It used to be a lot harder to get an audience for your writing and I think, perhaps, that was a good thing. It’s far too easy to write a draft and push publish immediately. We get readers within hours (or minutes!) and eagerly watch the clap numbers rise. Sure, it’s incredibly exciting and rewarding but are we ripping ourselves off? Could we lift our writing to a higher level if it was just a bit harder to get read?
When you are forced to do your best, sometimes you do better
When I started to work really seriously on my writing (almost 20 years ago) the main thing I focused on was entering short story contests and sending my work to magazines. If I wanted to have a shot at being published, what I sent had to be the best it could be.
I spent a lot of time reading the winners of past contests. I also spent a lot of time reading the classics and literary books by top-selling authors. These writers were incredible! It was all so far above my level and initially I didn’t really have a clue as to what even made a winning story. I felt like I was writing in the dark — firing words at a page and hoping they would magically fall together in some kind of creative, beautiful order.
The short story competitions forced me to produce my best writing —
I edited my drafts dozens of times.
I gave them to other people to edit too.
I perfected my wording, perfected my dialogue, read everything aloud over and over.
Each piece was the absolute best I could produce at the time and, as a bonus, most judges provided feedback on each story.
I some got fantastic feedback and some really harsh feedback. One of the worst (I don’t think I’ll ever forget) was just a single line comment on a story which I thought was quite deep and moving.
Are you expecting me to feel something here? Ouch.
Although the harsh comments were difficult to hear, both good and bad pushed my writing and helped me refine my technique. I eventually won a couple of contests (with decent cash prizes!) and again had great feedback which let me know what worked and what didn’t.
Learning from the masters
I wanted to get to another level in my writing. I had dreams of being more literary, like John Steinbeck or Barbara Kingsolver. It didn’t seem enough to be a chic lit writer and I still hadn’t really found my voice. This is when the experiments with beautiful phrasing and unusual topics began.
I wrote symbolic passages about colours. I wrote from the perspective of a family of tomatoes (What??). Some of these worked but most were just awful. Then I decided to do a strange experiment.
You know those paint-by-number kits you can get? Apprentice painters used to learn their art by doing exactly what the masters did. The young Michelangelo, like other apprentices at the time, was encouraged to imitate famous works in his city. He copied paintings by Giotto in Florence’s church of Santa Croce. It was very much a paint-by-numbers idea.
I was reading Beloved by Toni Morrison and I started to wonder if there was a way to paint-by-numbers a book. I selected a page I loved and examined the first sentence.
You can paint-by-numbers: can you write-by-numbers too?
Eleven words. A place. A description of what happened there. I could do that! So, without copying a single word from the original, I wrote my own sentence with eleven words, a place and a description.
Autumn happened so slowly that it was hardly noticed at first.
Completely different to the original (so there was absolutely no plagiarism) but it had pushed me out of my comfort zone, out of my usual phrasing and opened new possibilities.
The next line was a long, rambling description with 30 words — much longer than I typically write but I pushed myself to match it.
One day the trees around the farmhouse glowed green with life, gregarious, strong, and then, insidious as cancer, death swept the land until everything lay brown and red and dry.
I wrote the whole page this way. Slowly and carefully imitating the tone and exact word count — matching my sentences to Toni Morrison’s line by line.
What emerged was something completely different to anything I had ever written, it was writing-by-numbers and yet still completely original — still my voice, still me. I worked my draft until it was error free, very different from Morrison’s original structure, and as perfect as I could make it: selecting the best words, removing the unnecessary ones.
I entered it into a nationwide writers’ scholarship contest and won.
We need to remember the value of learning from the masters. As writers our biggest training ground is the written word. For emerging writers the most important job you have is to examine great writing: read it, study it, recite it and perhaps, too, there is value in copying it.
Why not do an experiment?
- Find a writer you admire.
- Break their work down into small parts. What makes their writing so good?
- Learn from it.
- Then, before you hit publish on your next draft, wait.
- Work your draft as hard as you can. Make it different and yours.
If you just wait a day, or a week or two, you might lift your writing a bit closer to their standard. The claps will still be there when you’re done, but you’ll have developed as a writer and isn’t that what really matters in the long run?