The first time I tried to write a story, novel-style, it went a little something like this: “She leaned over the edge of the boat. She wondered how far she’d come. She was sea-sick.” I stopped after three sentences. This was bad.
Since then, I’ve Googled “how to be a better writer” a dozen times. I don’t know why I keep searching. The advice is horrible and falls into two categories:
- Read a lot
- Write a lot
“Read a lot”? Are you kidding me? Have you ever met a writer who wasn’t an uncontrollable reader?
We read our favorite authors again and again. We have a pile of books that never gets smaller. We read book reviews and blogs and magazines and essays. We follow authors and read their blogs. We watch author interviews on YouTube. Then we read the transcripts.
The writing advice to “read a lot” is patronizing and unhelpful. The two are not the same.
Then there’s the advice to “write a lot”. This is a less patronizing, but it’s still unhelpful. Just because you sit down at the piano and smash the keys doesn’t mean you’re on the path to becoming a pianist. Without lessons from a professional or a how to course, you’re going to spend infinite more time learning what someone could have taught you in an hour. It’s inefficient practice.
The writing advice to 'read a lot' is patronizing and unhelpful. The two are not the same. Click To Tweet
But that’s how most of us write. I do my morning pages. I write blog posts, some of which people read, some of which people ignore. I write articles for other blogs and my editors change things and sometimes I go back and study what they changed and I learn a little bit about my bad habits.
So I’ve been at a loss on how to improve my writing efficiently. I want to put in my 10,000 hours, but all hours practicing are not the same. I’ve been writing on screen and in diaries and on napkins since I was old enough to write. I’ve technically put in said 10,000 hours but I still feel miles away from where I should be.
Recently a friend (hi Bearclaw!) recommended I read The Talent Code, a book about the efficiency of practice while answering the question: how do I get good at something? It also argues that most of us practice badly.
“Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways—operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes—makes you smarter. Or to put it a slightly different way, experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them—as you would if you were walking up an ice-covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go—end up making you swift and graceful without your realizing it.”
Since then, I’ve tried many techniques to improve my writing:
- Writing class. I’ve taken two so far. One was meh, one was glorious.
- Difficult assignments. I say yes to projects I don’t feel qualified for. My work takes double the time because I’m struggling, but I’m also improving faster than if I only said yes to blogs where I talk about my feelings.
- More hand writing. I wouldn’t call this a way to improve my skills as a writer over all, but switching up the way I write also switches up the way process what I write about.
- Asking for help. In working on a piece for Modern Love I’ve struggled with the concept of “personal essay.” I’d never written one before, never mind for the biggest newspaper in the world with a column that notoriously accepts no one. But instead of waiting until I’m a better writer with more experience, I dove right in, writing and rewriting for six months. During that time I asked for a TON of help. I submitted it to a memoir group on Scribophile, hired an editor on Thumbtack and talked to friends who’d done it before. In reading their comments I discovered how much ground a personal essay needs to cover. I also learned a lot about my own quirks as a writer. This essay is now the best thing I’ve ever created and even if they don’t accept it? I learned a ton in the process.
- Copying everything.
Being a “copycat” is a bad thing, right? We’re supposed to be original and daring with anything we create, acknowledging that sometimes you’ll create a dud. I agree with this to a certain extend, but not without reservations.
When I wrote that horrible piece of fiction last year I realized that even though I had been reading for decades, I had no concept of how to structure a story. Not just the big themes, but sentence by sentence.
So I started copying people. Like in this story about the angry woman in the woods. I opened a book and copied their structure. I did it with everything from memoirs to novels to personal essays. If an author started with a piece of dialogue, so would I. If the story switched from present tense to a memory, so would I. If the first sentence was a sensation and the second sentence was a thought, that’s what I did.
After a few minutes of this, I would stop referring to my “template” and get in the flow of my story. My own voice would come through and I wouldn’t need a reference.
During that time I also developed an obsession with coloring books (I love you Johanna Basford). I find the hobby meditative and it’s the only work I do with no purpose other than my own enjoyment. It’s also cheaper than knitting.
When I first started my coloring extravaganza, I was not making pretty pictures. I used too many colors that didn’t go together and was usually these horrible gel pens. So I started refreshing the #secretgardencoloringbook hashtag on Instagram and save the pictures I liked from people around the world. Color combinations I found appealing without knowing why. Then, I would completely rip them off by copying, color for color, their version in my own book.
If this sounds completely unfun, you’ve never seen my art. I’m okay with words, but anything involving paint is not my strongest skill.
I loved making something beautiful and I didn’t care if it was someone else’s.
And a funny thing happened. I got really good at coloring. The pages I copied were beautiful, but once I studied, up close, the intricate details of other people’s work, I could take it to the next level and create art that was mine.
Now I see colors differently. I know that I prefer shades of the same color instead of lots of colors on one page. I prefer the bright, vividness of my markers as opposed to the shaded wisps of pencils. And it’s started manifesting my home life too. Our new apartment is now the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived, filled with shades of purple flowers in the windows and bright prints on our bookshelves.
Say what you will about copycats, but studying the work I love has opened up a world of creating my own.