Nobody likes it, but everybody has to do it.
That’s right. Change. I don’t know anybody who absolutely loves change, do you? Some people embrace it well, find the good things about it, but too many people despise what change stands for – disruption. And I’m counting myself among them.
When I first started writing, I didn’t want anyone telling me what to do. I knew what I was writing was good, and there was nothing anybody could say to make me see differently.
Then I took a creative writing class in college. It was the last semester of my senior year and I was only taking 12 credits. Unheard of for me. I usually killed myself with 18-21 credits. Stupid me.
Anyways, the instructor was more into creative non-ficiton and poetry, and I’m all about the fiction. She really challenged my conception of what writing was, and I didn’t like it.
I can honestly say I didn’t learn anything about how to write better from her class. I can’t tell you any single thing she said that stayed with me. Even now, I know my writing has improved through sheer volume of expression, and due to the amount of books on read on how to write well.
The thing I took away from that class was how to accept criticism. The first time we did a round-table discussion about our individual projects, I left the class crying, or at least I did when I made it back to my apartment. I couldn’t believe anyone could look at my work and find a flaw. It was unthinkable!
It took many of those discussions for my skin to harden a bit and for me to realize what most of the class was telling me was spot on. I finally acquiesced to some of their advice (not all, because I still have my own voice as a writer), and found that my writing was much better for it.
I’d been one of the top students in English in high school, and I figured I’d be the same way in college. When some of my other classmates got better grades and had better insights, I was crushed.
But by the end of the semester, their advice and criticism, no matter how much it hurt, propelled my writing to a place it had never been. And I ended up with a perfect score on my portfolio. But I would not have had nearly as good a mark if I hadn’t CHANGED!
I’m a living testament to the benefits of change as a writer. I know my work wouldn’t currently be under review by a literary agency if I hadn’t undergone a good deal of change in how I write, and the perspectives I have on writing. Even if I don’t get signed, it’s still a sign that somebody is interested.
We can’t stay stagnant, because the literary world won’t stand for it. It’s a cut-throat business and if we’re closed to the concept of change, that world will devour us and spit us out.
So I’ll tell you how I’ve changed as a writer. Just a few tidbits.
1. Actively seek advice from experts. Whether that’s in beta-reader format or in print or via verbal communication… listen to what they say. Then take that advice and use it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I’ve always come away from the experience with something valuable.
2. Don’t be afraid to fail. In school, I’d have an anxiety attack with any grade less than an ‘A.’ As a perfectionist, it was killer to know I wasn’t performing as well as I could have been. It’d eat me up inside. As a writer, I can’t do this to myself. I know there will always be someone better than me, so while I should strive to be the best that I can, I can’t go for perfection. Because it doesn’t exist. And we learn a heck of a lot more from failure than we do from success. Success makes us cocky. Failure makes us humble. Don’t hate the failures. Learn from them.
3. Edit your work to shreds. I hated it when people told me this, or when I’d read it in nearly every book on writing I’d ever read. I thought I was editing my work. I thought I did a good job. Then, a year later, I’d re-read what I’d written alongside the new stuff I’d written, and I’d almost feel ashamed at the first work. I couldn’t believe some of the shoddy workmanship. But as C.J. Cherryh says, “It’s perfect okay to write garbage, as long as you edit brilliantly.” Editing can be a chore. It takes time, sweat, and sometimes tears, but it always helps in the end. And if something is missing, put it back. There’s no rules about that. If you take something out, you can always put it back. But editing should be a bit vicious. If you don’t think so, ask someone with an editor at a publishing company. I can tell you from friends of mine… it’s brutal.
4. Never restrict your imagination. Don’t question when you write in stream-of-consciousness or when brainstorming. Second guessing yourself is chaotic and destructive. Usually the best bits come out of that random place. Never restrict your imagination. You can always edit later. But if you don’t get it down to begin with, how will you know what you’re missing?
5. Don’t lose your own voice. After all of the above thing that I’ve changed, I still won’t let myself surrender my own particular flavor of writing. But I can’t drown in it. I need to embrace my individuality, but recognize that I can’t be so caught up in how I want to do things that I risk an opportunity that will change my writing for the better.
Those are just a few things I’v learned in the last 15 years that I’ve been writing. I won’t get into the nitty-gritty technical things that I’ve changed with my writing. That list would be far longer.
So, tell me. How have you changed as a writer? How has it helped/hindered your progress? Have you helped anybody else change? Did it make them a better writer?
“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”
― Leo Tolstoy
“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”
― Albert Einstein
“The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die. As well the minds which are prevented from changing their opinions; they cease to be mind.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche