Writers need to read, but how do we find time to read? This is a constant struggle. For me, it often comes down to deciding between watching TV and reading. Sometimes TV wins and other times reading wins. Often this hinges on how good the book is and how badly I want to watch a particular show.
To find time to read, I strive to keep my TV watch list short and my book list interesting. I also give myself the freedom to stop reading a book that I don’t like or that bores me. If I didn’t do that, the TV would always win.
The point is, we all have some degree of discretionary time, be it TV, movies, going out, leisure activities, or even a nap. We can choose to do those or to read. For me, I’ve cut back on TV to read more—and I’m glad I did.
However, some writers, including me, feel that watching TV and especially movies help them learn about plot, character development, and good (or bad) storytelling.
The bottom line is that if we’re serious about writing and want to become a better writer, we need to also read. We need to find time to read. When we do so, we will better inform our writing.
The list of advice for writers is long, seemingly more than is humanly possible to accomplish
Advice for writers is never is a short supply. Just when we regularly carve out time to write, another requirement piles on our plate and then a third and a fourth. Before long we grow overwhelmed and want to give up.
I struggled for years to find time to write on a regular basis. Just as that skill began to solidify, someone dropped a bomb on my writing world. That missive said, “You need to read as much as you write.”
Now I have to take not enough time and cut it in two.
The next bomb, the most devastating of them all, demanded I build a platform. More requirements soon piled high on my list of impossible tasks.
Here are the main ones:
As a writer, we need to write every day. Or at least we must write on a regular basis. For some people that means only a few minutes a day or maybe a couple of times a week.
If we claim the title of the writer and aren’t writing, something’s wrong. Writing is the first requirement of being a writer.
To write well, we need to be informed. This means we must-read. We need to read in our genre and outside our genre. Through reading, we see what works and what doesn’t. We discover the techniques we like and the ones we don’t.
By reading widely, we cultivate our voice, develop our style, and feed our muse. Reading fuels our writing. But while the goal of spending as much time reading as writing makes for a compelling quip, it makes for better rhetoric than reality.
Still, as writers, we must-read.
Build a Platform
I’ll never forget the day an agent turned me down, not because of my writing or my ideas or my ability, but over the lack of a platform. Ouch. That hurt.
It seems writing and reading was not enough. I needed to build and then grow a platform, too. How much time should I invest in platform building? One piece of advice was as much time as I spend writing.
If you’re good at math, you’re seeing the rub: 50 percent of my time writing, 50 percent reading, and 50 percent on the platform. If that seems impossible, it is.
The next question is when should we start building our platform. Unfortunately, if we’re asking that question, we’re already behind.
While writing is a good practice to help us improve, we improve faster if we study about writing. That doesn’t mean going back to college or enrolling in an MFA program, but it does mean taking intentional steps to improve. For me, that includes reading books and magazines about writing, listening to podcasts, and taking relevant online classes. These things take time.
Next we must network. We need to know other writers. We need to meet agents, editors, and publishers. It’s good to have these contacts before we need them.
Last is marketing. While this mostly takes place as our book nears publication, we must also market ourselves beforehand. We need a professional writer website, an active presence on some social media platforms, and the accouterments of being a writer, such as a headshot, business cards, an author bio, and so forth.
[bctt tweet=”Writers need to juggle an impossible set of expectations.” username=”Peter_DeHaan”]
Does all this seem overwhelming? It is? Does it seem impossible to give everything its due? It is.
Somehow as writers, we need to juggle these expectations. We need to prioritize and squeeze things in and make sacrifices.
A few weeks ago, I ended the day with the irrational assessment that I can actually balance all these things. My satisfaction lasted for all but one day. I usually reach this place a couple of times a year, which means for the other 364 days of the year, I’m pulling my hair, screaming, and crying that I just can’t do it.
And you know what. I can’t, no one can.
But as we try to negotiate this list of impossible requirements, there’s one thing we must never forget.
Writers serious about their craft should take concrete action to advance their career
In a recent interview, an author was asked, “What’s the best thing you’ve ever done to improve as a writer?” What a great question; I so appreciated the author’s answer. Yet my mind immediately considered how I would respond.
Within seconds I knew my answer. I smiled, thinking back to how that one decision changed me as a writer, propelling me forward.
Just as quickly another idea popped into my mind. It was a good answer, too. Which one was more important? I wasn’t sure. How could I pick just one?
But then a third significant thought surfaced, followed by a fourth, and then a fifth. They were all pivotal. Without any one of them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Each was essential.
So I have not one answer to share, but five. My five tips to becoming a better writer are:
1) Call Yourself a Writer: It sounds corny, and it’s hard to do. But my first tip is to say, “I am a writer.” When I first did this, my lips moved, but no sound came out. After three tries my claim was just a whisper—and that was in private. It took a couple of years before I could comfortably tell someone, “I am a writer.”
I occasionally teach a “Get Started” workshop at a writer’s conference. I often have my class say this. Their first try is cautious, timid. But by their third attempt, they are confident and grinning. We need to call ourselves writers in order for us to believe it.
[bctt tweet=” Block out significant time each day to write.” username=”Peter_DeHaan”]
2) Commit to Writing: Once I called myself a writer I needed to commit to it. I had to set time aside to write, not just when I was motivated or had an idea, but even when I didn’t feel like it. Once a week on Saturdays, it became three times a week in the evenings, which moved to five times a week in the mornings. Now I block out significant time each day to write. It’s my schedule, like going to work—but in a way it is. Writing is my job.
