10 Lessons I’ve Learned in 10 Years of Storytelling

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I’ve been writing for a long time. I’ve come a long way since my first “book.” I have yet to publish anything for real, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t learned from my experiences. Writing is hard, but I like a good challenge. I also love learning. Put the two together and there’s something magical about the process.

I want to share with you 10 important lessons I’ve learned in the decade since my love for writing really blossomed. I hope you can relate to, or learn from, some of them.

1. As important as your readers are, when you’re writing, it’s not about them. 

While a thought may cross your mind every now and then—“Will readers get this? How might they react to this?”—the journey you take from the first words to the final revisions of your story is your own. What your readers think about the final product really can’t take priority over creating the product first.

2. You can trust some people to give helpful feedback. Some people. Not everybody.

I would personally rather a stranger critique my work than a close friend, for two reasons: one, I want my work critiqued. Not how my story relates to my life or myself as a person. I want someone to focus on its quality as a piece of writing, not base that quality on something I as a person came up with. Two, I have close friends who are very loving and kind. Who would never want to “hurt my feelings.” So as much as I love them and would appreciate the help, if my writing sucks, I need to know!

3. There is no right or wrong way to tell a love story.

No two people look at love the same way. Not even two people in love with each other: there will always be points about love which two people disagree on. That’s part of being human. In the same way, telling a love story does not, and should never, have a formula. You can put a completely new spin on the “boy meets girl/loses girl/finds girl” plotline. It can end happily ever after or in tragedy. In real life, no two people have the same story. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. All you can do is follow your heart and go for it.

4. Ten words is still 10 words closer to finishing.

The smallest steps toward progress are still progress. Even on days I don’t feel like writing, I still try to get down at least a sentence or two. It’s something. I’m always afraid if I go too long without writing, I won’t ever get back to it. Keep going. Struggle if you have to, but don’t stop.

5. If you don’t like your story, change it. 

Sometimes we get an idea in our head and convince ourselves it’s set in stone before we even pick up a pen. A lot of times we’ll give up on a story because we honestly decide we don’t like it. What’s easy to forget is we’re the ones who come up with stories in the first place. If we’re not happy with them, all we have to do is change them. There’s no law that says an outline can never shift. We need to be fully engaged in our work, or our readers never will be. We need to love our stories. We need to do whatever it takes to feel comfortable with what we’re writing, even if it means starting over from the beginning.

6. No one should put a letter grade on someone else’s baby.

Let’s take my book for example. I spent my entire creative writing portfolio working on a very early draft. The professor gave me an A, but very little feedback on the actual writing or story. The A meant nothing to me: I would have rather failed and begged him to explain why. But a letter grade, A or F or something in between, doesn’t say anything about the hours of work I put into developing my characters. I don’t want a letter grade. I want to know what my first reader, ever, thought. For real.

7. And if someone does, you should never take it personally.

If he’d given me a “bad” grade, I wouldn’t have taken it the wrong way. What you have to understand about me is I love feedback. I will never be offended if someone tells me something I’ve written isn’t good. I need to know that, so I can take suggestions, go back and improve what I’ve already done. Your telling me I’m a bad writer doesn’t make me feel like less of a person. It just means I have a lot to work on before I’m ready to show it to other people. What’s important is that I put a lot of time and effort into doing my best work. If my best work isn’t great, well, that’s okay. It will get better.

8. Living vicariously through your characters doesn’t work.

A very wise, much missed mentor of mine once told me life experience is the difference between a good writer and a great one. If you never get out and experience the world—go for a walk, visit places you want to write about, see places you can’t see the same way from a computer screen—your words will never be as authentic as they could be. You have to get out there, do crazy things, go everywhere, be brave. Because then you come back with stories in your head you never would have picked up otherwise. You can’t send your characters on any kind of adventure without having gone on one yourself. Big or small, even if it’s just a simple walk in the park, your characters can’t do all the experiencing for you.

9. The best ideas are the ones you wait patiently to develop.

The idea that sparked the book I’ve been working on for three years started out as any other book does—a fleeting thought in my head. One that came back to me, over and over again. I honestly don’t remember the exact time span between when I first had the idea and when I sat down to write the first sentences. But since then it has transformed into something amazing, hopefully, maybe, something good enough that you’ll get to read it someday. Fingers crossed, but obviously no promises. I’ve started many stories on a whim before, and most always fizzle out eventually. An idea needs time in your head to get its footing before it’s ready to unfold.

10. The work of a writer never ends.

You write a book, you rewire a book, revise a book, submit a book, re-revise, publish. Then your readers read that book, start talking about the book, crying about the book, criticizing the book, praising it, and you have to be there to join the conversation. Just because you finish something, publish something, change someone’s life, even, doesn’t mean your work is done. You’re committing to a life of literary saturation when you decide to become a writer. Once you start, it never really leaves you.

I still have a lot to learn. But having learned this much in just a decade, I can only imagine what words still have tot each me in the rest of a lifetime.

Love&hugs, Meg<3

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.

A recent graduate with a B.A. in English and a completed major in nutrition, currently seeking a graduate degree in health communication, Meg is a twenty-something workaholic with a passion for writing, coffee and dietetics. In addition to her status as an aspiring novelist and Grammar Nazi (and the mastermind behind this site), Meg is an editor for College Lifestyles magazine and a guest blogger for Food & Nutrition Magazine’s Stone Soup.  She is a seven-time NaNoWriMo winner and has written several creative pieces for Teen Ink magazine. Follow Meg on Twitter.

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