And no, I don’t feel guilty about bragging, because it took (not telling how many) years for me to be able to say that. Winning an award from Writer’s Digest is a dream come true, and I plan to milk it for all it’s worth. When you are trying to make writing your career, you should take advantage of anything that makes you stand out from your competition. So I guess, that’s my first piece of advice. Now here is some other things I’ve learned through the process.
Writing is both an art and a craft. As a craft, there are rules to good writing style. The art sometimes calls you to break the rules, but know the rules before you break them. That’s the difference between a professional and an amateur.
Learning how to write well will ruin reading for you (at least temporarily), and frustrate the snot out of you when you see bestselling authors breaking the rules. Learn anyway. An amateur breaks the rules because they don’t know them. Professionals know the rules. So when they break them, they have determined they are gaining something more than they lose by breaking the rules.
Chances are, you want to write because you fell in love with your own writing. At some point, you will reread it and realize (if you haven’t already) it is not nearly as brilliant or original as you first thought. That’s okay. We all have to go through that before we uncover our true brilliance and originality.
Find a critique group. My upcoming novel would never have been publishable without it. The first draft was riddled with signs of amateurism: weak verbs, unrealistic action and dialog, unnecessary words, a prologue, too much exposition, head hopping, too many exclamation marks, and telling when I should have been showing. The folks in my critique group not only pointed out these errors (some of which I didn’t even realize were errors). They also demonstrated ways to fix them.
Your writer’s voice = your passion + good writing style. No one can teach you passion, but they can teach writing style. I had plenty of passion, but my writing style was not where it needed to be. I read Writer’s Digest magazine. I took fiction writing courses to learn the craft. So at first, don’t worry about your writer’s voice. Learn how to use the rules of style, a.k.a., the craft first. When you combine that with your passion, then you will find your voice.
Even the greatest writers were amateurs once. It’s hard for me to imagine Flannery O’Connor or Ron Rash were ever amateur writers. But we all start out with more desire and passion than skill. The best example I ever saw was from my first critique group. The others in the group were more advanced than I was in using the elements of style, and their work was much more enjoyable to read than mine as a result. One man in particular, Ricky, gave great examples of “show don’t tell,” realistic action and dialog, and I fell in love with the characters, which is always what you want from your readers. More than anyone in the group, he had a style I wanted to emulate.
We always emailed our chapters ahead of the critique session. One week, he accidentally sent a chapter from his first draft. Let’s just say it was as amateurish as anything I brought to the group. The dialog and action were not realistic. I couldn’t connect with the characters at all. To see how much he had improved since then was the greatest encouragement I could have received. If he was this bad at the beginning, and he could improve like this, so could I. The reason he got so much better was he learned the elements of style and how to apply them. That made all the difference for him, and for me as well.
Never stop learning. That’s the most important rule for great writing and a great life. I don’t think I’m a great writer. I think I am a good writer, but I can become a great writer as long as I keep learning and practicing. And I hope I always think that way.
So now, my writer compatriots, you beginners have some things to learn, just like I did, just like Ricky did, and just like your favorite author did. So lose those rookie mistakes. I don’t care how much you love them. As Hemingway said, sometimes you have to kill your darlings. Here’s another article for further help. Top Signs of Amateur Writing.
Speaking of Hemingway, here’s a bonus lesson from him. As he was getting started as a writer, he traveled with a foot locker. Inside that foot locker was his entire collection of unsubmitted manuscripts. On one flight, the foot locker got lost. How do you think he felt? If I lost all my manuscripts, I would be devastated. But later he said it was the best thing that could have happened to him. With all of his amateur writing gone, he became a professional from that moment on.
If you want to reach your potential as a writer, keep learning the craft, keep practicing, submit your manuscripts to critiques from people you trust, revise, and repeat. One day, you might write that heartbreaking work of staggering genius you know is inside you.