3) Attend Events: Next is the need to connect with other writers. Join a writing or critique group. Attend conferences. Mentor someone else and seek a mentor. Maybe you need to mentor each other. At my first conference, I was the proverbial deer in the headlights. It was terrifying, and my naiveté cost me a bit of embarrassment, but the conference was so worth it. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.
4) Learn about Writing: With technology, we have many options to learn about writing: blogs, podcasts, and webinars are usually free. Books and magazines don’t cost too much. I’ve also taken some online classes—not university types, but practical, applicable writing instruction. I started with reading blogs and the rest of these followed.
5) Seek Help: As I began to make some money with my writing—which took years, by the way—I had funds to invest in my work. I began to hire experts to help improve. Aside from an editor, for my first effort, I paid a retired writing professor to help me improve my short story writing (as a prelude to novels). His input was invaluable. Since then I’ve hired developmental editors and a grammar guru. With them, I slash my learning curve and gain valuable information fast.
These are the five steps I took to become a better writer. I can’t say which one was more significant, but I will admit that without taking that first step, I would have never gotten to the next four.
Wordsmiths need both knowledge and a growing word count to achieve writing success
I’ve run into writers who work in a vacuum. Committed to writing all they do is write, but they don’t study the craft. They don’t read books or magazines about writing; they don’t take classes, attend workshops, or go to conferences; they don’t participate in writing groups, have a critique partner, or use beta readers. They don’t follow blogs, listen to podcasts, or watch webinars. I suspect these folks are more prevalent than I realize—because they write in secret, and I run into them by accident. (By the way, they aren’t reading this post, either—unless you email it to them.)
The opposite extreme are those who read extensively about writing and often quote their favorite gurus; they attend every writing-related event they can afford to squeeze in, often traveling far to do so; they join online writing groups, are active in writing discussion boards, and confidently give their opinion on every piece of writing they encounter. There’s one problem: they don’t write. They’ve put writing on hold until they learn more. They have been talking about writing a book for years, but they’re not quite ready to start. They feel they need to figure out one more thing first.
[bctt tweet=”Writing without knowledge is futility, while studying without application wastes time.” username=”Peter_DeHaan”]
The balance between these two extremes is to pair writing with learning. Yes, we need to put in the time and write, but we need to do so in an informed way. Writing without knowledge is futility while studying without application wastes time.
To pursue this balance I start by writing every day. Then to inform my writing I read writing magazines, follow a few blogs, listen to (too many) podcasts, participate in critique groups, attend two writing conferences each year, and read books (though I have bought more writing books than I have read).
As a longtime nonfiction writer, in the past few years, I’ve delved into fiction. I started with short stories, recently completed a novella, and will start a novel in November. I’ve also done a lot of studying to prepare me to write good fiction, yet I fear that recently my education has outpaced my experience. I currently have enough writing theory stuffed into my brain to paralyze me. Instead of thinking about writing a compelling story, my preoccupation with systems and formats and conventions and expectations has bogged me down.
My solution is to sit down and write more fiction. This will restore the balance. I can’t wait.
To progress as an author requires hard work and diligent focus
I’ve been writing my entire adult life. In the early years, my primary goal was to write faster, but for the past decade or so, my focus was on writing better. As I attended to learning the craft of writing, my writing has steadily improved. Along the way, I have also begun to write with increased speed.
Here are my ten tips to improve as a writer:
Write: The most essential step is to just sit down and write. Some aspiring writers put off this tip waiting until they are ready. Guess what? I doubt anyone is ever ready. Not really. So start writing. Do it on a regular basis. Take it seriously. Make your writing time sacred. When I did this, my writing blossomed.
Study Writing: We must study the art and craft of writing. I read about writing, listen to writing podcasts, learn from the masters, and go to lectures. If you’re in school, take writing classes.
Read Broadly: Reading informs our writing. We see what other authors do. We learn what we like and don’t like. We need to read in our genre and outside it. Read for fun, and read to learn.
Watch Movies: Cinema informs my writing almost as much as reading. Movies reveal insight about plot development, effective openings, memorable endings, character development, effective dialogue, and more.
Attend Conferences: Writers often complain about the cost of conferences: registration, airfare, hotel, and incidentals. I get that but tap into local conferences to eliminate the travel and lodging expenses. Some events are even free.
Participate in Groups: Join a critique group, support group, accountability group, or some collection of other writers who have a shared goal of improvement.
Pay for Help: If you need help, don’t be afraid to pay for it. This may be for edits, critiques, story development, or any other area where you struggle. What if you can’t afford it? Find an away. Be creative. Swap services. One enterprising writer “paid” her editor by cleaning her house.
Give to Others: Share what you can with other writers. Give it to the industry and the industry will give to you.
Work in the Industry: If you have the opportunity to find employment that intersects with writing or publishing in any way, grab it. This may be part-time or full time; it may pay well or little (and some gigs are a volunteer). But the key is to put yourself in a position to interact with other writers. You will learn from your environment; by osmosis, you will grow.
Write: I end my list with the same tip I began with. That’s because too many aspiring writers become so busy, so fixated, on tips 2 through 9 that they skip the writing part. They don’t have time, become too distracted, or put it off. If you’re serious about writing, never stop. Writing is the most critical step to being a writer.
Follow these tips to become a better writer. Pick one and implement it. Then add another. Keep going until you are doing all ten. You will be amazed at the results.
[bctt tweet=”Writing is the most critical step to being a writer. Duh!” username=”Peter_DeHaan”]
Peter DeHaan is an author, publisher, and editor. He gives back to the writing community through this blog. Get insider info from his monthly newsletter.Sign up today!