by Dale E. Lehman
Are you satisfied with your writing? If so, something’s wrong. After all, who writes to perfection? If our writing is to grow, we must constantly hone our craft. In what follows, I’ll share four secrets essential to improvement; key practices I’ve learned through decades of experience.
Let’s begin with that tired cliché about writing being a solitary business. If you’re like me, you spent years writing privately and sharing with nobody. You liked what you wrote. Sometimes you amazed yourself with a character or a turn of phrase or even an entire story. Sure. It’s easy to amaze ourselves. Amazing others? Not so much.
So lesson number one, learned through years of drowning in red ink spilled by my wife’s editorial pen, is this: you can’t gauge the quality of your writing until you let others see it. You just can’t. Nor can you much improve without feedback. But be careful. You want honest feedback. A friend or family member might give an honest critique, but often those closest to you will fear offending you. If so, seek input elsewhere, such as through a writing group.
Speaking of offense, start growing a thick skin right now. However much criticism hurts, you must give it a fair hearing. Treat all comments as fodder for growth, but remember that not all comments are equal, because everyone brings a unique perspective to your work. If Jane hates your story, is it your story, or is it Jane? Listen to groups of people rather than one person. One reviewer said my second novel True Death was confusing, with too many point of view changes and flashbacks. I took that comment seriously, but asked a few others about it. Nobody else said it was a problem. I surmise the guy who complained had the problem, not my story structure. Nevertheless, I’m taking a bit more care with point-of-view changes these days.
Lesson number two: you don’t know everything about writing. Educate yourself. Finding study material and advice is far easier today than when I started out. We have this Internet thing now, featuring sites like Indies Unlimited (how about that?). Still, don’t overlook traditional venues, such as books and periodicals aimed at writers. When I became serious about learning the craft, I turned to Writer’s Digest. It helped me more than I can say. However, beware of misinformation, particularly when using online resources. Now that anyone can post advice on anything, everyone does, even though not everyone knows whereof they speak. Compare, contrast, and cogitate on what you read.
Armed with tons of books and articles on writing, are you ready to roll? Nope. Lesson number three: read. Read great writers and good writers, mediocre writers and bad writers. Absorb it. Ask yourself what makes this work great and that one a flop. Don’t only read the kind of writing you do. Read fiction and nonfiction and get outside of your own genre from time to time. I’d say read poetry, too, but that would be hypocrisy, as I don’t. It always trips me up. But what do I know? Read poetry, too.
Some writers say they don’t read too much because they’re afraid of turning copycat. This is a real concern. I’ve fallen into that trap myself from time to time. But the way to avoid it is not to avoid reading; it’s to be aware of the danger so you can catch yourself should you begin to skid down that slope. You can’t become much of a writer unless you’re a reader, too.
Finally the fourth lesson, and it’s a hard one: bring a critical eye to your own writing. This is where you apply everything you’ve learned from feedback, education, and reading. Do not assume that the greatness you see in your writing will be evident to anyone else. Deliberately look for weaknesses in your work, such as telling rather than showing, overused words, poor transitions, structural failures, indistinguishable characters, exposition disguised as dialogue, and more. Ask yourself how a paragraph or scene or story could be improved. Ray Bradbury said that he and his wife worked each story over and over until they couldn’t change one more word. Only then would he be ready to submit. We should all be so picky.
Honing your craft is neither quick nor easy, but by getting outside of yourself as described above and bringing the lessons learned back home to your writing space, you can make a start. My last morsel of advice is this: never stop. I stopped for ten years, then spent five years clawing my way back to where I left off. Keep learning. Keep practicing. Keep writing.
Dale E. Lehman has published two novels in his Howard County mystery series and has a third on the way. A software developer and amateur astronomer, his writing has also appeared in Sky & Telescope. You can learn more about Dale on his website and his Author Central page.