In addition to my work at Author Weekly, I teach college writing to about 200 students each year.
They’re a fascinating mix of traditional students, international students, and mid-career professionals looking to expand their employment opportunities. My students range in age from 16-60.
Besides teaching and grading, a big part of my job includes analysis: figuring out what’s working, what’s not working.
Through considerable evaluation and introspection, I’ve reached some conclusions about teaching, about writing, about what it takes to become a better writer.
Until now, I’ve hesitated to share this information.
Instead, I’ve focused on my own performance: motivating students, improving curriculum, improving engagement, improving outcomes. My personal philosophy says there’s always something more I can do, adding a tweak here, another tweak there.
After years of fine-tuning my approach, however, I’m reminded of a simple truth:
I’m not the most important factor in the classroom.
And I’m not talking about a student’s innate ability, experience, or interest level, either.
Sure, teaching skills, enthusiasm, and creativity play important roles, but one factor outweighs all others in predicting writing success or failure:
a person’s willingness to learn.
It bears repeating:
The one factor outweighing all others in predicting writing success or failure is a person’s willingness to learn.
And please don’t misunderstand.
I don’t subscribe to the millennial snowflake or entitlement generation arguments, either. The willingness to learn has nothing to do with age, ability, socioeconomic background, or culture.
The problem is that we have different ideas about what willing to learn means.
Willing to learn means the willingness to do whatever it takes to learn, whatever it takes to grow and evolve as a writer.'Willing to learn' means the willingness to do whatever it takes to learn, whatever it takes to grow and evolve as a writer. Click To Tweet
Many come to college, to writing, to any worthy endeavor, saying, “I’m willing to learn.”
Students always tell me they’re willing.
Let’s consider a few problematic translations:
- Student A says, “I’m willing to pay tuition and to show up when it’s convenient.”
- Student B says, “I’m willing to expend the minimum effort, but I expect maximum returns.”
- Student C says, “Asking me to learn new skills suggests that my current skills are defective. Are you calling me defective? This student (or the student’s parent) has the College President and the Dean of Academic Affairs on speed dial.
While students A and B will present clear challenges, the prognosis for student C is bleak.
Student C, or Writer C, will never progress.
This blog post is a warning for all the Writer Cs and potential Writer Cs out there…
Don’t become Writer C!
How to Avoid Becoming Writer C
Learning requires change, self-assessment, starting over when necessary. It requires breaking bad habits, adopting new habits, the willingness to make mistakes.Learning requires change, self-assessment, starting over when necessary. It requires breaking bad habits, adopting new habits, the willingness to make mistakes. Click To Tweet
Let’s look at the first step toward becoming a successful writer:
Be Willing to Study Your Writing Genre
Do you remember the last time you had a conversation with a reader—an avid reader?
I have a friend who reads constantly. She travels with a book in her purse, another in her car, three on her nightstand, and a fresh batch on the kitchen counter in a bulging Barnes and Noble bag. When she maxes out her book budget, she heads to the public library. When I ask her what she’s reading, her eyes light up. Our conversations take multiple turns, one tangent leading to another.
In the span of 30 minutes, we cover a dozen titles and as many authors. Her Goodreads profile lists hundreds of books. She knows the release dates of her favorite authors’ new titles. Like an Amazon algorithm, she can suggest scores of related titles for each title I mention. She knows her favorite genre: what’s hot, what’s not, who’s flying below the radar.
Too often, beginning writers dive in without a plan, without a cursory exploration of their genre. Practicing their autographs and visualizing their names on the bestseller list, they think, “I’ve got this. I have great ideas.”
They don’t know the first thing about their genre: the language and style considerations, book lengths, their reader’s expectations. They write what they feel like writing, without considering the reader.
One of the first things we discuss in a writing class is the importance of audience. Knowing your audience (and your ideal reader) demonstrates more than mere respect or a penchant for preparation; it gives you an edge, an edge you’re going to need.
This understanding will help you develop your stories, develop your characters, develop a style that serves the medium.
Instead of jumping on every current trend, you’ll understand the history and evolution of your genre. You’ll be able to recall twists and turns that worked before, to make fresh combinations of classic themes.
When you come to the page armed with knowledge, you can power through the problem areas, the dead spots, the inevitable chapters where you’ve painted yourself into a corner.
- Read more (lots more).
- Get to know the classic titles in your genre
- Get to know the leading (and emerging) authors in your genre.
- Get to know your readers.
