The blogosphere is full of advice for writers about self-promotion, building online relationships, self-branding, creating a platform, and more. But the truth is, if you ask most agents and editors what they’d most like to see from a new writer, the answer is almost always, “Great writing.” With that in mind, here are five ways to pursue excellence.
1. Forget the Blogosphere
Becoming an excellent writer is an extremely difficult task, and one of the main things it requires is an un-distracted mind. Make conscious choices about where you spend your time online, making sure the sites you visit (like this one) offer genuinely helpful advice.
2. Cultivate Your Own Imagination
Most people think “imagination” means invention, making things up, but that’s not the case. Our mental faculty of imagination—everyone has one—is the ability to make mental pictures of things that are not present to our senses. Unfortunately, many people’s imaginations have grown dull and sluggish, due to years of inactivity. We live in a culture that bombards us with ready-made images—television, films, the Internet—so our imaginations don’t have to work to make pictures. But if you want to make pictures in your readers’ minds, you have to first make them in
your own: you have to become extremely skilled at making them in your own. So (unless you are writing for the screen), limit your exposure to ready-made images. Instead, read and re-read your favorite books, letting the words make pictures in your mind. Look at the kind of language the author uses to make that happen. Practice making pictures in your own mind and putting them into words.
3. Know What You’re Doing
A writer I know once attended a talk by Toni Morrison in an auditorium full of 800 people. Afterwards, during the question and answer period, a woman stepped up to one of the microphones in the room and began to talk about her novel-in-progress. Ms. Morrison interrupted her. “You don’t know what you’re doing!” she said. “You’ve got to know what you’re doing.”
Knowing what you’re doing means having trained your writer’s skills to the point that you can use them without thinking. The skill of coming up with ideas and material; the skill of telling a story; the skill of knowing your genre inside-and-out; the skill of establishing a natural relationship with readers; the skills of being able to come up with words and sentences that grab your readers’ attention and won’t let go—these are only a few of the many skills a writer who seeks excellence needs.
Don’t listen to people who give you mushy advice like “All you all you need is to discover your creativity.” Learning to write well is like learning any other craft or skill: it’s extremely hard and demanding work.
4. Know That You Can Learn the Skills You Need
If you feel unsure about your writing or yourself as a writer, don’t look for a therapist or affirmation from your writing group (they’re your friends; of course they’ll say you can write). Your lack of confidence comes from your lack of skills. Give yourself time to learn those skills, and you will acquire confidence because you’lll know what you’re doing.
5. Learn Through Deliberate Practice
This kind of practice—focused, intentional, and designed to be repeated, over and over and over —is what top musicians and athletes and other professionals use to become the best at
what they do. Although we may never attain their level of expertise, we can definitely learn our skills the same way they do.
Start by making a list of the things you do well as a writer and another list of the skills you still need to learn. (One way to do this is by studying the work of your favorite writer: what can she or he do on the page that you can’t?) Now think about how you can learn the skills you don’t have, one at a time. Do you, for instance, need to learn how to write a scene? Then find a good book on scene-writing and spend time every day—or as often as you can—writing scenes: not scenes for your work-in-progress; practice scenes. Let them sit; read them over; compare them with scenes from your favorite writer’s work. Are they as good? If not, what’s missing? Write more practice scenes trying to imitate those from your favorite writer. What are you learning? When you can write a skilled scene without thinking about how to do it, then go back to your work-in-progress and use your new skill.
Recommended reading: Geoff Colvin, Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates Great Performers from Everyone Else
Barbara Baig is a writer and veteran writing teacher who is dedicated to showing aspiring writers how they can improve using the tool of “deliberate practice.” Her two books from Writer’s Digest are full of practices designed to set you on the path to excellence: How To Be a Writer: Building Your Creative Skills Through Practice and Play and the just-released Spellbinding Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Achieving Excellence and Captivating Readers. She teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University and at WhereWritersLearn.com, where she offers free writing practice lessons.