It hits me randomly every now and then—this wild fact that I spoke no English 16 years ago. My “foundation” was the teacher sticking simple words on a blackboard, then running out to cry within ten minutes because the class was too rowdy. (We laughed.)
Now, I get paid to tell people when they use the language inaccurately and am an international writing mentor. Was my impulsive decision to attempt writing all those years ago a bright idea? Was my decision to study publishing? I don’t really know, because they were born out of fuck yous: fuck struggling with English class; fuck my university for remodelling the engineering course when they promised me something else.
You, on the other hand… I can guarantee your starting line was further out than mine. Some of you have been writing for as long as you can remember. All of you have a passion for storytelling. So, as Pitch Wars angst come to an end in the nightmarish year of 2020, I’ll start by telling you that everyone has potential. Even a foreign-language-hating grump can appear in the backs of published books and snatch her writing mentee 25 agent requests. Soooo…
Step 1: tell your insecurities to stfu
Why do some writers become more skilled than others? A) because instead of giving up and whining, they funnel their energy into honing their craft, and B) they are not afraid to look at where they’ve gone wrong. We are all born without words. Do babies spiral because they haven’t gotten the hang of subject-verb-object? No. They observe the people who do it better and learn.
There’s some truth to “fake it til you make it”, in that you have to maintain some confidence in yourself, even if your insecurities are telling you no. We’re so close to our work in the creative industry, so it’s easy to take a perceived lack of progress personally. You never make it if you give up.
Don’t get caught in the trap of “I’m so good, but nobody understands me,” though. You stop learning and improving when you’re dead.
Step 2: surround yourself with better people
Open to interpretation: I sort of mean people who do it better than you, but maybe you just need a circle that’s better.
When you’ve put tape over that feeble voice, opportunities to improve yourself are everywhere. There are so many people to learn from when you’re not jealous! Even if you are secretly competitive (hello), this is a great way to challenge yourself. Mixing with people who know their shit just a bit better than you, or are just different, is going to point you to valuable resources and advice that can inspire many lightbulb moments. This means trying out tight-knit writing groups, having a crack at legitimate mentorship programs, attending writing classes/workshops if you can.
You’re never going to click with everyone and what works for them, though, so have a sieve in your mind at all times. Any congregation of writers can get messy, so if people start getting unreasonable and shove prescriptive or incorrect things down your throat… it’s probably a sign that you need better people. It might take some trial and error to find your squad, but it is worth searching for people who encourage you to grow as authors and aren’t afraid to be honest with you at the same time.
Step 3: study, damn it!!!
Let me explain: I hate studying, but you c a n n o t get to where you want to be with your writing career if you refuse to level up. I take that back. There’s not much to explain.
“I’m naturally talented!” Build your craft.
“I’ve been writing forever!” Build your craft.
“I read 500 books a year!” Unless you’ve read up on how to write better, reading for pleasure does not make you an expert by osmosis. Ever.
There are so many ways to learn, even if you don’t do it academically. (I credit a lot of my writing instinct to my publishing course and editing classes, but not everyone will have the same experience.) Craft books are available, and your writing circle will happily recommend you some. The internet is free! There are hundreds of blogs about writing.
Where many writers go wrong, however, is taking writing advice as hard and fast rules and ignoring context. I cringe whenever I see “show vs. tell” examples, because I know that some writer out there is going to be like, “Ah, it does sound more vivid shown! I’m going to show everything from now on.”
And then there’s the sound of an editor fainting somewhere, because reading an entire novel of showing is death.
I’ve seen a lot of people with hot takes on writing rules, but you can’t break them if you don’t know them or know why they’re used. Conventions are common for a reason. Style guides exist for a reason. There are certain things you need to know as a writer.
Step 4: make mistakes and own them
Acknowledging your mistakes and analysing them to avoid repeat offences is one of the best ways to improve. It might be worth telling your insecurities that every time you locate a weakness, you are, in fact, improving. You wouldn’t have seen it before—why? Even the fact that you can see it, or understand that what someone pointed out is lacking, means your skills are becoming sharper.
I threw out my first essay in year 7 (immediately after class in the rain for that dramatic flair), because I got a B when I thought I did awesomely. Don’t be like that. Trash is great when there’s feedback. I went on to attack my issues with grammar and flow by writing and reading my work over and over until I couldn’t find anything wrong. Often, everything wrong took over 20 read-throughs to catch. My teacher gave me an A+++ on an essay two years later and read it out to the class. Maybe the embarrassment killed those skills, because I never reached that peak level again.
You really get what you put in, though! That is, if you are consciously reviewing your mistakes instead of pushing it to your subconscious to let it fester as negativity.
As a mentor, I’m all about transparency and tough love. I hope this blog inspires some motivation in the last week of the Pitch Wars decision period. I hope you get some good results, but if not, there’s never only one way to get somewhere—there’s just the way you choose. Make sure you continue to piece together the path to your writing goals.