“I don’t understand. Did you not read this before you turned it in? It is completely unacceptable. Go back and fix it.”
That was the nicest thing the teacher said to me in front of the class. Several students looked up to stare. As an honor roll student who gave 200% and never missed an assignment, her reaction stunned me. I was humiliated and ashamed because I hadn’t done better.
Not only had I read and reread my first book report, I had gone to her for help three times. That was unusual for me, but I couldn’t wrap my mind around what she wanted. Each time she dismissed me with vague answers. In 1987, there was no Google to show me how to write a book report. I did the best I could and that was her response.
As creatives, it’s easy for us to be overly critical of our work. While we want to share our best efforts, sometimes we are our own worst enemy. When someone we respect reacts negatively to our work, it can really knock our confidence. Insecurity is a beast.
During my time as editor, I worked primarily with new writers. These sweet ladies were timid and tenderhearted, striving to do their best with new skills. The last thing I wanted was to recreate a book report scenario and crush their spirits. When they had questions, I did my best to answer with specific details and helpful suggestions.
When we first start writing, we need to embrace “I am a writer” most. At the same time, it’s when we feel least worthy of the title. For those who love to make words dance across a page, it can be a terrifying phrase to utter aloud. And yet, there is great power when we do.
One of the best ways to overcome fear is to simply jump in. To become wordsmiths worthy of the title, we need to start behaving like writers. How do we do that? We start at the very beginning. . .
Write. Write. Write. And write some more.
Writers write. To be a writer, you need to write. Can I say it again? Write! Put pen to paper or squiggles on a blank computer screen and write every chance you get.
Yup. Some of it is going to be Terrible with a capital-T. Write anyhow. The beauty of first draft is you get to make a huge mess with random thoughts and crazy details. But you take those words and edit them into something beautiful.
The good news? After your first twenty-thousand words, things start to click. That means your first drafts don’t stink as bad. Trust me, this is a wonderful thing! The more you write, the faster things start to transform. Keep writing!
Learn to self-edit. The best writing springs from excellent editing. It’s not putting words on a page that creates a masterpiece, it’s the editing. Grow your editing skills and you’ll radically improve your writing.
There are a few common mistakes new writers make:
No point. Nonfiction magazine articles and blog posts need to have a purpose and be written with a hook, a story, several points, and a solid conclusion.
Missing pieces. Fiction needs to provide a powerful emotional experience for the reader, and have a theme, well-developed story world, characters, and plot.
Lackluster grammar and style. Proper capitalization and end punctuation make a big impact.
Unnecessary words. Eliminate overused words like that, just, very, really, was, like, and so.
Using the wrong word. Check your homophones, homographs, and contractions.
Most editors look for pieces that are ready to publish. They don’t have the time or energy to fix the issues with your submission. Instead, they reject it even though it might be super close to ready. While I make an effort to offer insight to authors who submit their work, I’m a rarity. That’s why self-editing is key.
Give yourself grace to learn. No one writes as though they have thirty years of experience unless they actually have thirty years of experience. New writers write like new writers. Some people pick up certain skills more quickly, but everyone has that thing they struggle to master. Don’t allow yourself to be discouraged. Strive for excellence, but be reasonable about what is normal for your skill level.
Each one of us has pieces we love to bits and others that are meh. Keep writing and editing and writing and editing some more. Eventually you’ll write more pieces you love, than not.
Anyone can write, but it takes practice and determination to write well. I didn’t know that in seventh grade. I did my best but had no idea what I was doing. The conversation about my assignment crushed my spirit and was the last day I enjoyed writing for many years.
I wish I had known I wasn’t a failure because I didn’t understand book reports. I just needed someone to show me how and to write a few more. As grownup writers, it’s the same for us. Find a patient mentor to answer your questions and share secrets. Once you understand, it changes everything.
It was decades later before I considered the other students might have stared because the teacher overreacted. I figured they were judging me because I couldn’t write. Maybe her outburst was fueled by surprise and astonishment because my work was usually much better. I’ll never know.
Don’t be ashamed when you do your best, even if you don’t know what you’re doing. Ask questions and keep going. You will get better.
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