly intertwined. As a kid, I liked to write more than I’d liked to read, but there were times that flipped and I read a ton and didn’t write as much, but there was always both there. My ideal day now has both – I read for at least an hour or two if I can manage and I write when I can for as long as I can – books have always trumped television, video games, the internet – not my blog… but even that I limit. I wouldn’t be who I am as a writer if I weren’t who I am as a reader. 

The next big piece of advice I’d say is find a mentor. While I’d always wanted to be a writer, I don’t think I found anyone who’d read my writing and took it as seriously as the professors I’d met in college. There I was kind of able to find mentors – both officially and unofficially – who helped me to take my writing to the next level. I can’t say there was anything specific that my mentors told me that was earth-shattering – no secret universal words of advice, but really what made the difference was that my mentors knew my writing and they knew what specific words of advice I needed right then to improve. 

It wasn’t that every piece of advice was something I’d never heard, but more that every piece of advice was something I’d needed to hear at that time, if that makes sense. They also a lot of time time acted as an experienced set of eyes on things I was actively working on. They could tell me if the story just wasn’t going to be great, but they could also tell me when I was onto something special and needed to keep going. 

While college professors can make great mentors, I know they are kind of a limited resource and really only likely to be reachable for college students. It is possible to find mentors outside of academia. Over the years, I’ve gathered other mentors that include my peers – writers that are kind of my own age and just about as experienced as I am, people I’ve met through friends or in cases, at writing events. While they aren’t going to be concentrated fully on just helping me to improve, it’s more of a buddy-system. I read your work and critique it and you read mine – critique partners are fantastic. You mentor each other. 

One thing I do have to say about writing mentors is that while some will be fantastic for you and your writing, not all of them will be as helpful. Sometimes you just won’t click. Their advice just might not be helpful or it could even end up being just bad advice all the way around. They might have good intentions and even make a good friend, but they just aren’t going to be a person who helps you to improve your writing. It takes time and experience to figure that out. There are some people I’ve met and talked to about my writing and they gave me bad advice. They encouraged things that led me down the wrong path. I don’t really have any negative feelings towards them and some of them are great friends I still grab coffee with, but I just know they aren’t going to be someone who makes my writing change for the better and that’s ok. This will happen sometimes and all you need to do is take a step back check in with what you’ve been writing and if it doesn’t feel like you then you might need to find a new friend to work with. It’s not a big deal. You learn by trial and error. 

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