How to become a better writer.

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Have you ever found yourself thinking something like, "If only Ann Patchett would read the first draft of my manuscript and give me feedback — then I would be a better writer."

A living, in-person mentor who gives you one-on-one attention is wonderful, if you can find one. Having a writer pay close attention to you and your work feels amazing. I can only imagine what it would be like to get Ann Patchett's revision notes. But it's not the only way to learn how to be a good writer.

So much of your growth as a writer depends on you paying close attention to what you are reading.

In other words, if you really want to learn what Ann Patchett would think of your manuscript, read Ann Patchett.

You have a lot of wisdom inside yourself already. Some of it might be observable now; some of it might still be dormant. Being an open and willing student of what you read will help you recognize more of your own wisdom.

Reading is like dropping a stone in a body of water. There's a splash, and then the water moves accordingly. To learn from what you read, pay attention to the shape and structure of the ripples that form as a result of the splash.

Find an author you admire, and read their work. Read it over and over again. Do your research: read about how this person writes. Study everything they do. Read their interviews. Read their novels, essays, articles, editorials, and writing contest introductions. Copy passages of their work in your own notebook, in your own handwriting, to see how it feels to step into their syntax and language. Read their book recommendations, read their influences.

How you react to what you read teaches you who you are as a writer. Follow the clues of your own admiration and awe. Even shadow emotions, like sadness, jealousy and repulsion, are your teachers.

If an author you deeply admire is still alive, please write them a thank-you card. Articulate what you love about their writing concisely and truthfully. Mail it ℅ their publisher — it will get to them eventually. But before you mail it, make a note somewhere so you remember what you wrote in the card.

Your admiration teaches you what your strengths are.

If it saddens you that your author is no longer alive and writing anything new, pay attention. Let it break your heart, and keep reading. By opening yourself up to their influence and reading while feeling vulnerable, you are letting in what you need to know in order to continue their lineage.

Your sadness teaches you what you want to keep alive in your work.

If it makes you jealous to study a particular author, pay attention. Jealousy is always telling you something about what you want for your own writing. I remember reading Annie Proulx when I was an undergrad. Accordion Crimes made me break out in an uncomfortable sweat: I wanted her language so much! I didn't just want to read her metaphors -- I wanted to be the person writing those metaphors.

Your jealousy teaches you how to write what you want to read.

If you find yourself feeling overly critical of an author's work — in other words, if you dislike it so much that strong feelings are evoked — pay attention to that, too. What is it that you're seeing in the work you dislike? What is the quality of the writing that is upsetting you?

Your repulsion teaches you something about what you want to strengthen in your own work.

If you don't have an in-person writing mentor yet, don't let that get in the way of your study and practice. Don't wait for a mentor to come into your life before you apprentice yourself to the mentors lining your library's bookshelves.

All books contain magic — to access it, you just have to pay attention to what comes up for you as you read.

Love,

Sarah Selecky

Photo credit: Valdemaras D. on Unsplash.


International Literacy Day.
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6 comments

Ooohh so insightful Sarah. It's true our feelings guide us to understanding don't they? admiration, sadness, jealousy, repulsion. My favorite insight is on repulsion, I've been contemplating this lately. The things you hate in others are the things you hate or fear within yourself. Never thought to apply that to studying the craft. Thanks!
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How very true, Sarah. You are very perceptive. I have a lot of "favourites" among the authors I read and follow and each has a unique style. Some tell a story like poetry, some describe life in all its rawness, some can weave stories out of simple things that we may have missed in the busyness of our own lives. My writing has matured over the years because I have learned so much from the great talent that surround us and yet, it has also allowed me to keep to my style when I write.
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grace purpura

Thank you so much! I have to read this over and over to internalize it. You have hit a nerve and have validated things I do intuitively - - - reading, admiring other writers and also being jealous of them. It is like in painting, find your mentors and go for it! All the great ones did!
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Right on. I have learned so much from reading carefully and with fresh eyes. And several - or more - times too. And today I was thinking about you so much when I attended a wonderful workshop with Zsuzsi Gartner, who you recommend so highly. Thanks again for your course and ongoing encouragement. Starting with 'Story Is a State of Mind', I have learned to read and write much more attentively. xoxox jane
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I love this advice. I tend to underline passages and things that really move me, but I never thought of really studying my favorite authors in such an intense way and of paying that close attention to what my negative emotions are telling me and I think that is such great insight! Thank you. I had to put a copy of this in my writing notebook.
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Thanks for these reminders, Sarah. Study is a rich form of meta cognition -- we see what we're drawn to positively *or* negatively, and we ask ourselves why we're drawn to it, and what that can tell us about ourselves. As I sit here with a short stack of short story collections, about to dig in, I appreciate the reminder to notice what I notice, and then ask what that can teach me about my own writing.
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