5 Logical Ways for Writers to Grow

How to Grow as a Writer: 5 Logical Steps

4 logical ways for writers to grow pinterestWriters are students. Sometimes this is the result of nothing more than sheer necessity: we seek answers for our questions because writing has turned out to be far more difficult than we anticipated. But often, writers are students first and writers second. If this is you, then concentrating on how to grow as a writer isn’t just about improving your writing; it’s part of a personal manifestation of learning and growth.

I fear nothing more than stagnation. Every moment standing still is a moment I’ve wasted by not learning something about this deliciously mad world of ours. (This isn’t to say we can’t learn—a lot—by the physical act of standing still, but if you’re learning, are you really standing still, hmm?) I feel this challenge as a person, and I feel this challenge as a writer. I’ve always said, tongue in cheek, that the moment in which I know everything about being a writer will be the moment I flat-out quit.

But even if you’ve yet to reach the lofty pinnacle of Mt. Know-It-All, it’s still scarily easy to get stuck along the way. Just because you’re writing—just because you’re moving around enough to kick up some dust—isn’t necessarily a sure sign you’re progressing.

Today, let’s take a quick gut-check to make sure you’ve still got your compass aligned to true North in a journey designed to teach you how to grow as a writer.

Growth: A Journey of Personal Honesty

What is growth?

Growth is change certainly (just ask that protagonist of yours about his character arc). But it’s more than that. Just as your story’s plot can’t be advanced by any old flurry of activity, your own story can only be moved forward by the kind of personal changes that redefine everything you know about life: your identity, your personal narrative, your understanding of the world.

If that sounds super-dramatic, it’s because it is. This is Life, baby. Biggest stage in, well, life.

But most of this drama—including the drama of learning how to grow as a writer—will occur in such minute moments that you don’t even notice the changes building. For the sake of our sanity, that’s probably a good thing. Our poor little conscious brains aren’t always so good at swallowing the huge revelations and intuitive leaps that our subconscious take for granted.

So where is all this change taking us? Is it random? Or—like any good story—is it headed for a point? I think it’s headed for a point, and I think that point is personal honesty. It’s the ability to look past all the static and confetti with which life distracts us, to face the difficult emotions that prompt us to believe in the Lies that hold us back, and to face the truths we find.

No surprise Flannery O’Connor said it best:

To know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around. The first product of self-knowledge is humility….

As writers, we should be intimately familiar with humility. Most of us discover early on that learning how to grow as a writer is a bumpy journey marked by disparaging road signs that offer such enlightening messages as: “This stinks!” “No one will read this!” and “Turn back here, all ye fainthearted!”

It’s rough. But it’s also pretty awesome. However treacherous the caverns, deserts, and switchbacks we’re exploring in our writing journey, we are exploring. We’re adventurers. We’re pioneers. We’re astronomers and astronauts all rolled into one.

We’re discovering how to be better writers, and in discovering how to be better writers, we’re discovering how to be better people. In learning about ourselves, we’re learning about the whole world, and in learning about the world, we’re taking not one single moment of this life for granted.

How to Grow as a Writer in 5 Logical Steps

We’re all destined for change whether we’re consciously open to it or not. Even when we’re resistant, life itself forces us to evolve, day by day. However, when we open ourselves to the possibility of growth, this evolution becomes an adventure in which we get to take part. And when we start consciously pursuing it, that’s when things really get rolling.

Growth may feel like some airy-fairy thing over which you have no control. But that’s not entirely true. Become an active participant. Learn to recognize the patterns of growth. Rather than resisting the challenges of personal honesty, start pursuing them with a stick.

Here are five steps to get your started.

1. Be Brutally Honest

Learning to be honest with ourselves is all about learning to see through the subtle defense mechanisms we erect to protect ourselves from the parts of ourselves we are ashamed of. But like all Lies, these mechanisms hold us back from growth and improvement.

The first step in creating an environment for learning how to grow as a writer is to get real about the areas in which you actually need to improve. We’re all familiar with that icky feeling that something is drastically wrong with what we’re writing. Something is off. It just isn’t working.

That feeling, by itself, is of little use. It’s not specific enough for us to learn from or take action on. All it does is make us feel miserable. (Cue flopping on the couch, arm over eyes, and wailing about how somehow the magic genius-writer gene skipped your generation.)

Ironically, however, this feeling is often something we cling to. Why? Because self-pity is incredibly safe. As long as we’re moaning about how untalented we are, we don’t actually have to get up off the couch and do something about it. We get to play the victim under a seemingly admirable guise of humility and honesty.

But you’re not really being honest. Not yet.

Brutal honesty requires specificity. Why are you experiencing this feeling?

