How I Learned to Write – And How You Can Too

You know that moment when, in the middle of a brilliant novel, you drop the book into your lap, stare at the ceiling, and wonder why God chose to gift this novelist with effortless talent, while you’re left slogging in the trenches of writer’s block and clunky sentences? I doubt many of us haven’t encountered the feeling that the truly gifted writers pop into the world with fully formed writing genius. Fortunately, it’s just that—a feeling. There isn’t a writer on the planet who hasn’t had to learn his craft and pay his dues. The writing craft is a learning curve for all of us. Even the Margaret Atwoods and Stephen Kings had to log their time as frustrated, fearful authors who had no idea what they were doing. So how did they learn to write? How did they go from clunky to confident?

Not long ago, a reader emailed me, suggesting a post in which I describe how I learned to write. While I certainly haven’t reached a writing level anywhere close to masters such as Atwood and King, today I’d like to share with that reader—and the rest of you—some of the major catalytic moments in my writing journey.

I read widely.

Writers have to be voracious bookworms. Read everything you can get your hands on, good and bad, until you gain a panoramic view of the literary scenery.

I read the classics.

I’ve made it a goal to read all the classics before I die (at the rate I’m going, I figure it’ll take me forty-two more years). Some of the classics are great (Dickens is a favorite); some are torture (Faulkner’s A Fable was pretty much a “kill me now” moment). But in dedicating myself to reading the avowed greats from a tremendous range of authors, cultures, and time periods, I broadened my horizons as both an author and a person.

I read my genre.

I probably don’t have to tell you this, even though someone had to tell me. If you write mysteries, read every whodunit you can get your hands on. Fantasy? Paw through all the Lord of the Rings knockoffs at your library. Learn what makes them work, what’s been done to death, and how to mimic their brilliance.

I read how-to books.

This one was a major turning point for me. I’d happily written three and a half novels before even realizing there was such a thing as writing how-to books. Prior to this, I’d written entirely on the instinct gained from the osmosis of my bookworm habits. After this, I realized there was actually a process to writing stories. Suddenly, I went from winging it to working my way toward an understanding of the craft.

I listened to critters.

From the start when I wrote one-page stories as a twelve-year-old, I always had someone edit my writing, and I always listened. Feedback from unbiased readers is crucial to understanding the effect our writing has upon other people. Feedback from experienced writers is crucial in learning how to improve so we can achieve that desired effect.

I took a writing course.

I signed up for Writer’s Digest’s correspondence course “Fundamentals of Fiction.” By this point in my journey, I pretty much understood the fundamentals, so the course didn’t teach me oodles, so much as it granted me the confidence to go forth with what I’d already learned.

I subscribed to magazines.

Roundabout the time I discovered writing how-to books, I also discovered writing magazines. I’ve been an avid subscriber to Writer’s Digest and The Writer for more than a decade. Having them drop into my mailbox every month means I’m always reading something about the craft, even when I don’t have a bookmark between the pages of a how-to book.

I joined a writing forum.

Next to discovering the writing how-to book, probably the greatest epoch in my writing journey was gingerly crawling through the Internet to find suitable writing groups. I’ve been a member of several over the years (Christian Writers remains my favorite), and the daily contact with writers of every skill level has been a huge factor, not only in improving my writing, but also in gaining confidence and learning about the business end of the craft.

I figured out my process.

Thanks to the combination of everything listed above, I was able to figure out and streamline the writing process that worked best for me. I listened to my gut, paid attention to what worked and what didn’t, and ruthlessly streamlined activities that were so much deadweight. Nowadays, I have a comfortable process that involves extensive outlining, researching, writing, and revising, and a daily schedule that lets me warm up and keeps me from procrastinating.

I made writing a priority.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I made writing a priority early on and I stuck with it. Save for the too-sick-to-get-out-of-bed days and catastrophes such as flooded basements and orphaned kittens, I discipline myself to write two hours a day, five days a week, year round. And that makes all the difference.

So there you have it. This list isn’t exclusive and certainly won’t be every writer’s path to success. But this is what has worked for me. This is the path I’ve taken so far on my writing journey. Where the road turns next, of course, I have no idea. But that’s the fun of it!

