I've written before about how to improve one's writing. I've written before, too, about how I hate to see totally unqualified advisers who are all too willing to offer their advice. Think about it. Everyone likes to help, and everyone likes to think he or she has the magic cure to all of mankind's dilemmas. Unfortunately, that's a recipe for a world filled with inadequate, incorrect, and outright potentially dangerous information.
That's what I ran into the other day when a fifteen-year-old writer admitted he thinks his writing is super boring, and he wanted to know how to improve it. Here's what I told him--along with the legion of ne'r-do-wellers who only helped lead him astray.
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Well, in many ways, I'm sorry to see you ask this question online because every answer you have received so far is absolutely wrong. Oh, I'm sure the respondents meant well with their limited and often irrelevant points-of-view. But they're still wrong. And by piping up to answer your question, they're running the risk of fueling your inadequacy as a writer.
Inadequacy? Is that what I said?
No, that's what you said with your phrases, "super boring" and "let down." And no one on earth is better suited to judge his own literary competency than the writer. I'd make one minor correction to your question, though. You don't "think" the way you write is super boring. You know the way you write is super boring. So, let's begin with that and ask ourselves why and how to improve it.
Practice, practice, practice? Is that the mantra people are giving you? Ignore it! If you don't know how to write, writing over and over again, utilizing the same skillset, will only reinforce your poor writing. You can't learn by practice alone. Read my lips, everyone. YOU CAN'T LEARN BY PRACTICE ALONE!
If a foot doctor steps into an operating room for his first heart transplant operation and botches the job royally, what do you think the odds are that the next time he takes a stab at it (pun intended) he'll get it right? Or the time after that? Or …
You get my point. The only way that doctor will learn how to do it right is, well, by learning.
It's no different with writing. When you start out, especially at such a young age (I was a fourteen-year-old writer myself once, so I know your anguish firsthand), you have no clue as to what constitutes good writing and what doesn't, let alone how to fix inadequate writing. That means that in fiction writing, you know very little about style, composition, grammar, punctuation, story line, pacing, plot development, flashbacks and flash-forwards, voice, characterization, description, dialogue, character development, conflict and resolution, point-of-view, and some forty thousand other things that go into writing a novel. Or that should go into it, anyway.
Wow! Seems like a dauntless task when I put it that way, doesn't it? Well, I'm living proof that it's not. Here's how I turned from a horrible writer for the first ten years of my literary life to an author with nearly a hundred conventionally published books and tens of thousands of shorter published works, both fiction and nonfiction, over the last forty years.
- I read a lot about writing. And I evaluated what I read carefully. Mostly in magazines such as Writer's Digest and The Writer. I took to heart those things that made sense to me, and I ignored those things that didn't. You can't be a sponge and soak up everything you read about writing well. You have to be selective. Trust me. You'll learn how to differentiate in time.
- I paid attention in my lit and composition courses in high school. Some teachers are, and always will be, jerks and failed wannabe writers. Others know their stuff. Gravitate to those folks, and let them know your goal. You'd be amazed at how responsive a writing/English teacher can be to someone who takes the craft he adores to heart!
- I wrote for shoppers, local neighborhood newspapers, and everywhere else imaginable. And, so should you. Find an outlet where you're likely to receive an editor's feedback on what works and what doesn't—and why! If possible, seek out a job writing for a neighborhood weekly as a "stringer" or part-time reporter. Or hire on at a blog you admire. Those publications are often strapped for help, and good writing talent is hard to find. Also, their editors are anxious to help their writers learn to write better so they can turn in stronger copy.
- I enrolled in college and majored in journalism and, afterward, creative writing. I know, I know. Fiction ain't journalism. But, creative writing fiction classes won't teach you the basics of story structure, acceptable grammatical usage, and pacing the way journalism will. While you're enrolled in a journalism class, seek out freelance reporting assignments from local and even city-wide newspapers, magazines, and blogs.
- I took creative writing workshop. I think three or four of them, each meeting twice a week for twelve weeks. You, too, should enroll in a prominent workshop or two or ten. But, do so only if the instructors are published authors, if you've read their works, and if you admire them. There are too many wannabes masquerade as authorities who will never be good writers themselves. You don't need them telling you what's good writing and what's bad!
- I joined the college newspaper and eventually became editor. You can do the same and write as you learn, which is a lot more productive and effective than "practice, practice, practice" when you don't know what on earth you're practicing other than bad writing techniques. Again, an editor even at the college-magazine level will help sharpen your writing skills, and that's your goal.
- I got a part-time job teaching at a private community college. Not long after, I was hired as an associate editor for a national magazine (a bit of luck there). You should similarly look for teaching or mentoring assignments online if nowhere else and start searching for editorial work for a newspaper or magazine. Locally, if necessary. Regionally or nationally, if possible.
- I learned how to write the way I speak. 1. That's what I'm doing in this response. Do you get it? Do you hear my voice coming through? Am I reaching you? That's because I have a strong literary voice. Which means I have learned to scrap the Writerese (writing the way writers think writers should write) that I used to use, and I replaced it with writing how I normally speak. It's called finding your literary voice, and once you nail it, you'll never look back.
- I sent out queries to various newspapers and magazines. The "bigger" the better, of course, but I didn't ignore the others, either. I queried on various topics I thought an editor might like. You can do the same. Check out my suggestions for formatting a query on my Website or, better still, talk to a pro or two about standard formatting, which is mandatory (and simple!) if you want to catch an editor's eye with a pitch. Get a few acceptances, write a few articles, make a few bucks, and feel your ego swell!
- I became so effective a published writer that I began teaching creative writing workshop privately. I ran an ad, and with my growing credentials, I attracted writers who wanted to write better. Once you're proficient enough, you can do the same. Believe me, there's no better way to learn about anything than climbing into the trenches and actually teaching it. You're going to be prepared, or you're going to be embarrassed as hell in front of all your students. Between the two, I'm betting you're going to be prepared.
- I built a reputation as a competent and reliable writer and parlayed that into a weekly newspaper column. The column appeared in more than 1,100 different papers with a combined circulation of more than 20 million. I also took a job as editor for a national skiing magazine. You should be on the watch for similar opportunities, turning your literary accomplishments into paying editing as well as writing gigs.
- I learned how to format a book proposal, and I began pitching a nonfiction book to literary agents and publishers. I landed my first book contract after a couple years of trying (it's not easy, trust me) and followed up on that by selling my first novel to a major publisher a few years later. You can do the same. If you've done your homework (see above), don't be surprised if you get a taker for your very first book!
Now, isn't this information better than the other ridiculously shallow and dangerously inadequate shoot-from-the-lip responses you received? Responses such as practice, practice, practice?
Tougher than you'd hoped for? You bet. Discouraging? Only if you're not really cut out to be a writer. For me, it worked. Not overnight, as you can guess. But in the end, it worked. And, I'm betting it will for you, too.
In the meantime, if you happen to "catch a break" and have some success in publishing something along the way, all the better. But, in the end, it's the long-haul that counts. There is no magic bullet—or simple answer—to improving your writing. If there were, the world would be bulging with great writers. It's not.
So, good luck, good fortune, and good God, get moving already, will you? You have a lot of ground to cover in the next few years! In the meantime ...
Smoke if yiou've got 'em. (But only when you're old enough.)
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D. J. Herda is author of the new series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available in eBook, paperback, and hardcover formats at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his weekly column, "The Author-Ethicist," at Substack