But the question keeps coming, and I understand why: Our culture understands logical processes better than creative ones, so it’s easy to wish for a logical template to make us better in our creative pursuits. In an attempt to straddle the divide, there’s one bit of advice I find myself giving out pretty regularly when people ask some version of that question – “How can I develop my writing skills?” “What should I do if I want to be a writer?” – and I like it because it applies equally to everyone, no matter what level you’re writing on currently.
There are four things you should always be doing if you want to be a better writer.
You should always be reading something you want to, because it gives you the opportunity to analyze something you enjoy. To be a good writer, you must be a good reader, and the best place to start is by reading something that genuinely interests you, that is your “cup of tea.” You can’t just read it, though, the way a casual reader enjoys a novel and then sets it aside. As a developing writer, you should be devoting at least a little of your time to analyzing what you’re reading. If you like the book, figure out what makes the writing good/effective/strong. How did the author achieve whatever it is you admire? Perhaps it’s word choice, or structure, or detail, or pacing, or literary device, or any of a hundred other things. Figure out what tools that author used, and even if you never use them in the same way yourself, you’ll likely find yourself using them in your own way.
You should always be reading something you have to, because if you’re an author, reading is also research. You probably have a list somewhere (even just in your head) of things you know deep down it would make sense for you to read. Maybe they’re standout books in the genre you want to join. (Want to be a young adult author? Have you read the latest Printz winners?) Perhaps it’s a book you think might be a little challenging for you, and you know you’re going to have to work a little to keep up with it. (Want to write contemporary fiction? How about checking out Virginia Woolf?) If you’re at certain points of your life, someone else may be telling you what to read, anyway: your English teacher, your Lit. professor, your book club. Those assignments count here. Reading something you wouldn’t have chosen yourself gives you the opportunity to be more objective in your analysis of good (or bad) writing. Even if you don’t like it, or it’s no good, that’s a chance to consider why it isn’t working, and hopefully learn a lesson about things you should avoid in your own writing. Exploring the craft (or lack thereof) of a broad spectrum of writers will only do you good.
You should always be writing something you want to, because that’s the great thing about being creative – you get to enjoy your job! Hopefully this is the easiest one because if you truly are a writer, you should be disoriented and even a little cranky if you get to the end of a day without having spent at least a little time writing. Are you working on your next novel or just having some fun playing with a scene or short story? Doesn’t matter – make time to enjoy writing! At various times and for various reasons, pleasure writing can slip through the cracks: You’re in final exams. It’s the holidays. You’re on a promotional cycle and you’re spending all your time shuttling around to libraries and bookstores, concentrating on your book that just came out. Carve out half an hour to write anyway, even if it’s just some scribbling in a notebook while you’re having your cereal, or instead of watching TV before you fall asleep. Writing is for authors what training is for athletes: it keeps us healthy and sane in so many ways, not just the most obvious, productive way.
Last, you should always be writing something you have to, because c’mon, you have to treat this like a job. Again, your English teacher, Comp. professor, or writing group may take care of this for you, but if not, give yourself writing assignments – write a eulogy, a sonnet, a book review, a scene for a sitcom. (No, blog posts do not count because it’s too easy to just dash them off without any rigor – the point here is to put your craft to work.) Being an author is work, and writing a book is work, and while there will be some delicious parts of your book you wish you could write over and over (The great battle! The first kiss!), there will be other parts that you will have to chain yourself to your desk to complete. (The carefully worded conversation that sets up something that will pay off in fifty pages. The boat ride you have to write so your character can get somewhere, but which you struggle with because very little happens.) So, it’s good to develop the habits and strategies to write effectively when for whatever reason you’re not at your most passionate, and when it’s going to take an act of discipline to get you in front of your keyboard.
Being an author – like being any kind of artist – is an incredible mix of looking outward and inward. You must be aware of the world around you, the writing around you, and the conventions within writing operates. And you must be your own master, working to stake your own claim as a writer, developing your own voice, and refining your own craft.
Which is why I suggest these four things: always be reading something you want to, and something you have to. And always be writing something you want to, and something you have to. Take a 360-degree approach to your craft, and that’s bound to expand you, no matter where you are as a writer.
About The Author
Nathan Kotecki lives in North Carolina. He is also the author of The Suburban Strange and the forthcoming Pull Down the Night.
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About the Book
This year at Suburban High School is just as troubling as the last. A curly-haired girl ghost is disrupting lives with dreaded “kiss notes,” and students are inexplicably sinking into depression. Bruno—the new kid on the block—finds himself at the center of the mystery when he discovers his natural map-reading abilities are actually supernatural. When the reluctant hero isn’t engaged in cosmic battles against evil, Bruno is swooning over the mesmerizing Celia (from The Suburban Strange) and navigating the goth sensibilities and musical obsessions of the Rosary, her über-chic clique. A hypnotic coming-of-age novel that chills and thrills.
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