Tell me your opinion: How did you learn to write?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Those are all great tips. I’ve learned to write in a similar fashion to you. Also practice and learning from all my mistakes have helped too.

    • kyla hembree says

      I agree these are all really great tips. My old English teacher told us a lot about typing and how to write better, to use more diction and organization. I never did think about reading a magazine to learn to write better.

  2. I read alot, but haven’t learnt to write yet. But I’m trying. We’ll see how it ends. Good tips >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  3. Good post. Similar to you really. I’ve done most of those things although I draw the line at reading something I find torture. I’ll read something I’m not keen on if I recognise it is brilliant but if it is too painful I stop and pick something else up. I haven’t got time to read everything I want to, so why torture myself?
    Two things worth emphasising are I write every day and I ask for criticism. You can’t learn to write unless you write as often as possible. Some writers are afraid of looking for criticism but if they intend to show their writing to the public they will get plenty of criticism then, whether they want to or not.
    The way to learn from criticism is this; pick trusted readers not necessarily best friends or family. Ask for constructive criticism i.e. how it can be made better rather than what is wrong with it; that way you get suggestions and everybody likes to help. How do you treat the suggestions? An old saying helps. If one person says you are a dog, you can ignore them. If two people say you are a dog you can stll ignore them but you might ask yourself, what evidence has led them to say that. If three people say you are a dog buy yourself a kennel. Obviously that is a metaphor but hopefully you understand the meaning.
    I look forward to many more good posts in 2012 and good luck everyone. 🙂

  4. I used to be someone who couldn’t write a 5-page essay in high school with a minimum of two outside sources.

    At a time where I was trying to pursue my passion, I somehow, randomly, landed on writing.

    A year later I’m writing an eBook and have been featured on popular blogs.

    Everything that you stated up there is (almost) exactly what I did.

    I read everything from shit news stories, novels, magazines, headlines, copywriting on products, subscribed to many blogs, but most importantly: sat down everyday and wrote something, even if it wasn’t all that good.

    Great post, I related with this tremendously.

  5. @Natalie: Those are two habits that never end!

    @Cold: It’s amazing how much we can learn about the qualities of good fiction just through the osmosis of reading good books.

    @Christopher: I agree with the metaphor. One of my rules of thumb is that two people have to agree on a criticism. Obviously, one of those people can be me. But even if I didn’t originally agree, I know I have to pay attention if two other people independently make the same comment.

    @Paul: I would venture to say that most people’s writing journeys have been similar to mine. We’re all walking the same road here!

  6. Charles Dickens is my favorite classic author. I believe we have similar tastes, so consider giving Mary Stewart’s earlier novels (romantic suspense) a try.

    I agree with all your advice, but fantasy readers shouldn’t read through knock-offs. It’s far better to spend time with novels sparked by originality. There are certain conventions inherent in each fantasy subgenre, however. Perhaps that’s what you referrenced.

  7. I was being more or less facetious in my recommendation of “knock-offs.” I meant it in the sense that Tolkien was the father of modern fantasy, so most of the fantasy we read today, even those stories that are wildly different from LOTR have a certain basis of inspiration in his work. I do think, however, that there’s value in reading some of the less original fantasy – just to learn what not to do.

  8. Great advice! One question: any suggestions on where to go to find non-family and non-friends to critique your work. You know, people who can give useful advice…

  9. Great tips. I think a lot of people want to skip all that, supposing that “overnight sensations” actually happen overnight.

    Malcolm

  10. @Rich: Forming relationships with writers, via writing groups, forums, blogs, and even social sites such as Twitter is the place to start. Almost all of my critique partners have come from those venues.

    @Sun: On the one hand, it would be great if the possibility of being an overnight success existed. On the other, the fact that none of us have achieved that yet means we have reason to be thankful there’s still hope for us via other means.

  11. I’ve had a very similar journey to yours. However, I have not read all the classics. I love Dickens but cannot make it through A Tale of Two Cities. Nor can I read Moby Dick. I think I give up on those two!

    Great list! Thanks for sharing.

