If writing were an Olympic sport, we’d have a much better idea of how to train to be the best … and we’d have a much better way to measure whether or not someone is “good” or just “making progress.” There aren’t that many clear indicators of what makes a writer worthy of whatever the writing equivalent of a gold medal is (Nobel Prize seems like a reach … or maybe not).
Often, what makes a writer appear successful honestly depends on how many copies of a book they sell or how many good reviews that book gets on Amazon … but that’s a rant for another post. In a nutshell, to be the best you can be at anything, you have to train. Consistently, and for an extended period of time.
But that doesn’t make things any easier. I see a lot of confusion in writing groups about what’s “right” and “wrong” or “appropriate.” Honestly? It’s about doing – writing – not about whether or not you’re doing it the way someone else recommends you do it. Training, as a writer, is the part of writing that’s mostly solitary. You need to depend on yourself, and hold yourself accountable, to meet your goals. Here’s how.
1. Explore different genres
What trips a lot of new writers up in the beginning is not really knowing what “practicing writing” means. It’s a term broad enough to intimidate newbies, because “getting better at writing” isn’t a goal most people can figure out how to achieve. The key here is to specify what kind of writing you want to get better at.
My brother has always been an athlete. Growing up, he played baseball, soccer, basketball, volleyball and ran cross country one year (I think). It took him until he got to high school to settle on soccer as his primary focus, and he now plans on playing in college. A lot of kids do this – with hobbies as well as sports. They try a little bit of everything to figure out what they like and what they’re good at. We can do the same thing with writing.
Try writing a screenplay. A poem. A short story. Figure out what you like, what your strengths are. Choose something to focus on. Maybe you just like blogging, and that’s what you want to get better at. Maybe you want to train to be a novelist; an essayist; a screenwriter. Make it easier on yourself. Pick one and run with it.
2. Start with what you have
Fun fact: I learned how to spin flags in college. For no reason other than I was bored and self-conscious about my lack of upper body strength. Problem is, you can’t learn how to spin a flag without a flag. So since my roommate was teaching me, I just borrowed hers until football season ended. By that point, I knew I wanted to keep practicing. So I asked for a flag and weight lifting gloves for Christmas, and once I had them, I could use my own equipment to practice whenever I wanted to.
Writing is similar. You don’t have to – and probably shouldn’t – go out and buy a brand-new laptop, or expensive writing software. What often happens then? You get to excited about your new tech and the idea of using it to start writing your upcoming masterpiece that you spend all your time and energy shopping, purchasing and setting it up that you waste it all. You never actually get to the writing part.
Write first. It doesn’t matter if you have a version of Microsoft Word from 2007 (like me). It doesn’t matter if your laptop is old. Goodness gracious, just sit down and start writing something. Let buying something writing-related be your reward: don’t give yourself the reward before you’ve actually done anything. To this day, opening that flag is still one of my happiest recent Christmas memories. I earned that flag. Practice first, purchase later.
3. Set SMART goals
You’re tired of hearing this. I know: I’m tired of writing about it. But the reason I’m repeating it now (and why everyone else still is) is because it seems to be the one thing new writers cannot seem to grasp. I’m part of a wonderful, supportive writing group on Facebook that encourages everyone to introduce themselves when they are first approved to join. I’ve lost count of how many introductions start with “Hi, my name is Meg, and I want to write a novel someday.” Awesome; I love ambition. But I hope, I really hope, that’s not actually their goal.
Athletes, in my opinion, have it a little easier. They can break down “I want to make it to the Olympics” into smaller goals like, “I want to make it onto this team this season” or “I want to win this tournament” or, in my brother’s case, “I’m working for that MVP and I’m not going to stop working until I get it.” (He will.) But just because they have it easier doesn’t mean it’s impossible for us.
I have a goal to reach a specific number of followers on Novelty Revisions this year – not because I particularly care about views or followers, but because it motivates me to write content every day and continually search for new ways to make it better. I set a goal to finish my novel by July 31. Even though it didn’t happen, I did make a lot of progress, which wasn’t previously happening. Saying you want to be a successful writer or published author just isn’t good enough. I’ve said this at least 50 times already this year and I’m going to keep saying it until it’s drilled too far into your brain to be forgotten.
4. Work – really work
Don’t do what I’ve been doing with my novel all week, which is write a few sentences just to cross it off my list and move on to something else (trust me, I don’t like it either). If you want to level up your writing life, just saying you want to do it isn’t going to get you anywhere. You have to work – really work.
That means a little something different for everyone. Some people need to write almost every day to exercise their creativity and keep their ideas flowing. Other people need to keep themselves on a strict writing schedule, even if it isn’t daily. I typically set word count goals to keep myself on track – 1,000 words on this project, 500 words for this one, etc. It’s like training for a half marathon. If I’d skipped a training day, I wouldn’t have been able to run 13.1 miles back in May. So I didn’t skip. At least with writing, rain can’t get in your way.
I don’t spend nearly as much time in forums and writing groups as I used to – not because I don’t want to be a supportive community member, but because I need to write. Discussing writing topics is great, to a point, but if I have a choice between talking about writing with someone and getting some writing done, you can probably guess which one I’m going to choose. Training to write better requires writing, a lot, all the time.
And much, much more.
Stay tuned for my next set of tips to help you train to be a writing Olympian! If you don’t want to miss the rest of this awesome mini-series, that follow button over to the right is yours for the clicking.
Until tomorrow … get back to writing!
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.