Writing / Motivation / Self-Improvement

Harsh Realizations That Make You A Good Writer

A few painful lessons that can transform you from a writer to a great writer

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Becoming a writer is essentially like training for an athletic event, or learning a skill like cooking or gardening. There are those who excel and those who do not, and the difference often comes down to practice. Many of the great writers note routines, habits or practices that have lead — at least in part — to their success. In hearing this, it’s easy to think that if you simply get up and hour earlier, or rid your writing space of distractions that soon you will become the writer that you hope to be. But, there is far more to the practice of writing that every up-and-coming writer needs to come to terms with and this usually comes down to facing a few harsh realities.

Most writers, especially those with little experience or recognition — and thus little confidence — want nothing more than to avoid their imperfections. New writers feed on any tidbit of positivity or praise that helps lift them up and inspire them to keep moving forward. Yet pure positivity, without some constructive — or even harsh — feedback is mostly useless and just serves to lead writers down a misguide path toward success.

Below are a few of the harsh realities I faced when starting out as a writer. I have been a freelance writer since 2009. For much of that time, I simply dabbled in writing, churning out an odd article or book chapter here and there. I would publish and article in a small-time journal or magazine and feel like a million bucks, but it took a while before I took the practice of writing seriously enough to gain any real success. I can’t say I’m terribly successful now, but I have managed to earn enough side money and recognition to pay bills and bolster my income. I attribute a huge part of this to my willingness to to do the hard work of growing as a writer.

As I was starting out, I fed on positive reviews of my work like candy. At times I was receiving feedback in such a biased manner (mostly from friends and family) that I actually learned to ignore negative feedback or constructive criticism. The truth was, I really didn’t need to hear the negative feedback because it didn’t really change anything. I thought I was a good writer, and by cherry picking my feedback, the message I built for myself was that I was a good writer. It took longer than I care to mention to break this cycle. While I can’t claim today that I am necessarily a good writer, at the least I have learned to internalize criticism of all kinds and learn from it.

Below are the harsh realizations that I had to face to become a good writer

You’re Not A Good Writer Before You’re A Good Writer

What’s that? This sounds obvious? Yeah, well I am walking-talking proof that this simple message is often very difficult to understand. Admitting that you are not good at something is painful. Maybe someone tells you your handwriting is messy and it stings your pride a bit. Or, perhaps your partner tells you that you are terrible at communication in relationships and it shakes your ego to the core. If you never truly understand anything about writing, know that there is no way you are a good writer before you are a good writer, so stop acting like it.

Being a beginner is a very uncomfortable place to be. The psychology of why people so quickly flee from the space where they know they don’t know much or aren’t capable is a bit comical. But, being in the beginner space is such a valuable thing, where little is expected of you other than to learn. The practice of zen refers to the beginner’s mind as a place full of openness and opportunity — something even the most seasoned practitioners strive for on a daily basis. This is because experienced people know the value of being in the position of learning, a concept that is paradoxically lost on beginners.

The same goes for writing. There’s no way to even begin to start to learn as a writer until you admit that you aren’t a very good writer. It’s ok! If you’re a beginner, own it. In fact, I would be willing to bet that some of the very best writers in history have repeatedly gone through cycles of reflection that left them feeling inadequate — and thus returned them to the state of a beginner.

You Aren’t Writing Enough

For so many people, the realization that you are not very good at something is usually the point where they give it up. Maybe you’ve double bogied your 17th hole and you quit early knowing you’ll never be any good at golf. Or maybe you get a few hundred words into a story or an article and feel your work is no good or pointless and you throw in the towel. It is such an easy reaction to failure or challenge to just give up, but anyone successful at — well, anything — has put in a huge number of hours practicing something amid the feeling like they are no good at it.

One of the great ways to build your writing habit and your ear for good writing is to just keep going. It is as simple as that. Free writing can be a great way to build this muscle. Maybe you lay out 15 straight minutes or a assign yourself a set number of words and simply write even if it feels useless or you have nothing to say. These sessions can be very revealing, and if you hold off on editing (More on editing to come) while you write, this sort of practice — if nothing else — builds your writing muscle and simply allows you to put in time.

