How I became a better writer.

I started writing poetry in the fourth grade. It was a school-sanctioned requirement that all fourth graders had to write a bunch of poetry, and the best poems would be published in a book. That's the story of how I became a published poet.

Just kidding. Sort of.

I hated the assignments. I didn't care what a limerick was or that I couldn't find a word to rhyme with "orange". I haven't written poetry since, but what the assignment did do was open up the door of creative writing. I no longer had to write essays from a picture prompt or worry about what my language arts score would be on the next standardized test because there was something else out there.

I don't know how old I was when I stumbled upon Quizilla—probably no older than 12—but that's how long I've been writing fan fiction and publishing it on the Internet. Heck, I'm in my senior year of college as a journalism major. I'm one of the few people who are stupid enough to try and make a living doing this because I'm not good at anything else. But in doing that, you have to find a way to set yourself apart. Something about your writing has to be better than the person sitting next to you, and that's what I've been trying to do since I was 12 years old.

Here, have an Oscar Wilde quote to sum up how I feel about what I do: "Would you like to know the great drama of my life? It's that I've put my genius into my life; I've put only my talent into my works."

Reading this blog won't make you a better writer. Simply wanting to become one won't work either, but here are some tips that might help.*

1. If you want to become a better writer, become a better reader.
I'm always perplexed when I talk to fellow journalism majors or human beings in general and they tell me they don't read. They don't have a favorite book or a favorite author or even a favorite journalist. They don't even pretend and say the first name that comes to mind, like Jane Austen or Anderson Cooper. I'm a firm believer that if nothing else works, better reading will make you a better writer.

What I mean by "better reading" is this: analyze what you're reading and how you feel when reading it. If, like me, you're two sentences into Pride and Prejudice and are overcome with the desire to end your life, ask yourself why. Why don't you like that character? Why do you feel the setting doesn't work? What about the narrative makes the book unable to put down? Why do you want your friends and family to read the book? You can do this with anything—novels, fan fiction, news articles, etc. Figure out why you like what you like and dislike what you dislike and try to emulate that. Channel your feelings into your writing.

2. If you don't know the answer, ask.
This applies to almost everything you'll ever write. If you don't know how to use semicolons or how to properly format dialogue, Google it. If you're writing a story based in a certain country, you're going to want to know a few things about that place. Use Google, ask someone from that country, read a book about it. Don't assume. Don't write what you think is right and risk being wrong. Someone will notice your mistake(s), which brings me to…

3. Be able and willing to accept criticism.
Writing should be a humbling experience. Yes, it's great to feel our egos swelling when someone comments on our story and says it's the greatest thing he or she has ever read. Yes, there are times when you'll read someone else's story and you'll sit at your computer and grumble to yourself that yours is better and how dare this author have 500 comments on the first chapter alone when your work is far superior. We all do these things, and it's fine that we do them, but being confident shouldn't hinder our ability to be humble.

There will always be someone better than you. I will never be as good a writer as J.D. Salinger no matter how hard I try or how apathetic and brooding I make my characters. If I ever learn to swim without plugging my nose, I'll never be an Olympic gold medalist at doing so. I'll never be as good as pissing people off as Kanye West. These are my shortcomings and I accept them. When someone offers you constructive criticism, you should accept your shortcomings as well. Let's say someone comments on your story and says it's well-written but too cliché. The first question you should ask yourself is, "How is it cliché?" The second should be, "How can I fix it?"

Your writing is not flawless or perfect. But if it is, pretend it's not.

4. Your characters are important.
I'm very long-winded and descriptive (obviously). I'm trying to work on my character development because I tend to write my own as very one-sided and two-dimensional beings. That's bad, and I know that's bad. How can I watch a show like LOST (which, in my opinion, has some of the best character development of all time) and write such awful characters? I don't know. I'm working on it.

