Tim says: This article is part of our Myths of Writing series. Ally Fallon is the author of Packing Light: Thoughts on Living Life with Less Baggage and The Chase: Waking Up the Power and Beauty of Your Creative Life. She’s also the creator of Author Launch, the program to help authors write and launch their first book.
One of the great misconceptions of writing is that the best writers in the world are the most highly trained. That they have the best grammar, have gone to the best schools, have a laser eye for misspelled words or out-of-place punctuation. In my experience working with hundreds of writers over the past 10 years, this is simply not the case.
In fact, I could list to you several New York Times bestselling authors who misspell words, misplace punctuation, have less-than-perfect grammar and sometimes don’t even have a college degree.
There is only one thing you really need to do to be a writer—and that is to write.
But trust me, that is hard enough.
That is the real work.
I think oftentimes in life we come up with all kinds of excuses about why we are not qualified to do the thing we most desire to do, simply because we’re terrified of the actual work it will take to get there. The excuses are this really lovely distraction from doing what we know we need to do. As long as we allow ourselves to believe we “don’t have enough time” or “don’t have the right credentials” we’re off the hook.
But the best writers I’ve met in my life—and I’ve met a few dozen of them—put aside their excuses and just get their butts in the chair—again and again and again. Their first drafts suck, but they are committed to making them better.
And sure, you could go back to school and get a degree in writing or creative non-fiction. You could even get a Masters in Fine Arts. The skills you would learn in school may very well serve you. But more than likely, getting the degree would just be a way to force yourself to do what it takes to produce great writing anyway—which is to write.
All the freaking time.
If you really want to become a better writer, here are some things I think you should do—none of which involved going back to school to get more training.
Get in a writing group.
Don’t be daunted by this. It’s really easier than it sounds.
Find a group of 3-8 people who will meet with you on a regular basis and bring a piece of writing to share. The first week, meet to introduce yourselves and talk about what you hope to get out of the group and how you want to grow as a writer. Then, the first person will pass around his or her piece of writing.
That week, each person in the group will read the first piece of writing and offer feedback. I usually recommend each person offering three pieces of positive feedback, and three suggestions for how the writer could take his or her work to the next level. At the end, pass your feedback back to the author, so he or she can take all of your good suggestions home.
Then, the next writer up passes around his or her essay.
Continue to do that until everyone in the group has had an opportunity to share. Both getting and giving feedback will help you to grow as an author.
If it doesn’t feel feasible for you to get in a writing group that meets on a regular basis, consider finding one that could meet digitally. It’s a plan B kind of option—it’s not as helpful as getting and giving feedback in person. But it will still help.
Edit your own work.
One of the most often pieces of advice I give to writers is: write now, edit later. Put simply, this means you can’t edit your work while you’re writing it. Or, you can, but the two halves of your brain will fight with each other and you’ll more than likely get stuck.
Still, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t edit your own work.
When you’re in editing mode—not writing mode—pick up something you wrote a few days or weeks ago and edit yourself. Use the same strategy you would use if you were giving feedback to someone in your writing group. Three pieces of positive feedback, and three things you think you could do to push your writing to the next level. Be specific.
Then, go through and make the changes you recommended for yourself. Self-editing is an incredibly important skill and will grow you quickly as a writer!
Read all the freaking time.
Read more than you think you should read. Get a book budget. Or a library card. Read a book a week—or two books a week. If you’re bored by a book, or if it doesn’t grab you, put it down. Life is too short to waste with reading bad books.
When you love a book, ask yourself why you love it so much. Is is the topic? The way the book is written? The author’s voice or tone? The story? What does the author do to draw you in? How do they keep you up at night turning one more page?
All of this will give you incredible insight for your own writing.
The best writers I know are, more often than not, also the best readers.
Get over your stupid excuses.
I mentioned this above, but enough with the excuses already. We all have them—about how we don’t have enough time or enough money or how so-and-so in our life would never let us write about them. We tell ourselves a publisher would never go for it, or that we don’t have access to an agent, or that other people are writing what we want to write—and they’re doing it better.
What’s the point? We ask ourselves. We give up before we even get started.
All of these excuses are just distractions from doing the work. You do have time. You don’t need an agent right now. Or a publisher. All you need to do is get your butt in the chair and write. Get the time on the calendar. Come hell or high water, honor that time. Just do it.
People often ask me if I write everyday and I tell them yes. They usually press further. Really? They say. Everyday? The truth is I haven’t always written every day in my life, but when I am producing my best content, yes, I’m writing every day. Every single day. I think of it like this: if more than half of what I write is total BS, the more I write, the greater opportunity I have to produce something that is actually worth publishing.
So yes, the commitment I have to myself is that for the first hour of every morning—every morning—I put my butt in the chair and I write. I write stuff I’ll never publish. I write stuff that is on my mind. I write what I dreamed about. I write about a conversation I had with someone. I write my rants, my rambling thoughts, my frustrations and fears.
I write write write until I can’t write anymore.
Truly, that’s all it really takes to be a writer.
September 10, 2016