Be Willing to Learn the Craft of Writing
How much time have you spent studying your craft?
If you’re a fiction writer, how much time have you spent studying character arcs, narrative arcs, or pacing?
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Have you read books on craft, taken classes, or pursued a degree in a writing discipline?
If you plan to write blog posts for a living or to support your author platform, how much time have you spent studying the medium? Have you studied copywriting techniques? Do you know the names of the top players in copywriting?
Who are the top bloggers in your genre? How do you know?
Learning the craft is multifaceted.
After gaining an understanding of your markets and the key players, you’ll need to address the fundamentals of writing. How would you rate your grammar and punctuation skills?
Do you know how to use commas, semicolons, colons? Do you know the difference between essential and non-essential words, phrases, and clauses? Why not?
How much time, after deciding to become a writer, have you spent on the nuts and bolts of sentence structure, of sentence combining?
Finally, have you developed a daily writing practice? Do you have a conscious process for drafting, for revision, for editing?
The tools are out there. In fact, they’re everywhere. If you have the desire, there’s never been a better time for writers. Today, you can pursue the equivalent of a university degree from the comfort of your laptop, without paying the astronomical fees of college.
You’ll find hundreds of books, hundreds of workshops, thousands of website pages offering free, valuable information.
Be Willing to Learn and Appreciate Marketing
I can guess what many of you are thinking:
“I’m a writer, not a marketer.”
“I enjoy creativity, not business.”
Every book, movie, or song that touches your life arrives via marketing channels. Marketing works behind the scenes of every aspect of your life: the newspaper sitting on your front porch, the food in your refrigerator, the car in your driveway, the running shoes on your feet.
It’s running in the background of your mind all day, informing your choices.
As a writer, marketing will shape much of your day, influencing your plot choices, your book title choices, cover art, etc. Marketing will impact your editor’s opinion about your ending.
When you begin to take writing seriously, you’ll recognize the need for graphic designers, advertising copywriters, websites, newsletters, and social media accounts.
In short, becoming a writer entails developing a brand.
Marketing yourself, your books, your blog, and your brand provides innumerable benefits:
- Readers will be able to find you on the internet.
- Readers will be able to sample your writing.
- Readers will have access to your personal story, to your books and products.
When you create a viable brand and marketing presence, others will want to talk about you, to link to you, to recommend your offerings to their own audiences.
But you have to say, “I’m here, and I’m open for business.”
Avoiding marketing gives you an out, a way to say, “My writing’s great, but I don’t have the budget or connections.”
Remove the “out.” Remove everything standing between you and your writing success.
When you shift your thinking, you’ll find that writers can become expert marketers.
Be Willing to Solicit and Accept Feedback on Your Writing
I’m sure you’re no exception
After all, you’re an artist working for free, baring your soul, probing life’s biggest questions. And you put everything you have on the line.
Investing so much in a single venture leaves you feeling exposed, vulnerable.
Over time, like most writers, you begin to view your work as an extension of yourself; this makes receiving critical feedback difficult. A bad review feels devastating.
Feedback is part of the process. You can’t avoid public scrutiny. If you publish your work, you’re going to receive criticism.
And it’s not always going to be pleasant feedback, either.
Every author, living or dead, has received bad reviews: Mark Twain, Vladimir Nabokov, Ernest Hemingway, J.D. Salinger, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, ….
Your favorite author has lived through countless bad reviews. You’ll survive them, too.
Still, feedback is important—especially for beginning authors. You’re too close to your work, and you often don’t realize it. You can’t see your mistakes or imagine a reader’s perception. Your plot makes sense to you because you know it by heart. Your brain fills the gaps where another might feel confused.
Getting feedback is one of the best ways to progress as a writer.
Solicit feedback before publishing, before you’ve spent a fortune on cover art and marketing.
Today, you have myriad options at your fingertips:
- Connect with a writer’s group.
- Find beta readers.
- Hire a qualified consultant to read and offer suggestions.
After receiving multiple reviews, you can look for common denominators. Perhaps more important, you can locate and dispense with inaccurate or mean-spirited criticism.
Take an active role in the process before publishing.
Look for patterns, and respond accordingly.
If you look back over these suggestions, you’ll find a common theme: responsibility.
Becoming a successful writer means taking complete responsibility for your progress. It means taking an active role in learning, in growing, in seeking the best resources.
Learn to recognize the roar of the ego, craving instant success and adoration.
Instead, listen for the still small voice, the voice whispering, “forward.”
Join the conversation. Leave a comment below.