Growth is hard. It’s a battle and a journey and, like every battle and journey, the talisman of advice makes the path ahead a little easier.
Today I sat down to reflect on what I’ve learned after writing for overly twenty years so that I can share those reflections with you. I’ve grown a lot as a writer in the past two decades, and these are my best tips for how you can grow as a writer too. Let’s begin.
1. Read Books Outside Of Your Preferred Genre
This is, arguably, the most important tip in today’s post.
Increasingly, I have noticed that the individual author’s voice is disappearing—every book is starting to sound the same.
If I were to have someone take a book published in the 20th century off of my shelf and read a passage aloud to me, I would have a good chance of guessing the author, or at least differentiating between two different books. But when I pick up a YA fantasy or a historical mystery published in the last twenty years, they all sound exactly the same. This trend has become so marked, particularly in YA, making fun of it is becoming its own trend!
I believe the cause of this can be largely blamed on the fact that writers are not reading outside of their genres as much as they used to.
A YA fantasy author, for instance, reads nothing but YA fantasy . . . written by authors who also read nothing but YA fantasy. It’s a vicious circle of hemmed-in readers, exposing themselves to nothing beyond the industry standards of fantasy tone and tropes. And thus, they turn around to produce yet another soulless derivative fantasy YA novel in an endless cycle instead of developing their own unique voice.
One way to fight this is to read voraciously: read non-fiction, poetry, picture books, YA and adult. Start reading old books, when the unique voices within genres weren’t as overdeveloped as they are now. Take notes on what you read, start identifying the things you like and combine them into your own unique voice. Make it a habit to read broadly! Instead of binge-reading in one narrow genre, make all books your friend.
2. Try Writing In Different Formats Or Styles
Do you only write prose? Try poetry! Do you only write poetry? Try prose! Have you only ever written in the third person? Try switching it up to first person.
My sister, Tor Thibeaux of T Spec Fiction, worked her way out of writer’s block by writing poetry — a sideline that has since exploded into a full-time hobby as she discovered a remarkable knack and gift for this style.
When I was struggling to get a book to come to life, I found that switching to first person present tense was what finally brought my character to life. It was something I had never really attempted before, but it was exactly what I needed to finish my novel.
When my twin was working through her own creative difficulties, she started composing limericks and humorous poetry in the style of one of her favorite childhood books, Something Big Has Been Here by James Stevenson.
Another way to flex some creative muscles is to sit down with a fantasy idea but write it in modern vernacular. Or take an idea for a 1940s mystery and write it in medieval vernacular.
Get weird, get creative, practice new things. You may unlock genius.
3. Start Seeking Out (And Accepting) Criticism
We have the wrong mindset when it comes to getting critiqued: we view it as an enemy.
But critiquing (when done by someone who understands and champions your work) is your friend, not your enemy.
Critiquing isn’t a total dismantling of your soul as everyone might lead you to believe, it is a course-correction.
It’s not the voice of doom: it is the stern voice spurring you on to greater heights. It’s the coach urging you to train harder. If you want to be the best version of your writing self, then you need to not only accept critiques, but eagerly seek them out.
I’ve noticed a sad tendency in certain writers to think of beta readers as nothing more than an affirmation brigade.
While affirmation in the early days of drafting and writing has its place and is certainly lovely: writers need to move beyond that.
Before you publish, you need an honest critique of your work – sometimes multiple honest critiques. You need someone to honestly say what stinks and what doesn’t.
It can be a challenge to find just the right critique partner(s) who strike the right balance between encouragement and criticism, kindness and honesty, but it’s one of the most valuable partnerships you will ever have as a writer. But it’s a two-sided relationship.
Once you find someone who can strike the right balance, you have to possess a humble and teachable spirit to accept the fact that no story is perfect right off the bat and that every author needs help to make their book as good as it can possibly be. Embrace criticism, it can teach you so much.
(note: I recommend that authors have critique partners and beta-readers as well as a professional developmental editor).
3. Make Friends With Rejection
Yes, I really said that.
Rejection is as much a part of writing as drafting, editing, and marketing. Whether it’s a publisher rejecting your submission or a reader shredding your book—rejection is coming for you. But, really, no matter what your job is, rejection is unavoidable: it’s simply a fact of life.
There’s only one way to toughen up a weak muscle: exercise it.
Last year, I made some rejection goals. I submitted 22 times to various magazines and anthologies in 2022 . . . and nearly all of those submissions were rejections.
So this year I’m going to try to submit 23 times! Just to show them.
Over the years I’ve developed a few mindset shifts that have greatly helped me with rejection.
When I get a rejection from a publisher, I utilize my natural orneriness that keeps me firmly on top of the sensation, instead of beneath it. Instead of feeling defeated, I view rejection as a challenge to prove that I can be accepted elsewhere.
I have a practice now that when I receive a rejection, I submit the story again to a new publisher within the hour. This practice in indomitability that swings more towards the “your loss, baby” and away from the “everybody hates my writing.”
It’s okay to admit you dislike rejection – everyone does. But accepting the fact that every single human, no matter what their job, has to endure it makes it easier to deal with.
For more on this topic, check out this previous blog post I wrote: 7 Positive Ways To Deal With Negative Feedback.
4. Create A Writing Habit
Maybe you can’t write every single day, but you should write regularly. Whether it’s every other day, or a few days a week, or every weekend — it’s the regularity that is key.
Six years ago, when I finally got serious about my writing and started dedicating a few hours of every work day to writing — THAT is when I saw my growth take off in leaps and bounds. A regular writing habit increased my productivity and skill exponentially.
There isn’t enough raw talent in the world to replace consistency. If you are serious about becoming an author and not just a hobby writer, then the discipline of a regular writing habit is going to help you grow enormously.
5. Study The Craft
Far too many writers simply inhale their entertainment without studying it. For a writer, it’s no longer enough to just be entertained. Books, movies, theater, art, and radio are no longer just entertainment, they are object lessons.
It’s not enough just to love something: take some time to figure out why you love it. Take notes, discuss it with someone.
Why do you hate that one particular trope? Why did that book leave you feeling meh? Writing is more than just an art – it’s a science and an engineering feet. Learn how to be a writing architect.
Take some classes, read some non-fiction books. Check out blogs and podcasts. Invest in your writing education!
6. Form A Critique Group
I have had the blessing and benefit of being a part of a weekly critique group for the last thirteen years: and it has caused me to grow immensely — both as a writer and an editor.
You don’t have to meet in person, and it doesn’t have to be weekly, but find peers who are willing to grow and to help you grow. Find partners who are willing to speak the truth in love so that you will all be able to communicate honestly on what you need to improve — not just affirm what you are doing right.
7. Try Writing From Prompts
This tip is an unusual one, but it helped me grow in so many ways!
Instead of just writing stories that you come up with on your own, start training your imagination to “take dictation.”
Any writer can create something out of their own head, but being able to create a finished product based on someone else’s idea takes true discipline.
The tips shared previously help you refine your unique voice, this tip teaches you how to apply your unique voice to everything you create. Writing a story from someone’s else’s seed trains you and enables you to leave your individual mark on everything that passes through your keyboard.
It takes a true artisan to take a lump of clay that someone else has made and form it into their own glorious statue.