What *Not* to Do
So, today I was sitting on my bed trying to think of something to write that would encourage you all to write, or to become better writers. I know that a lot of the people following my blog are teens who are interested in writing like me, and I want so much to give you good advice and encouragement. But sometimes it just seems like an overwhelming task to think about. What could I possibly say that would help some girl out in Minnesota or wherever better develop her talents and write something really fantastic?
So, instead of making a list of things you should do to be a better writer, I decided to make a list of things not to do. (See what I did there? Don’t you just love it when I hit you with random surprises like that?) So many young people think that there is a set list of rules that good writers follow, when the truth is, a lot of those rules should just be tossed into the metaphorical trashcan.
- Don’t think that you have to write every day.
Why? Because you don’t. At least I don’t. I seriously don’t think I have enough fingers to count the number of teens who have told me that this is what they do in order to improve their writing skills. If I only write a thousand words a day, I’ll be good enough to be published. Or a chapter a day. Whatever your magic number is.
The truth is, sometimes all that writing isn’t helpful at all. In fact, sometimes it’s harmful. From my own personal experience, I have found that writing every single day wears me out and bores me. It’s like reading the same book over and over and over again on a daily basis. After a while, you start to get sick of the characters. And bored with the scenery. And that leads you to feel uncreative and strained when you sit down to write, which obviously does not produce better work!
My solution? Take breaks. Don’t feel like you have to pump out a set number of words every day. Writing is something that should be constant in your life, but it shouldn’t be mandatory. If you don’t feel like writing one day, then don’t write. When the words aren’t coming smoothly, I’ll sometimes just exit out of Word and edit photos instead. Or answer emails. Or do a million other things that don’t involve thinking about my story. Then, once I’ve had a breather, I’ll go to bed and give writing a try the next day. And you know what? It usually goes a lot better after that.
2. Don’t feel like you have to like every great classic ever written.
If you don’t like it and no one’s forcing you to read it (i.e. mom, teacher, or jail warden) then don’t read it. A lot of people have this mentality that “If it’s a classic then it has to be good”, but I don’t really buy into that. Granted, most of the “classics” are probably going to have something rewarding in them, but not every single one is necessarily going to help you become a better writer. Just because scholars revere Moby Dick doesn’t mean that you should write like Herman Melville.
Read books that you like, and don’t read books you don’t like. I know this sounds painfully obvious, but I think a lot of people trick themselves into liking books that really mean nothing to them. Take “To Kill a Mockingbird” for instance. Before I ever picked up a copy of that book, I told myself I was going to like it. My cousin liked it, the lady at church liked it, and the guy at the library liked it. It was a “classic”, and it had been made into a movie starring Gregory Peck. And anything that was important to Gregory Peck should totally be important to me, right?
To get to the point of the story, I hated “To Kill a Mockingbird”. I honestly tried to talk myself into admiring the innocent naiveté and realistic dialogue, but in the end it bored me to death. The same thing happened when I read “Les Miserables” for school several years later. I hated it! It was supposed to be this great work of literature, but all it did was bore me!
Once I realized I didn’t have to love every work of classic literature, my world just opened up. I started re-reading the books I did love, over and over again. Those were the words that stuck in my head and the styles of writing that influenced my own. I knew that I didn’t have to be just like Harper Lee or Victor Hugo to write a book someone would want to read. Others may love that type of writing, but it just didn’t work for me. Figuring out that I didn’t have to love every “great” book was very freeing to me as a writer.
3. Don’t assume that yours is the only opinion that matters.
If your mom didn’t like something about your story, listen to her. If your best friend admitted that she had a little trouble figuring out what the main character was thinking at times, then listen to that, too.
It’s easy at times to get offended when people find fault with your story. I know, it happens to me to. I often compare it to some random person walking up to you at a mall, pointing at your baby and saying, “Excuse me ma’am, but your child’s head is too big,” and then walking away. “Well, excuse me!” you want to shout back (or at least I would). “But I’d like to see you have a baby better than mine!” I mean, obviously, there’s no way they ever could.
You’ve got to let that pride go, though. Not everyone’s going to love everything about your story. When I first wrote Interrupted, I gave a copy to my mom, my sister, and my agent. And they all came back with the same comment. “Allie’s too mean. She’s difficult to like sometimes. Try making her a little nicer.” At first I wanted to bite back. Of course she was mean! Her mother just died, for Pete’s sake! Give her a break! But then I realized that they were right. Allie did respond to some situations with too much harshness. She wasn’t just mean, she was over-the-top. So I went and I fixed the story. Softened her up a little bit. And it worked. By the time they read the second draft, all three of my critics admitted to liking Allie much more.
It’s important to listen to those who read your writing. If what they get out of your masterpiece is that the stepbrother is too creepy or the main character isn’t grateful enough, then that’s something you should consider fixing. If you can just listen to helpful criticism and respond sensibly, I think you will find yourself a much better writer.
So that’s what not to do to in order to become a better writer. It was a complicated concept for a post, now that I think about it, but I sure had a lot of fun writing it! If anyone has any questions, I now consider myself, like, a total expert. Well, maybe not, but I will do my best to answer them. 😉
By the way, on another note: I’m trying to increase the popularity of my blog and figure out the best platforms for reaching people. I’d really love to see this blog grow into a place where teens (and grown-ups!) from all over the country can have discussions about writing and life and random goodness. 🙂
Anyway, if you’re a faithful reader and don’t know me personally, I would really appreciate it if you could please comment and just let me know your name and how you found out about me or my book (a blog, youtube, Zondervan, etc.). Don’t be shy! I’d love to “meet” you!