So many writers get discouraged. This stinks. I quit.
Others are overconfident. They’ve always had “a gift for words” so they fail to submit their prose to an editor’s scrutiny.
I recently shared an email exchange with an editing client in which I gently pointed out a flaw she’d missed. She thanked me for “not making her feel like an idiot.”
Learning to write well is like learning to play an instrument; it requires practice, determination, and a song inside that wants to express itself. Though you’ve been writing and speaking your entire life, if you’ve never gone through the process of drafting and editing a narrative, you’re at the beginning of the long steep path to writing well.
If you can communicate fluidly and fluently on a day-to-day basis, speak eloquently at meetings, and organize emails into cohesive paragraphs, it’s no stretch to imagine you’re ready to “sit down and hammer out a book.” But when your editor takes your “fine work” and bloodies it up with red ink, it’s just as easy easy to feel discouraged. All this time I thought I was a good writer! Instead I’ve been advertising how incompetent I am with every email and office memo.
Effective storytellers bring more than great stories to the table. You can learn to become a good writer—and your existing skills will help you. But pacing, managing dialogue, avoiding clichés, and structuring sentences creatively are not skills that get used every day in the world of commerce.
How can you push forward without getting discouraged?
- Be patient with yourself; it’s called a “rough draft” for a reason.
- Use software tools like AutoCrit.com to help you see style errors and find duplicate words.
- Work with a writing group. Exchange critiques with other writers. It’s easier to see problems in other people’s work than in your own.
- Accept criticism gracefully and give it careful consideration. Not everyone is capable of being encouraging and supportive, or even of providing a valid critique—but your readers will be no more accommodating than your worst critic.
- Read your work out loud, slowly. You’ll catch problems with your ears that elude your eyes.
- Print your writing out on paper. You’ll catch more errors in print than you will on-screen (though I can’t offer a sound, logical reason why this is the case).
- Use a spelling and grammar checker. This seems so obvious but…
- After you’ve done everything you can do on your own, find an editor who suits your style, personality, and goals. What do you have to lose? If your manuscript is perfect, your editor will congratulate you, send your manuscript back, and probably charge you very little if anything for that confirmation. If not, you’ll receive useful suggestions and well-stated support for improvements that your “very smart friends” missed. Your book and your future writing will be better for it.
My own first novel exemplifies “first book naivete.” Like many writers, I took the “responsible route” and had my manuscript looked over by several smart, literate, capable friends. Those friends found a number of problems I’d missed, but they missed a number of problems I wish I’d found. When I began working with a professional editor, I was able to put a much finer finish on my prose without losing my own voice; and I became a much better writer through that process.
Maybe your book really does suck? Join the club. Any accomplished writer will tell you about all the early work they’ll never show you. But through completing these early works, the aspiring writer learns why they’re broken and grows through that experience. Remember how you thought you’d found the love of your life way back in high school? How you gave that relationship everything and still got your heart broken? Books are no different. Many turn out to be teachers and stepping stones, not final solutions. And some of the most successful ones benefit from a bit of counseling.
Learning to write well is a steep climb up a tall mountain. But if you put one foot in front of the other and head in the right direction, the top of the mountain has no choice but to come to you. If you haven’t reached the summit yet, join the millions of writers who aspire to get better—word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. Keep climbing and the view behind you will become expansive and beautiful.