When I first started seriously pursuing writing, I struggled, like many new beginners, with the preciousness of my prose. My early stories were bad. And, I knew it. After a few years, when I finally wrote a short piece I was proud of, it seemed incredibly precious and fragile. When I told a friend that I thought this story was probably the best thing I had written so far, I meant it.
Over the next year and a half, I agonized and swore and sweated over minor revisions to this piece. I fretted over the same eight to ten sentence-level edits, afraid that if I did anything more significant, if I dared touch it too much, I would ruin the piece.
Y’all, I spent a year and a half on one story. If a writer’s journey to mastery is like building a boat, I accomplished what amounts to sweeping a small corner of the mess deck. What I didn’t accomplish over that year and a half of hand-wringing was real progress, a better understanding of craft, or a new set of skills and techniques I could apply to other projects.
So just how can a writer combat this sort of stasis? Here is what I have learned so far.
Write, write, write. Then, write some more.
Daunting advice, to be sure. Especially when you are just starting out, writing can feel like a monumental effort that yields a meager handful of good prose. It is no wonder each word at that stage seems irreplaceable. And when a stunner of a sentence happens to drop perfectly formed into your head? It feels like maybe a once-in-a-lifetime favor from the literary heavens.
In my experience, spectacular writing, even when it feels spontaneous, is generally the cumulative result of previous work, discipline, and persistence. Moments of brilliance that cede truly exquisite prose are much more likely to happen after I have drafted and stubbornly rejected less sparkly, less sexy, perhaps even underwhelming and unsatisfactory prose first.
You must write (and write regularly) to open yourself up to flashes of inspiration. You have to be there, ready and waiting, when your muse deigns to grace you with her presence.
So get writing! The more you write—both for sheer enjoyment as well as towards the goal of mastering the skill—the better at it you will become. At the same time, as you complete project after project, the individual sentences or paragraphs required to get there will feel less and less precious or unsurpassable.
If the process of drafting is daunting to the newbie author, rewriting can feel even more terrifying. I certainly used to approach major revisions with a combination of dread, loathing, and fear.
But the fact is, most of my work is truly forged during the revision process. My first drafts tend to be rather shapeless (though earnest and well-intentioned) beings. Rarely though are they actual stories.
Drafting is a bit like trying to sketch a moving object. The process of rewriting is what brings that object into focus, sharpens its lines, and makes the object recognizable and perceptible. What started as a flat scribble or a blur of visual noise slowly transforms, through progressive drafts, into what you and I can identify as an apple, a sleeping bear, or a house on a hill.
In Elements of Fiction, Walter Mosley states this perfectly, “Writing is rewriting, and rewriting will bring you home.”
During your initial passes of a first draft, look for any recurring thematic elements, evocative imagery, and surprising but telling behavior or bits of dialogue from your characters. What do they seem to reveal about the story’s message, theme, or central question? Let this information guide your rewriting and reshaping of the next draft.
Learn How to Receive and Apply Feedback
How do you tell a stunning scene from a stinker? A deliciously explosive sentence from a dud? It can be hard for a writer to make these distinctions on their own. And sometimes an author can be too close to a project to be their own best critic.
Enter writing groups, your secret weapon when it comes to feedback, information, and encouragement. A good writing group can serve as a more analytical proxy for first-time readers, offer varying interpretations of your work’s central question or symbols, identify plot holes or contradictions, and of course, motivate you to keep working.
Seen from a different perspective, that line of dialogue you couldn’t bear to delete last month might no longer be so darling. Fellow writers can also offer concrete, actionable advice, which can make it that much easier to start rewrites. While you won’t (and shouldn’t) necessarily apply every change they suggest, if each member of your critique group unanimously agrees that your precious piece is simply too full of purple prose, it is worth serious consideration.
It is significantly easier to let go of less than stellar prose when you have a team of other writers cheering you on and affirming your potential. And if you need help with my first bit of advice to write as much as possible? Use some of your time with them responding to freewriting prompts or other generative exercises.
Set it Aside, and Revisit Later
Sometimes the best thing to do, when you are stuck on a piece, is to set it aside for a bit. Start another writing project with which to play, experiment, and rediscover the sheer joy of creating new sentences. Distance yourself just long enough to be able to evaluate the piece more objectively the next time you look at it.
You might also benefit from a short break from writing. Are there other stressors in your life that are contributing to this inability to further develop your own work? Yes, you are a writer, but you are also a human being with other needs, interests, and responsibilities.
With self-care in mind, I also urge you to embrace the non-writing activities that tether you to the real world and make you grow as both a person and a writer. Go on adventures, travel if you can, care and be fully present for your family, read as many books as you can. Then, come back to your writing with more experience and wisdom, a mind that has absorbed more gorgeous, brilliant prose than it had before, and higher standards for your own work.
Keep a Scrapbook of Sorts
Finally, if you just cannot bear the thought of entire sentences or scenes disappearing with discarded drafts, create a scrapbook or “graveyard” of sorts. Paste all the cuts of your most precious prose into a separate document or file that you can revisit at a whim.
I support whatever works for you to take your original manuscript from “good enough” to great.
Now, a Prompt
Draft a short but complete story between 600 and 1200 words that involves an apple, a sleeping bear, and a house on a hill.
Then, cut at least a third of what you have written. Be ruthless and courageous. Wield your red pen like a devastating scythe.
Do the cuts change your story? How? What have they done to the central question of the piece? Does anything surprise you?
Rewrite and flesh out your story from there.
The elder daughter of Korean-Canadian and Austrian immigrants, F.E. Choe currently lives in Columbia, South Carolina. When she is not at her desk trying to craft true and beautiful sentences or piecing together her latest short story, you will find her feeding the dog scraps under the table, reading, or training her backyard flock of hens to walk backwards. Follow her on Instagram @f.e.choe.