Sometimes you will feel you are a terrible writer, when, really, you’re not. What’s holding you back is not a specific problem in your writing, but rather a fear of vulnerability in putting your best out there for all the world (and yourself) to judge. If this is where you’re at, you’ve just discovered a huge opportunity for personal growth. When you start really looking at those fears, what you’re going to find will go far beyond the issues of writing itself.

Other times, of course, what you’ll find when you’re brutally honest with yourself is that, yeah, there are some pretty definite and specific problems in your writing. If so, congratulations! You’ve just been handed the tremendous gift of knowing what you need to improve.

2. Start With Your Instincts

Emotions are not logic. How you feel about your writing itself and your personal ability as a writer won’t always offer you logical answers (see above). However, those feelings are never false. They always come from somewhere, and they’re always the first place to start when striving for deliberate growth.

Your goal here is figuring out how to step forward. Your instincts already know exactly in what direction that step should be. Listen to them. Don’t try to logically translate them right away. Just feel them. Try to go beyond the surface; sometimes there’s another feeling hiding underneath because it’s something you’re less comfortable with.

Maybe what you find is that you have a distinct discomfort when you think about your execution of show vs. tell, your understanding of theme, or your development of a particular character. Or maybe what you find is an outright terror of sharing your work with readers, of writing about a particular subject, or of risking failure.

That’s all good stuff.

3. Ask Logical Questions to Find Holes

Once you’ve identified what your instincts are telling you about your weak points as a writer, it’s time to bring in your logical brain. Start asking specific questions to get to the root of the problem and to figure out the best way to solve it.

Often, writers panic when they realize some aspect of a story isn’t working. Maybe the dialogue is terrible. It’s stilted, boring, and just doesn’t flow. These writers know enough to know there’s a problem, but they don’t know how to fix it. (Cue more wailing on the couch.)

Here’s the good news: once you’ve figured out what’s wrong, figuring out how to fix it is much easier. Remember Sue Grafton’s credo:

If you know the question, you know the answer.

Start narrowing down the questions. Go from “how do I fix my dialogue?” to “what is the specific issue with my dialogue?” to “what is the specific fix for this specific problem?”

Don’t ever try to swallow a problem whole. Keep breaking it down and breaking it down until you’ve got it in completely bite-sized pieces—each one with an obvious actionable next step.

4. Amp Up Your Contextual Knowledge

Your logical ability in solving your storytelling weaknesses and learning how to grow as a writer is only going to be as good as the information you have to work with. Although humans have an instinctive understanding of storytelling, few of us start out out with enough knowledge about the craft to consciously iterate problems and solutions.

So fill up your brain. Treatises on the craft, like this site, are a great aid in helping you understand the theoretical and technical constructs within which your own storytelling logic will best operate. But your best contextual knowledge for story will always come from story itself. Read widely; watch widely. But don’t stop there. Enter storytelling experiences with a critical eye, not so much on the story itself, but on your own reactions to it.

A common protest I hear from writers is that the more they learn about writing technique, the more difficult it is not to view other stories critically. There’s a certain amount of truth to this, since the more refined your own taste becomes, the less tolerance you’ll have for weak work.

That said, one of the best ways around this problem is to realize you don’t have to (and, for my money, shouldn’t) study story by sitting down to read or watch with the intention of tearing the thing apart. What you’re interested in is not whether or not a book’s narrative head hops, but how this makes you feel as a participant in the storytelling experience and, most importantly, why it makes you feel that way.

This is the basis of the kind of deep theoretical knowledge that will allow you to accurately understand your own stories, what’s working in them, and how to fix what is not.

5. Get Betas to Help You With Your Blind Spots

We’re all human. We’re all finite. We’re all blind. No matter how educated and aware any one of us may be, we’re never going to perceive anything with absolute accuracy—and especially not our own work. This is why it’s so important for writers to benefit from the objective eyes of beta readers, critique partners, and editors.

Feedback from anyone is valuable, in its context. Even objectively incorrect opinions can teach you something about how readers are interacting with your story. That said, the better your beta readers, the better your feedback. Readers with great storytelling instincts are fantabulous; readers who can logically iterate those instincts are even better.

However, as important as it is to solicit and accept feedback, it’s also important that you never take anyone’s opinion for gospel. In receiving criticism from someone else, apply all of the above steps in qualifying the worth of their feedback, just as you would in trying to understand your own problems with a story.

***

Learning how to grow as a writer is your highest artistic calling. Identifying, accepting, and moving past your current weaknesses not only makes you a better writer, it is also part of the framework of growth within the larger story of your entire life. I believe most of us become writers because we are interested, on some level, in understanding life. How awesomely meta is it that the writing itself provides such a wonderful opportunity for doing just that?

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What lesson has been most valuable to you in your journey of learning how to grow as a writer? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I’m still slowly working on my first WIP, but so far the most valuable lessons have come from this website. Thanks Katie!

