There’s plenty of advice out there on how to become a great writer, and you need to be your own writing teacher if you want to unlock your potential and create your best work.
Go online, search for books and articles on the subject of creative writing, and you’ll find there is a bottomless well of advice. Much of the information you’ll come across directly contradicts other pieces of writing advice you’ll read, even when it’s from celebrated authors. Debates rage on many fronts and everyone seems to think different things constitute “the best advice.”
There are three reasons for this.
First, every writer is unique and works in his or her own way. What worked for Hemingway might not have worked for Capote. Different aspects of the writing process are of higher priority to some versus others, so the breadth of writing advice is wide.
This explains the diversity of opinions, even on the same topic.
Second, each writer is giving advice at a different time in his or her life and career arc. Even the greatest writers evolve as they gain experience, so as a writer passes through phases in his life, a piece of advice that worked wonders early on goes stale and proves utterly counterproductive years later.
The thing to remember is all writing advice likely applies to some writers at some point in their development. Beyond that, it’s a pick-and-choose matter for optimizing what you need to tell your stories to the best of your ability.
Third, writing is a complex affair. It can run aground at any stage and in many ways. The ways can never be enumerated – there’s always a new writer coming along to invent a new way to screw up.
Yet, some blunders are predictable, and there are rules and guidelines to proof writers against such mishaps. The better your understanding of the conventions of writing, the better your writing becomes – even if you are using this knowledge to break the rules.
Robert A. Heinlein famously summed it up in his oft-quoted statement: “Writing can be learned, but not taught.”
This is why writing advice is often quite generic. Does being told “write a compelling plot” tell you anything about how to do it? That you need a solid plot is a general push in the right direction (and rather obvious), but it’s not enough information to get you there.
A lot of times, you need to have significant writing experience to really get what an author imparting advice is talking about. Writing is often done by instinct, after all, and many authors don’t even know how they do it. There’s no formula, you have to work out your plans yourself.
In the end, you need to become your own teacher. You get where you’re going through experience and drawing up your own lesson plan.
It’s an active job. Becoming your own teacher requires a decision to want to get better. It requires the courage to hold your writing up to internal and external scrutiny and to move forward even when the news is dire. It requires a belief that there is much to learn, that writing is a craft with rules and conventions, just like any other human pursuit.
Learning to write requires an interest in seeking out new information and thinking critically. You are doing two key things: hunting for better content and working to gain skills that help transform that content into words.
The act of becoming your own teacher means working iteratively. You teach yourself to write in five ways: reading, living, writing, studying, and getting feedback.
Reading is core to the writing life. Read extensively and voraciously and you’ll build your intuitive notion of what good writing “feels like.” You’ll learn what you like and what – for you – makes a good, great, or middling story. Reading is, and always will be, the foundation of great writing.
Natural born writers adhere to many of the norms of writing unconsciously, they know them intuitively. That said, great writers don’t pop out of the womb with knowledge of grammar conventions and majestic vocabularies. Rather, they absorbed all this naturally, usually at an early age, through a hunger for reading.
Unique content comes from living. You draw on your own experiences to make new connections, from the real and the made up. You need to think and observe how the world works to understand the details you need or the ones to deviate from to make something wholly new.
Then comes writing. Nothing replaces putting pen to paper as a teacher. Sheer practice is what it takes, page after page.
As you seek the best, clearest, and most creative ways to birth your thoughts into words, why not take advantage of the fact that so many others have gone before you? Study the writing and the writing advice of writers, and absorb the wisdom of those who trod the boards before you.
When reading writing advice, the trick is to figure out what applies to you. You will change too, of course. Reading the same piece at different times in your writing career can give you new insights as you gain your own experiences.
Finally, comes the heart-wrenching, highly gratifying step of getting feedback. You learn loads when you subject yourself to feedback. Critiques provide vital lessons in how your words meet the hearts of readers. Maybe the scene you thought was groundbreaking falls flat, or the slow scene you considered cutting moves a reader to tears.
Once you actively employ these five approaches to being a writer, you are driving the virtuous cycle of learning. Read, live, write, study, get feedback, live. Read, live, write, study, get feedback. Read, live, write, study, get feedback.
You’ve become your own teacher.
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