I’m always surprised when I run across other writers who turn up their noses at the idea of learning more about the basics of fiction-writing. Yes, I definitely think that we grow by writing—and in fact, can’t grow without LOTS and LOTS of writing.
But. . . we could complete book after book and still not take our writing skill to the next level. We could quite possibly fill our shelves with stories that never exhibit any significant growth from one book to the next. In other words, the process of writing itself is never a guarantee that we'll grow.
If we go back to the writing-college analogy I used in the last post, turning up our noses at learning would be like saying we want to remain a freshman year after year. I’m convinced that if we want to get to graduation-level writing, we have to intentionally find areas where we’re weak, consciously look for new skills we can incorporate, and challenge ourselves to painful growth. It’s out of determined efforts to stretch ourselves that we eventually begin to move toward publishable-quality writing.
Sometimes writers get frustrated with traditional publication and the doors that keep closing on them. Instead of persevering toward maturity in their writing skills and pushing themselves to grow, they may seek out self-publication. Now, I'm not saying that's why everyone chooses to self-publish or that all self-published authors have immature writing skills. But I am saying we need to take a closer look at why traditional doors are closing, and it's often because our writing isn't ready.
Here are 8 ways we can challenge ourselves to grow. (The first five have helped me the most.)
1. Get quality critiques.Every critique helps me get a glimpse of my weaknesses. For example after one critique, I learned I was weak in adding sensory details to every scene. Another helped me realize I needed to improve in maximizing scene tension. A good critique will show us something—usually many things—that we can work on. I try to pick several key techniques to practice in my next novel.
2. Read and study books within our genres. Most writers read voraciously. We can try to get a feel for what’s popular within our genres and particularly with authors we admire. But we can also look at what makes those stories work. What draws us in? What makes us like the characters? What holds us to the end?
3. Devour writing craft books. This is probably the way I’ve grown the most over the years. I read book after book, borrowing most through the library. When I wanted to learn how to write by scenes, I read those books. To learn to plot better, I scoured plot books. As I attempted to write better dialog, I checked out dialog books. Some writing books provide inspiration. But we have to delve into technique if we want to grow. That doesn’t mean we have to agree with everything we read, but we can always discover new ideas to try. (Check out my sidebar for my favorites and theHelpful Writing Books link.)
4. Take lots of notes and review them frequently. I keep notes on index cards. When I read something helpful on a blog post, I jot it down on a card. When I find something in a book that I want to practice, I make a note. I pull out those cards, review them regularly, and they remind me of the things I need to work on most.
5. Discipline ourselves to write consistently. And practice what we're learning.Sometimes we have to slow our writing process down, at least temporarily, while we add in a new skill or two. For some writers, maybe the conscious learning happens in the rewrite process. But the point is, we eventually have to take that head knowledge and let it shape the words we write.
6. Read writing-related blogs. Most writers reading this post are probably already well on their way to searching out helpful blogs. We can learn a tremendous amount, but sometimes it’s also downright overwhelming. Several bloggers do weekly round-ups summarizing the best blog posts of the week. One of the most thorough, with links to dozens of articles for every type of writer, is by Adventures In Children's Publishing. (Check out their round-up every Friday.)
7. Take online writing courses. There are great webinars to choose from, classes, conferences—some for free and all from the comfort of our homes. Writer’s Digest.com consistently offers a variety of courses. My agent, Rachelle Gardner, led a WD's webinar last week about how to hook an agent or editor with a query. Take a look at their online events page for future webinars.
8. Attend a local or national conference. Conferences are a great place to connect with other writers and to build important friendships. But because of the socializing, I have a hard time focusing on workshops and learning. That’s not to say writers can’t learn at conferences, but I’ve found I can learn the same information in books most of the time. I love conferences, don’t get me wrong! But if the top reason for going is to grow in writing skills, there are much cheaper ways to learn.
From the list I've given, what would you say has helped you to grow the most? Are there other ways writers can grow that I’ve missed? Please share!