    In terms of my own growth process- I’m sticking to my tried and true strategy of giving myself time to understand the problem and the solution. When I’m stuck I take time off to immerse myself in other books and stories. I mentally clean the slate. I argue with myself about why I should keep stuff that’s not working. I damn myself with faint praise. It has never failed yet, but this first wip has taken about two years. I reckon I’m about a month, maybe two, away from saying it’s ‘finished’.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Love this. The subconscious is a powerful thing if we just give it space to work.

  2. Jason P. says:

    Katie,

    Thank you for this post. My struggles come with re-writing and self-editing, and this helps give me perspective and ways to tackle it.

    Jason

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Editing is not my favorite part of the process either, but it’s one where a phenomenal amount of growth can happen.

    • Jason and Katie, self-editing is hard because some of our writer brains are not wired to think so critically as editors do. However, editing is my favorite part of the writing process, mainly, and Katie’s comment is spot-on—we do learn so much more than we could ever imagine editing our work or someone else’s! Also, editing another’s work is even better. As an editor by day and a writer by night, I love both worlds.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        This is why I believe it’s so important to balance both creativity and logic in becoming a successful writer.

  3. Super encouraging. Humility is far kinder than genius. Thanks, KM.

  4. Max Woldhek says:

    Re: 1. Right now I think my biggest weakness is not writing enough, or regularly enough. Wait, maybe that’s not completely accurate. More like, if I’m writing, it’s really hard to do anything else at all that day, and that includes necessary chores. Or vice versa. Think it’s got to do with my Autism (low energy and fatigue are common problems on the spectrum). If I can find a way to crack that, that’s the biggest problem solved since I’ll have time to iron out the kinks in my writing.

    Re: 4. I would say that in addition to theoretical knowledge, getting more practical experience in various fields is also a tremendous help. For example, I’ve taken a few sword-fighting classes this spring with the aim of it becoming a regular hobby, and after learning just a few moves I’ve already got ideas for sprucing up my fight scenes, which I’ve often been dissatisfied with.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Energy management is something I’m working on right now as well. After going through a major period of burnout a few years ago, I’m still figuring out the best balance for both health and productivity.

  5. Michael says:

    A few of these resonate. I have decided to do a major re-write of my fantasy. Mostly, i believe, is due to me growing as a person and learning more about story telling, that so many changes are needed that starting over would be better. I think re-planning it a bit more to really get a story i want to write. Its required a lot of brutal honesty combined with increasing, and even coming from, growth in contextual knowledge.

    Im long way off from needging beta readers, but im aware of the importance of having different perspectives and feedback. Although i have some for a non fiction book im writing.

    I think to push through we definitely need to face our defence mechanisms. They try to protect what we have, and makeup excuses, but they dont allow us to go forward from what we have to the something better. But its got to be done.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree about the necessity of recognizing and facing our defense mechanisms. It’s the whole bit about the first step to overcoming a problem being admitting that you have a problem.

      • Michael says:

        The issue with defense mechanisms is protecting ourselves from harm but they get distorted and often are used to defend against pride being hurt. We mistake feeling hurt as harm and defend ourselves to maintain our pride, but the long term results are stifling growth.

  6. Thanks for this timely post, Katie! As both a writer and a professional editor, I’m learning balance and what to and where to truly invest my time, energy, and focus.

  7. Garrett says:

    Good stuff, here. The biggest take away for me is when you speak about, “amp[ing] up your contextual knowledge.” Over the years of writing, the greater my sense and ability to catch problems and throw-back appropriate solutions. These things take time. It’s funny to look back and see how my brain processes problems in my writing when I first began! Now I feel like a Jedi… no, not in writing, but in understanding the issues and how to appropriately solve them! 🙂

  8. Jenny North says:

    Thanks very much for all of this, there’s a lot of terrific food for thought here. For me writing is definitely an emotional process, which means that sometimes I’ll find myself staring at a blinking cursor and wailing, “Why is this so HARD? I’m better than this!” It’s easy for me to get paralyzed by all of the things that a story can be or should be, or if its too derivative or whatever, so conquering that fear and doubt and just letting myself get the words out is a big deal.

    In completely unrelated news I’m considering buying a waterproof laptop so that I can do my writing in the shower. That free-association time is gold! 🙂

  9. Probably the hardest lesson I’ve learned is it’s a lot more than putting pen to paper, and no, not everybody can do this. I came up with a great idea for a story-it was a dream actually. I then decided to write this story and submit it for publication. Well, it was rejected promptly by all but one agent. She rejected it but offered encouragement and recommendations. She loved the storyline but the writing had to go 🙂

    I had never heard of head hopping or dragging dialogue. I know what it is now. You know I joke about spending the last six years writing this novel, but in fairness to myself, I had to backtrack and learn how to write a novel. Something I’m still learning.

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

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