  12. IMHO: you are way better than Atwoood or King. Bit it was nice to read about your writing journey.

  13. I’ve read a lot, and I also stole my older brother’s correspondence courses after he was through with them.
    And I have been having been writing (or trying to write) on and off for over 9 years, though I’ve only completed a story in the past year.

    I would subscribe to magazines, but right now I can’t afford to. It’s on my to-do list, though.. 😀

    thnx for yet another awesome article.

  14. I do/did all the things you listed above except I haven’t taken a writing course. Instead, I “became” my own writing course. I just wrote and wrote and then re-wrote, and re-wrote some more. Learning by doing has pretty much been my method of choice for just about everything. Maybe not the easiest route, or even the wisest, but it works for me.

  15. @Sheila: A Tale of Two Cities was the last of Dickens’s books I read. I’d heard so many great things about it, but, in all honesty, I have to say that it was one of my lesser favorites as well. Dombey & Son and The Pickwick Papers are my favorites.

    @Lorna: I like your humble opinion! Thanks so much for your encouragement.

    @Gideon: Sometimes you can find good writing magazines at your local library. Also, Writer’s Digest offers a digital version of their magazine at a slightly reduced price.

    @Barbara: Of all the things I’ve mentioned, the writing course would be the one I would tell was “optional.” Had I taken the course a little earlier in my writing journey, I probably would have found it infinitely helpful. But, as it was, I enjoyed it and gained a few benefits, but could have gotten along just fine without it.

  16. I’ve always read lots and I joined a writer’s group right away (as soon as I had the idea of writing fiction) so I could learn the details of the craft. I’d written lots of business ‘stuff’ and I had many academic papers under my belt. But fiction was a whole new venture and scary as can be.

  17. I’ve written both fiction and non-fiction, and, I agree, fiction is by far scarier, if only because it’s so much more of an unknown quantity.

  18. A tick to all of the points in your article! You are right. Many of us have gone through all those processes – but it’s a handy article to keep for inspiration, particularly when starting out. Figuring out the process, what works and what doesn’t, can only be done, I found, by being prepared to sit down, begin (!) and produce a cringe-worthy first draft with everything half-formed: characters, plot, setting, theme. This could all be addressed later but I needed to have some writing to actually address! Having beat-sheeted as advised by Roz Morris’s book “Nail Your Novel” I am at the happy point of moving on from there with the second draft.

    You mentioned the classics and I agree with your point. Always a hungry reader, and tho it turned out that the second husband and I weren’t exactly compatible, I shall never be able to thank him enough when he (Winchester and Oxford educated) sat me (Essex educated) down at the start of the relationship and pretty well gave me a required reading-list! I had read some classics at school but by my early 20s as I was then, I had turned to mainly romances. David pointed out that making a start on: Dickens, Austen (Emma was first on my TBR list), Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, George Elliot’s Mill on The Floss and Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain would set me up for life in his intellectual sphere. I WAS grateful for that, went on to take an Open University Degree, including Creative Writing, went on further to be published in magazines with short stories. And continued to read some, not all – though I admire your aim there – over the twenty years since.

    A very traumatic period in my life and illness led to my being crippled with self-doubt both as writer and woman but I am well now and my spirit renewed. Something clicked that I was missing writing terribly, and I recently, through NaNoWriMo, cracked my writing whip again. The classics have enabled me when beat-sheeting my story to see that there is a much more depth to be had in all aspects of the novel and much greater potential for the story. I hope the book ultimately lives up to that smart remark!

    Well said; great, concise post with informed pointers – some of them the kind of “obvious” things we can forget, particularly when starting, or re-starting, to write.

  19. Great post. I do many of these things already so that makes me feel like I’m on the right path of my writing journey. I think the one thing I continue to have problems with is confidence–working on that too. Thanks for sharing!

  20. Still learning. Get back to me in about 50 years and I might have an answer. 😉

    I’m glad to say I’m at least following a few of your steps. Although reading the classics might be the most daunting one of all. Who’s got time to read a book like ‘War and Peace’ these days?

