As a writing coach and creator of the Write A Blog People Will Read course, here’s a phrase I hear regularly: I want to be a better writer.
Most of us want the same thing – and those of you who don’t, i.e., those who think your writing is already perfect, are probably kidding yourselves.
Earlier this year I wound up offering advice to someone I encountered someone on a writing website. Specifically, I offered to give feedback on a couple of her articles. She was delighted and sent me several short essays.
She had a nice way with words but her writing definitely has issues. (Whose doesn’t, really?) All three of the pieces read like rough drafts, even though she’d indicated they were finished works. Among the observations I made were:
- Her use of simplistic terms, e.g., telling us something was “delicious” rather than telling us what it tasted like
- A dearth of details – without them, the topic is flat and there’s no entry point for the reader
- A noticeable need to self-edit; for example, she used the word “gently” three times in a single paragraph (sometimes repetition works, but in this case it just looked careless)
I also provided a short excerpt from my WABPWR course, about how to take yourself seriously (but not too seriously) seriously as a writer. Finally, I told her that while rewriting can be a chore, it’s essential to give the world our best words.
“We all need to challenge ourselves – and edit ourselves – regularly,” I told her.
“It’s tempting to think that something is good enough as-is, or to listen blindly to friends and family – or even members of your writing group – who tell you how great your writing is.
“Too often that’s because they love you and they think everything you do is great, or that they don’t want to hurt your feelings by saying, ‘I wish you’d given us a little more background/detail/closure’.”
The writer responds
Her reply was succinct, along the lines of “Thanks for the feedback…I do a lot of writing and also read to a seniors’ group regularly.”
What I inferred (correctly or not) from her note: “Hey, I get plenty of practice and besides, the seniors to whom I read think my stuff is really good.”
Did I hurt her feelings? Maybe. But that’s the thing about editors/volunteer readers: We massage work, not egos. We offer advice to make your writing better rather than to just tell you how great you already are.
My response was something like, “Reading to a bunch of senior citizens is not the same as getting better at what you do. They are likely to give you positive feedback because you are interacting with them and sharing your memories and experiences. They are not likely to give you actionable tips on improving your work.
“If you’re happy with where you are in your writing and don’t care about improving per se, then that’s great. If you want to develop your skills, not so great.”
What’s a writer to do?
The fact is that most of us don’t get better unless we’re pushed. Writers can choose to stay right where they are, writing about topics that never get the development they deserve, or they can decide to do the hard, necessary work of self-improvement.
(Hint: It feels a lot better to have done it rather than to do it. But when you’ve worked at it for a while and notice how much better your writing has become, you’ll be elated.)
I offered this writer some tips about how to improve: reading a lot, finding a writers’ group that provides constructive feedback vs. more of that ego-stroking, hiring a writing coach, and taking a class at a local college or online (many of which are free*).
She didn’t write back. That’s okay. My advice was just that: advice. It wasn’t a mandate.
Heck, I could even be wrong – but I don’t think I am. More than 50 years of voracious reading, a 33-year (and counting) career as a professional writer and a fairly recent university degree have taught me what good writing is – and what it isn’t.
Hers had the seeds of some good storytelling. But seeds won’t flourish without care. That goes for me and for you as well. “Good enough” isn’t our best. If we allow ourselves to skate by with that, we’ll never know what we might have been capable of achieving.
*Here’s a partial list of places to get some free education. It’s an excerpt from my upcoming “Your Playbook For Tough Times, Vol. 2” – but you’re getting it for free.
edX.org. Founded by MIT and Harvard University, this education portal provides courses from some the best schools in the world (more than 90 so far). Except for professional education courses, the courses are free to audit.
Coursera (https://www.coursera.org/). Classes from 143 institutions in 28 countries are offered – and you can access lectures and non-graded material for free if you can’t afford to pay for courses.
Open Education Consortium (http://www.oeconsortium.org/). Formerly known as OpenCourseWare, this organization offers a wide array of course materials taught at more than 200 institutions worldwide, including many non-U.S. universities and colleges.
Virtual University (http://vu.org/). Originally known as KSURF Knowledge Web, this entity has been around since 1995. Classes are offered by universities, nonprofits and experts.
Other online academies. Udemy, Team Treehouse, Lynda.com and the like offer tens of thousands of courses, some of which are free and some cost between $50 and a few hundred bucks. Start with the free stuff to get an idea whether online learning is for you. (Personally, I took one “distance learning” class when earning a degree in midlife and learned that I really need to see and hear the teacher in real time.)
Write A Blog People Will Read. This one isn’t free but yep, I believe it is worth the investment. (For testimonials, see the link in the first paragraph of this post.) And if you visit this link and use the discount code NOVEMBER, you’ll get the course for 30 percent off. The coupon is good through Nov. 30. (Note: The link is through PayPal but you can also use a credit card.)