Not too long after my first book was published, my editor made an off-hand remark over a dinner one night that my first book proposal hadn’t been well written.
I froze. Mumbled something. Tried to pretend as though her words were not about to throw me into an after dinner extravaganza of nasty self talk and too much sugar. She went on to say,
“I had to edit your book quite a bit. You made a lot of mistakes.”
Really? Ouch, ouch, and ouch. After I recovered (yes, it did take quite a bit of chocolate), I decided to take what she said as a challenge:
I would become a better writer.
You see, I knew I wasn’t a good writer. My brain has learning disabilities that twist my syntax in ways some readers hate. And typos and misused words end up out in the world just about every time I put pen to paper. (Check my Facebook feed for a good laugh.) I’m also impatient, so learning methodically is a challenge for me. Impatience also makes rewriting – which is 80% of writing – difficult.
So how did I oh so slowly improve my writing? How do I work to improve it almost every single day? You know, I’d never given it much thought until a reader on Facebook asked me. Here’s what I came up with:
I allow myself to want to improve. To feel the tug of this BIG desire. I’ve set being a better writer as a lifetime goal. As in something I work toward for the rest of my life.
What does it mean to improve? For me it means setting small and measurable goals each time I write – a book, a post, whatever. My goal might be to incorporate more stories, attempt a complex narrative structure, build a convincing magical world, or describe scenes more vividly. I don’t set these goals arbitrarily, but in conjunction with the purpose of the book or post and what feels juicy to me.
I sniff out writing teachers who are a great fit for me. I’ve become picky! Now I’ll never accept toxic teachers – no matter how famous they might be or how big their internet following or how much a friend likes them. I’ve become intimate with how I learn best – spacious retreats, small classes attended over time, and one-on-one mentoring. Writing exercises for their own sake make me crazy. Theory dripping in jargon stops me cold.
I’ve learned to read like a writer. This has been so astonishing helpful and yet lockjaw difficult for me. Every bit of written material surrounding you (and I’ll wager that’s a lot – wry grin) can teach you something. The key? Read for what you need to learn right now. Apply it by writing. Then read some more. Apply that. (We do this at my writing retreats.)
I’ve learned the difference between editing and “deepening and thickening.” As my favorite writing teacher, Priscilla Long, says,
“Polishing a too-thin piece is to do the right thing at the wrong time.”
The single most important thing I’ve done? Writing and sharing my work – in books, a national magazine column, this blog, online courses – over all those years when I knew I wasn’t a great writer. I kept producing. I kept finishing pieces. By being in contact with an audience and continually producing, I’ve learned much faster than I ever would have if I’d hidden my work or waited for it to be perfect.
Wait, I just lied in #6. The single most important thing I’ve done to become a better writer? I’ve learned to relax in creative radiance, in the endless and forever knowing that whatever I write and however I write it, however many copies I sell or don’t sell, I’m utterly and completely okay. I’m part of love itself. That means everything I do with this brain and this body is gravy. As long as I’m serving and learning, I’m golden. And that makes all the missteps and triumphs an engaging game.
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