One objective truth in the very subjective world of art forms is that, at first, most of our work will be, well, how to say this…crap.
This is the way it has always been.
Unless we are a child prodigy touched by the gods of good fortune and talent, most of us are very bad before we become good.
We get better over time by obsessive amounts of writing and reading. Some of us study writing, takes courses or even go to school where we earn degrees in English or Creative Writing.
These are all excellent steps.
In our darkest moments, we stalk literary agents on Twitter, pathologically liking and reposting every tweet the second it goes live.
Over time, we get better. But how do we keep getting better? Are there any life hacks for writers to accelerate the learning curve?
As it turns out, yes. Yes, indeed.
Before you read the strategies, here’s my shortlist of criteria for these “life hacks”:
- They must actually work (which means scientific research, not anecdotal evidence)
- They must work for most (if not all) people
- They must work over and over again
Just so you know, the strategies in this post meet all three of those criteria. Check them out for yourself. Test them and let me know how it goes.
Never Finish a Bad Book
My philosophy about reading has always included this axiom, probably because of my ADD – like attention span.
If a book doesn’t immeditetly grab my attention (and keep me at least mildly enthralled), I move on to the next book.
Sadly, I’ve abandoned many more books than I’ve finished.
As it turns out, this approach is backed up by science. Anything we do is encoded in our brains and bodies. Anything we do repeatedly is entrenched in nueral pathways.
If you read bad books, you are effectively encoding bad writing on your brain.
You can probably see why that could be problematic.
The term “bad” of course is subjective. Case in point, I find many bestsellers unbearable to read. Just asthe mastery of your craft will improve so will your “antennae” for less than stellar writing or storytelling.
Whenever your mental or emotional alarm bells go off, stop reading the book immeditetly.
I’m not advocating abandoning a book for one bad sentence, paragraph or chapter. Most of the books I’ve stopped reading either started off poorly or dropped into long stretches of “badness”.
(It seems only fair to point out here that my own writing is not perfect and I am daily working on my craft)
So, from here on forward, let’s all commit to only reading good books.
Remember: You get better by never finishing a bad book.
Create A Master List of Bad Writing
Is that terrible page or 100 you just read wasted time?
Whenever you stumble on a sentence, scene or character (or book), make a note of why you stopped reading.
What don’t you like?
What did the author do “wrong” in your opinion?
In doing so, you can develop your very own cheat sheet or master list of writing mistakes. You can even add to this list as you hear about other writing mistakes on blog posts or in podcasts, workshops and lectures.
The book, The Small Big, says this is a research-backed strategy for high performance.
Especially if you glance at this list before you write or during your revision phase.
Remember: You get better by reminding yourself what NOT to do.
Shrink Your Writing
The next set of strategies for getting better comes from a book I highly recommend called The Little Book of Talent by Daniel Coyle.
To get better, shrink the pace or the space.
- Shrink the pace by sloooowing down your writing. If you write in a rush, force yourself – temporarily – to write at a crawl. This enhanced focus will reset your creativity by interrupting your pattern (Conversely, if you write like a snail you can achieve the same affect by speeding up your writing for short bursts of time).
- Shrink the space by writing small. If you usually write novels, write a short story. Write only dialogue or only action or only description. (Again, you can also go BIG – it’s helpful – it just a takes more time)
Remember: You get better when you shrink your writing.
Write On The Boundaries
Actually, write and read on your boundaries.
According to the book Imagine most breakthroughs occur at the boundaries of disciplines, often by non-experts who only know enough to be dangerous.
So go to your boundaries and explore. Find new boundaries. Be a non-expert who doesn’t know better…so you just do things nobody ever thought was possible. Read widely. Cross genres. Read about poetry, pottery and popcorn.
Remember: You get better when you write (and read) on the boundaries.
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