The Blank Page is a new weekly series on Novelty Revisions dedicated to any writer who is just beginning their journey or starting again after a long pause. Check back every Monday for more tips and inspiration.
How do you “get good” at something you have always wanted to learn?
The answer itself isn’t nearly as complicated as you might think. Pretty much everyone, expert or not, agrees that in order to improve a particular skill, one must practice that skill. How often and for how long is where the debate comes in. But even that isn’t the barrier preventing most beginning writers from, well … beginning.
You see, in order to “get good,” you have to first “be bad.” In gentler terms, you pretty much have to start from the ground if you want to build up a skill or get better at a certain hobby. No one starts with an advantage from the beginning — not technically. You start knowing nothing. And one way or another, you learn.
And that’s the hard part — the part that traps so many beginners in a seemingly endless cycle of “I want to build this skill” but “I’m not good at it and that makes building the skill more challenging.”
Here’s something you probably already know, but could benefit from hearing again: No one starts out good.
Now that we’re all on the same (blank) page, let’s figure out where to go from here.
Starting something new can feel extremely intimidating — especially if your reason for trying something you’ve never tried before involves someone or something else directly inspiring your efforts. You just have this vision, regardless of how irrational, of doing something for the first time and being instantly good at it.
And even if you aren’t, you can’t stop picturing what it might be like to finally reach the desired end result — that goal you’re already striving for even though you’ve barely begun your journey. For many writers, this looks like closing your eyes and imagining holding your own book in your hands for the first time, or seeing it on a bookstore shelf. “Have written” is so clear in your mind that “haven’t written yet” can feel extremely overwhelming. Even discouraging.
“I just want to have written a book,” you think. We’ve all thought this. Every single one of us. You know you have to do the work. You know what lies ahead. That doesn’t necessarily make things any easier, does it?
One of the greatest barriers to beginning a new skill or hobby, it turns out, is the fear of not being good at the thing you want to be good at. Which is ridiculous, really — but it’s true nonetheless. We want to be “good enough” instantly. We don’t want to wait. We want to fast-forward through the months, if not years, of work it will take us to get to whatever “good” means for us personally.
When I first started learning the violin, I was terrified. I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to stick with it because I knew how long it would take to even learn to play a basic tune. I knew I was looking for a challenge. I knew it was something I had subconsciously wanted to do for a long time. But the years of repetitive practice felt like they could last decades. And we’re so used to never having to wait for anything, even obvious progress on daunting tasks or skills.
What helped me overcome this fear, doubt, and dark sense of overwhelm, even before I picked up a violin for the very first time, was to make sure I went into this new experience knowing that I was going to be terrible at it.
And guess what? When I did pick up my violin and play that very first note, it did not sound great. Neither did the second, or the third.
You can watch videos of other people playing the violin, you can listen to other violinists play, you can read all the books and articles and watch all the tutorials you want, as I did. But at some point, you’re going to have to pick up your violin and your bow and make noise. And you’re not going to know what it’s supposed to feel like, and you’re not going to love how it sounds.
But the only way to learn how to get better is by trying, especially when it doesn’t go well.
At some point, you have to pick up your pen or place your hands on your keyboard and “make noise.” Write nonsense, throw random words in random places and hope reading it all back later doesn’t hurt too much. You’re not going to know if what you’re writing in the moment is even remotely good, and you’re not going to love that sense of uncertainty.
But the only way to learn how to write better is … by trying.
I know this isn’t easy for most of you. Because even trying is hard if you lack support or resources. Not everyone has the self-discipline required to sit alone in a room for hours and do an exceptionally difficult task (write), over and over again, terribly, until their writing becomes less terrible.
That’s why I often recommend taking it one day at a time. Don’t worry about not having a book published yet. Don’t worry about sounding like your favorite author or putting the perfect twist on a cliche storyline that’s going to get the attention of every agent you query. These things aren’t worries beginners need to carry. There is way too much to carry already, because you don’t know what you’re doing yet. You have a bunch of words, and you don’t quite know how to get them out of your head and onto paper. Yet.
Worry, instead, about today. What are you going to write about? How long are you going to “practice”? Are you going to stop in the middle if it’s terrible … or continue on, trying to learn from your own shortcomings?
Every time you write, you get a little bit better at it. You won’t notice it from day to day. But over time, the difference will show. And all your years of effort will be worth every word.
Just starting out as a writer or returning from an extended hiatus? Let me know how I can help. Just drop a comment below with your questions/concerns — I am here to serve.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is an editor and writer, and a 12-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food, and Star Wars.