I was going to write about quatrains today, but this is more important. We can talk about writing in a lot of different ways — as an art form, a means of communication, a medium of expression, a way of socializing — but it’s important to understand writing as a skill. As with any other skill, you get better at it with practice, and you get rusty when you don’t write.
If you want to get better, don’t quit writing, no matter how frustrated you are with the work you’re producing at the moment. If you have a specific piece that you just can’t figure out how to fix, put it aside and work on something else. If you have a big project that’s stagnated to the point you feel blocked, sit down and work on something shorter and easier until it’s done. Completing something — anything — is a good way to build confidence and raise your energy level.
Talent is nice. If you have it, you should be thankful to the universe for bestowing it upon you, but talent doesn’t get you very far. Persistence is more important. So is revision (my topic for Monday). This is, seriously, the best piece of writing advice I have to offer:
Find a way to separate your self-esteem from your successes and failures as a writer. Every writer fails. Having to throw away pieces of writing, or sharing them and receiving overwhelmingly negative feedback, is part of the game. Failures, in and of themselves, don’t say anything about what kind of person you are or about your potential as a writer. It’s how you deal with them that matters. Don’t beat yourself up for more than a few minutes when you fail. Shrug it off and try again. You have to be willing to strike out if you want to hit home runs.
Recently, I heard a successful stand-up comic talking about what it’s like to learn that craft. I can’t remember who it was — it was a television interview I just happened to catch the end of. It may have been Richard Belzer. He said the only way to get good at standup is to walk out onto the stage and fail until you figure out how to be funny.
For most stand-up comics, that means years of failure just to have a chance at success. Writing is like that, too. Especially writing for blogs. I’ve referred to my blogging and networking as a social media stand-up routine more than once since I started.
The trash folders of my blogs are full of posts I wrote and decided not to publish, either because they were just too bad, or because people I trust read them and gave me feedback that convinced me not to run them. I have boxes of paper manuscripts and notebooks full of things no one will ever read if I have any say in the matter. I have a word document on my computer that’s nothing but passages I’ve cut from my fanasy project. I save those because there are good sentences and important character development buried in all that dross. Eventually I’ll use some of it.
When I look back on some of the newspaper stories I wrote in the 90s — or even at graduate essays I’ve written in the last decade — a lot of them make me cringe. But I got good feedback on the news stories and A’s on the essays. I don’t let the problems I see with my earlier work get to me, but I’m glad I’ve improved enough to see them.
There’s no shame in abandoning a piece of writing or setting a match to a manuscript. Every writer does that at some point in their careers. The important thing is, when you have to do it, don’t let it convince you to abandon writing altogether. As long as you’re writing, you have a chance of succeeding one day.