  21. I just finished a semester of creative writing class, and I think the tip on reading everything you can would have been the most helpful tip for 80% of the class. I can remember competitions between my siblings and I during the school year to see who could read more books; and, over this past break, I managed to read 7 books — both classics and in my genre.

    Great post, as always. And, at the end of the day, there is still a little bit of God-given gift that’s needed to be a truly good writer — whether the writer acknowledges that gift as God-given or not.

  22. @Tessa: Roz Morris’s Nail Your Novel is a fabulous book. It’s one I always include on my Recommended Reading list.

    @thewriternubbin: Just keep on keepin’ on! Confidence is three parts experience and seven parts sheer will.

    @chitrader: I read a lot of “big” books (although I haven’t gotten around to War and Peace yet), and, really, if you’ve got time to read the smaller ones, you’ve got time to read the longer ones. It’s just a matter of being consistent and plugging along.

    @Daniel: I agree – although I believe God-given passion plays as much, if not more, of a role than talent. Writing is something almost anyone can learn, so long as they’re passionate enough to be dedicated.

  23. I enjoyed your post this morning, especially after finishing a teaching gig with the Whidbey MFA folks yesterday. Great program, by the way. As an author and creativity coach, I’m often mentioning the feeling you described in your opening—those “talented” others somehow bypassing all we’re experiencing! A good thought to keep in mind is that we can only judge others from the outside and ourselves from the inside. Thanks for supporting writers, and for the smile and boost to my morning!

  24. Good way to put it. Kind of goes along with the idea that we can never tell someone else’s troubles just from looking at them – so smile at everyone!

  25. I learned to write through writing, re-writing, and then writing some more. It definitely felt like I’ve paid my dues! I was also a student of the Classics…my torture was History of the Peloponnesian War 🙂

  26. Thanks for this post. I am at the beginning of my writing career and i can never get enough of hearing how others have developed their careers. So far, the most important thing that I have done in my journey has been to put myself out there. This means submitting my work to critique groups, contests, professional critiques at conferences and to anybody else interested in giving my stories a read. I decided that if I was going to keep my writing to myself, then it would just be my hobby. However, if I was willing to put myself into the hands of others, then writing could become my career.

  27. You don’t write 104 days of the year? Oh, my. I don’t think I could do that. If I miss any day, I suffer withdrawal symptoms.

  28. Until I started following other writers I never really considered any approach to writing other than just winging it. I must say although I take all tips and advice into account, I still prefer to just follow the first thought that forms until it runs out.
    I have yet to reach the critique stage as I don’t readily admit to people that I write let alone offer them my work, but there are a random few who have taken an interest and are gratefully positive.
    Otherwise it sounds as though you have a brilliant process!

  29. What a great idea for a post, and I agree, it is so helpful to see a writer’s process to know where to start, or what more a person can do. Thanks, Katie–I may have to poach your idea if you don’t mind so I can share my own journey in the future 🙂

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  30. @Alesha: You’ve nailed it. The only way to learn how to write is to write. All the other stuff is just icing.

    @Tasamoah: Your resolution to determine whether was writing a hobby or a career sounds similar to some of the decisions I made early on as well. I would keep writing even if no one read a word of it, but I decided early on that if I was going to spend my life doing this, I wanted it to be something that could hopefully impact others in a positive way. So I swallowed hard and stuck my neck out there. I’ve never regretted it.

    @Lester: I work on fiction five days a week, blog stuff one day a week, and take one day off. I need that extra day to reboot my creative cells.

    @Sjp: Moving to the stage where you’re ready to submit yourself to the criticism of others can take time. The only person who got to read my first four novels was my eternally positive sister. I needed that padding before I was ready to dive into the maelstrom of negative opinions – constructive or not.