Once you have a free writing practice down, it will be easy to churn out 1000 words every day. Once that 1000 word assignment from a magazine comes along, you’ll find your writing “muscle” to be fit and ready for the task. However, building this practice will take time, effort and for a while will feel a bit painful.

You Are Writing Too Much

One of the best pieces of criticism I received, which seems so simple to me now, was that I was simply writing too much. It didn’t mean that my word count was too large (though it often was) but that each time I set out to make a statement or describe something in my writing, I simply used far too many words to do so.

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As I moved into the role of editing other people’s work, I started to criticize the very same thing my editor’s had drilled me on. The simple point I make now is — you’re probably writing too much! Before this realization hit me, I was proud of all the lengthy and over blow sentences I used. I thought they were a part of what made me a good writer. I was so wrong.

When I write now, I set aside a specific time to go in and do what I call pruning. Pruning usually happens somewhere between writing a first draft and putting in final edits. Pruning my writing is just as the name implies — I go over my work with the sold purpose of removing words. When I prune my writing, I stay away from rewriting sentences or even correcting grammar. When I prune, I just snip out phrases or sentences, or allow myself to rewrite passages only if they result in one that is more succinct.

The more I practice pruning my writing, the more I realized I could write well using simple and straightforward wording. The more I did this, the less red marks I got back from my editors.

Tip: Practicing to use an active voice in your writing usually results in shorter and more succinct sentences. Be aware of the trap of passive verbiage.

You‘re Not Writing What Others Want To Read

Boy, do I love personal narrative. Even this article feels indulgent as I get to recount my experiences and reflect on myself. I have spent a lot of time crafting narratives about experiences I have had through my life, and pitched dozens of them to magazines and journals. Writing these types of personal stories, for me, was so much fun. But the rejection letters from editors at publications I pitched seemed to pop that bubble every time. It took a while of me second guessing my writing ability and my sense for crafting a compelling story before I came to realized that personal narratives just aren’t that popular.

Unless you are Oliver Sacks or some other endlessly fascinating person, your personal narratives may not be as interesting as they are to you. For that matter, it is important to look at what you are writing and make sure it has an audience interested in reading it. Writing for the sake of writing is one thing, but if you are interested in publishing your work, the audience for whom you are writing should be as prominent in your mind as the content itself.

Pay close attention to the articles and books that get published. Why did they get published and what makes them so popular? Does the story speak to a commonly held belief or experience? Does the content of the article clarify an issue or solve a problem? When drafting your work, think about how it can appeal to people. Even personal narrative can be widely appealing if written in the right way.

You Aren’t Learning From Your Feedback

Editors can seem like pests, perpetually tearing apart and reshaping your work. Over time, I have come to react to my editors to be less like pests and instead look forward to their notes. I have come to learn that changes, criticism and feedback on my work doesn’t mean I’m not good at what I do (thought I do lapse into this headspace quite often), it just means there is room to improve. There is a big difference between the two.

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If you receive notes back from your editor, it is immensely worthwhile to study their suggestions. Actively reading through editors notes and questioning them forces you to rethink you writing. Why did she chop that one sentence, or prune down that one paragraph? Compare the before with the after and see if her suggestions aren’t in fact better. The more you learn to see better writing, or internalize criticism, the more you are able to produce it yourself.

Writing is an amazing thing to be a part of. For those who truly integrate it into their lives, it serves as a relief valve for the stresses of life, a mirror with which to see yourself, a hobby or even a profession. For those that are interested in becoming great writers, know that there are harsh realizations that line the path. Don’t fear them, embrace them. Let go of any preconceived notions you have about yourself and be open to learning. You will fail so many times as a writer — whether a typo here or there or a grossly mistaken piece — that it would be impossible ever progress if you let failures truly derail you. Chances are you’re not a very good writer if you are allowing yourself to believe you already are one.

Medical student, molecular biologist and educator. I write about science and medicine.

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