Something I've started to do is fill out a questionnaire for every character I create. You know those Myspace surveys we used to love doing? Pretend you're your character and fill one out. You may never need to know that your character's favorite ice cream flavor is strawberry, but having a favorite ice cream flavor at all makes them realistic. It makes them human, and what good is a character that no one can relate to or even imagine being a walking, breathing thing on this planet?

Names are also very important because they have to be realistic, too. Think about your character's story. Our parents are the ones who name us, so what were your character's parents like? Personally, my parents were huge Bruce Springsteen fans, which explains how I wound up named after his ex-wife. I have a friend whose parents were hippies so they named their daughter Starlight. Things like that matter. Spend five minutes in the Names You Hate in Stories thread and you'll see what I mean.

Now, what's your character's story? Is he or she afraid of commitment because an ex cheated on him or her and therefore obliterated your character's ability to trust? Does your character's drinking problem stem from a prior trauma he or she is trying to repress? Nine times out of ten we do the things we do for a reason—what's your character's?

5. Has that plot been used before?
If no, be the first to do it.
If yes, write it better than everyone else.

6. Write for yourself.
What do you do when Reader A wants Becky and Joe to get back together but Reader B thinks they're better off as friends? You can't please everyone. You want to, but you can't, so you go with option three and remember your original plan. If Becky and Joe were always meant to have their happily-ever-after, stick to the plan.

If you aren't receiving the feedback you were hoping for, keep writing. If the only comments you receive are from the same person, keep writing. Feedback is great. Feedback is probably the greatest thing an author can receive, but feedback is like your drivers license: it's a privilege, not a right. Your writing shouldn't be dictated by how many comments you receive on the previous chapter. Writing should be an outlet for your emotions, a therapy of sorts. Treat it as such.

7. Don't be afraid to try something new.
I'm one to talk, Ms. I'm-Too-Scared-to-Write-Smut, but one day I'll get there. If you want to do something, do it. No one can fault you for trying.

8. Don't get discouraged.
I struggle with this a lot. I have classmates who are ridiculously better writers than I am. I read Christopher Moore's novels and lament because I'll never be that funny or smart or subtle. My fan fiction will probably never get published a la Fifty Shades of Grey. These things are okay.

Writer's block. Is there anything worse than staring at an empty notebook or Microsoft Word document? It's right there on the tip of your tongue, what you want to say, but nothing's coming out. That's okay too. Write something. Write anything. Read the newspaper or an old story you wrote or your brother's essay for history class. Watch a film you love or one you hate. Doodle. Go for a walk or a drive or a bicycle ride. Find inspiration in something you normally wouldn't, but understand that those words will come eventually. Don't give up just because they're still MIA.

9. Use the forums.
The forums might be my favorite thing about Mibba. There's hundreds of threads to get lost in, so chances are you'll find exactly the one you're looking for. Can't come up with a name for your character? There's a thread for that. Wondering how the British education system works? There's a thread for that. Want to enter a writing contest or find fellow authors for a group-write? There's a thread for that.

The forums are there to help you become a better writer, to help you make friends, and to improve your overall Mibba experience. Take advantage of them.

10. Last but not least, enjoy it.
There was a period of two and a half years where I stopped writing altogether. If it wasn't an essay for school or the paperwork at my job, I didn't write it. There was no reading or writing of fan fiction because, at some point, I stopped enjoying it. Writing felt like a chore and I was all out of fresh ideas, so I stopped.

You will fall out of love with writing. Maybe you'll fall back in, maybe you won't, but it'll probably happen. If it does, ride it out. Don't force yourself to do it because it'll only make you resent it more. Writing has to come from a place that's genuine. If you're only writing because you want feedback or because you haven't updated in months and your readers are coming after you with pitchforks, why write at all?

Enjoy it. Writing is fun.

*I am not a professional writer. I'm probably not even an amateur writer. This blog is for entertainment purposes only, with a slight hope that someone might get something useful out of this. However, I don't claim to be anything I'm not, so if you think I'm full of shit, don't listen to me.
June 26th, 2013 at 05:47am