    @Angela: Poach away! I may steal a few of yours too. 😉

  31. Wonderful advice. Really well written. Thank you.

    Becky

  32. Thanks for reading, Becky!

  33. Wonderful advice for those wishing to not only write, but write books.

  34. My focus, as a novelist myself, is slanted toward book-length fiction, so this post has a similar slant.

  35. Thanks for this article. Ive wanted to be a writer for over 20 years and had numerous false starts, but every time I wrote something i would look at it and think, “who am I kidding, this is utter crap”. I felt like a pretender. And so it went on, year after year. In the meantime I became a lawyer of all things, got married and had children, but because I love reading (and believe me, I consume books like a V8 guzzles gasoline) and because I still wanted to write, the dream remained in the back of my mind. Now and then I would still try something, get embarrassed and stop. It didn’t help the confidence that English wasn’t my native tongue either. What is strange though, is that my confidence normally is solid, almost arrogant, but when it comes to my fiction writing, Im like a little wet puppy cowering in the corner. I have now come to a stage where I’m making drastic decisions and one of those decisions is to focus on writing this year. I have come to realise that whining about my ability (or lack thereof) to write will not change a thing. However, not giving up, and keep practicing the craft on a DAILY basis will. Your article made me realise there are other successful writers out there who also had to battle with insecurity, who also thought their writing sucked, but who kept at it, and that made all the difference. So, I thank you.

  36. Honestly, writers in general are some of the most insecure people on the planet! I daresay there’s hardly a one of us who doesn’t waffle between thinking we’re brilliant and thinking we’re incapable of writing anything but drivel. Mostly the latter. We have to find and maintain a balance between the two – and the only way to do that is to keep writing.

  37. And you did it all by yourself. Love your blog and your book on outlining. I have been always struggling having a pantser approach, but reading your book i’ve realised i’m actually an outliner.

  38. Yay! Another convert. 😉 I’m so glad you’re enjoying the book!

    As for “doing it by myself”: ultimately all authors have to do that. Writing is something *we* either make happen or not. But the wealth of information available in writing craft books and on the Internet means we don’t ever do it alone. I certainly credit the wisdom of other authors as a huge catalyst in my writing journey.

  39. Hi K.M.

    Reading this list was so exciting because I have done everything that you have done except for completing a writing course. It’s encouraging and uplifting to know that I’ve almost followed the same path. Now I’m just getting ready to start my third book.

  40. Awesome! Good for you. We all have to follow our own paths to writing success, but you can’t go wrong with any of these steps.

  41. This is lovely and challenging. I am glad you have shared your story with us. It really helps to know that you weren’t simply born with your great writing genius but rather had to work towards it, and that we (I) too can. Thanks a lot. Makes my writing dream seem all that more achievable.

    Last year was a year of mostly classics for me. Tried to read as many as I could. Had moved away from them to focus more on my genre. Plus, they seemed endless. Reading this though, I have realized that I am not yet done with them. I need to continually read them, because there’s a lot to enjoy and learn from them. And I can do so one book at a time (maybe, like you, even aim at reading them all before I die–a feat I didn’t even consider possible till now–after all, I have a whole lifetime ahead of me.)

    Since last year, I was writing daily. Problem came when I had to start rewriting what I had written, and yet at the same time felt I had to keep writing something new daily to keep up with the habit. How do you do that? Do you consider having fufilled your daily writing habit even on days when all you do is re-write?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Writers’ opinions are largely split on “editing as you go.” Personally, I’m a proponent. I never want to proceed with a story that I know is already broken. I want to fix the breaks, then continue, and I don’t, in any way, consider this procrastination or “not” writing.

      However, there are authors who *do* use this as a procrastination technique to keep from having to mvoe forward in the draft. They rewrite and rewrite and never go forward. It doesn’t sound to me like you have that problem–since you’re also committed to moving forward–so I would suggest that you just focus on the rewrites until the existing part of the story is corrected, then move forward.

      But if you ever feel that you’re just churning your wheels as an avoidance technique, then that’s definitely something to be acknowledged and addressed.

  42. Rebekah Hicks says

    Hi Katie,

    I really enjoyed this post. However, two of the links aren’t working anymore: the one on “how to” books and the one on the writing course. Is there a way to update those links or point readers in another direction?

    I’m trying to implement as much of the knowledge I’m learning as I can on my journey as a new writer / author.

    Thanks as always!
    Rebekah

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks for letting me know! Looks like Writer’s Digest is no longer offering that course, so I deleted the link. I also updated the link to my Recommended Reading for Writers page.

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