“Did you study writing at university?”
I get asked that a lot. I got asked it the other day at the script reading for my first play. And the answer is yes — for all of about three months. Sadly, that was all I could stand before I returned home and started writing. Writing. Writing!
But how does someone like me, with no formal education in writing beyond my A-Levels, have a 10 year career in freelance and creative writing? The short answer is: a lot of hard work. But more practically, there are five things that have formed the basis of my writing life — and the good news is, they’re all things you can put in place right now, for free.
1. Do yourself a favour: Write often, Read obsessively
You can’t get fit if you don’t exercise. It’s sad, but it’s true.
Same goes for writing. Being a writer is more about the verb than the noun. A writer is only that when she is writing. So make sure you’re doing as much as possible. I really recommend morning pages as a means to just purge your brain of the icky, gunky, funky and fruity morsels it’s been holding onto and then revisiting it for ideas when you want to do something a bit more meaty. Do it for five minutes. Do it for fifty. It doesn’t matter how long so long as you do some. And then, when you feel comfortable, consider growing your practice.
In addition, read everything you can. Listen to audiobooks, watch TV and then look at the screenplays, do anything you can to saturate yourself in stories.
2. Emulate other writers and play with their toys
In art we expect that artists will “explore” or “copy” another artists style as they figure out what they want to achieve with their own work. This is natural, healthy and, above all, it’s part of growing as an artist so that you can acquire the tools you need to achieve your own personal aesthetic.
When it comes to writers, this isn’t true. For some reason, copying style or frameworks is frowned upon. Instead, you are supposed to mystically know exactly how to construct stories and characters based on what you learned at school. This is crap. What’s worse, it’s elitist. It presupposes everyone had an opportunity to get a gold-standard education.
I could rant about this, but I won’t. Instead we’ll get to the fun bit. Pick a book series or a TV show or film, and write a story for it. Write it like you are the writers behind that story. Play with the characters. Yes, this is what is commonly referred to as fanfiction and it’s wonderful because it allows particularly young writers to learn by doing. If you want to extend this exercise, and what I did, was deconstruct why my work differed from the original. Was I using language they didn’t use? Were my characters acting in keeping with the tone of the story, and if not had I deliberately broken those rules or had it just slid out of my control?
Get creative with this and you might find yourself mining new ideas you wouldn’t otherwise have thought of, all the while getting a better grasp on things like plot, pacing and character development — all without really trying.
3. Show your work to others
What was that? Was that sound your stomach churning with the thought of handing over your story to someone else? Yup, I’ve been there. I can say the number one thing that held back my writing in the early days wasn’t a lack of a formal education, it was being too scared to get feedback.
And let’s be clear, don’t get feedback from your loved ones and friends. At best, they’re going to be too polite to give any really good notes. At worst, they will give you good notes but you’ll hate them for being mean about your masterpiece. Don’t put yourself (or them) through that. Instead find someone over the internet. Message boards are great for this. Community portals like Wattpad and other social writing sites can also be useful.
Or maybe for you it does mean joining a course and getting that feedback. Or doing what I did and joining a group of writers who workshop together. Whatever works for you. Just make sure you are collecting data on how you can improve.
4. Know that when you are at your most angry with your writing, you are levelling up
You’ve re-read your previous day’s pages and you are furious. How could you have written such utter rubbish?
Guess what, it’s normal. In fact, it’s healthy. When you can see that your work is falling short of where you want it to be it means your critical eye is getting sharper, your ear for what works more tuned in and switched on. This is growth in action. So when you next feel like punishing yourself for what you perceive as bad writing, give yourself permission to have written something that no longer works– after all, it’s a sign that you are identifying a problem and can switch course for the right direction.
5. Lastly, find the fun
When you force yourself against resistance you pinch off the flow of creativity. The only way to be in that flow — and it isn’t easy but it is necessary — is to find the fun. So when you’re next procrastinating over a piece of work, try to find something to make it interesting again. Switch up where you write, change the look of the program on which you’re writing, alter the music you write to (if you do) or anything like that.
Personally, I do this by juggling multiple projects. That won’t work for everyone, but for me it means that when my interest in one is running dry, I can hop to the next and find some juice for that, and so on.
However you do it, look for that sense of forward momentum and write toward it. You can always go back and edit what you’ve written, but you can’t rework what isn’t there.
So there’s my list. Now, do you have any tips? If so, please share them in the comments below!