Here’s a Stupid-Simple Idea That Could Make You a Better Writer

I’m kind of embarrassed to even suggest it…

There I was, one week ago, sitting in the middle of a writing conference. The classroom was packed with bodies, people earnestly bent over their notebooks and computers. I don’t remember what the woman at the front of the room — a published writer — was teaching about. Something writerly and important and vital to creating a powerful novel, I’m sure.

I was taking notes just like everyone else, but in the back of my mind, I was having the following silent conversation with myself:

Wow. That woman has really published five books? She’s got to be ten or fifteen years younger than me.

How is that possible? Did she get a book deal in high school? How did she figure out writing so quickly?

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl. What is it that she knows that I don’t?

Something is wrong with me. That woman has figured it out in much less time than me — and I still feel like I’m miles away from being good enough. I will never make it as a writer. I am a horrible, stupid person.

For a few minutes I was feeling pretty depressed, and I couldn’t stop that one question from pulsing through me: What is it that makes that woman up front so different from me?

That’s when I had the epiphany.

It was great timing to have an epiphany, since I was feeling so down in the dumps, and demonstrates that timeless truth — hope springs eternal.

My epiphany isn’t going to sound like much to you at first, so bear with me for a minute. Sitting there at the writing conference, surrounded by the sound of scratching pens and the tap tap of laptop keyboards, I suddenly remembered the stack of ignored books on my bedroom floor.

That’s when I understood the difference between that woman and me.

I majored in English with a writing emphasis in college. I knew I wanted to write, but I didn’t know how to get there. The degree seemed like a step in the right direction. However, even after graduating, I felt like I knew next to nothing about how to write a novel. All of my writing classes focused on short stories. It wasn’t until I picked up a book on story structure that I felt the lightbulb turn on in my head.

For the first time, I realized how much my undergrad degree had left out. There were scads and heaps of things I still didn’t know about good writing. So I started collecting books on the subject. These books will help me to be a better writer, I reasoned.

And they would have, too — if I’d ever read them.

But instead of reading them, I just kept collecting them and looking at them, as though I was going to absorb their knowledge by the very act of eyeing their covers. And I kept going to writing conferences and writing, and getting mad at myself because I was moving soooo slowly through this process of becoming a writer.

I just did a count of my writing books. 17 physical books, and 14 ebooks.

I’ve only read four of them.

And that was pretty much my epiphany: I’ve got all these great books on writing, and they’re currently sitting in a stack on my bedroom floor. What’s the difference between me and that woman teaching the class at the writing conference? Probably talent and hours of practice on her part, but also this: Learning. She didn’t just wake up one day knowing how to do everything she’s up there teaching about. She studied and learned and practiced it, while I’m waiting for the book to get up off the floor and climb inside my brain.

With all the resources writers have these days, it’s hard to know which one to turn to. Writing books and websites and magazines and podcasts and conferences and newsletters. But all you have to do is pick one. Pick something you don’t know enough about and start learning.

Argh. I hate realizing something so stupidly simple.

But at the same time, the realization was incredibly freeing. Suddenly I understood that I’m not a stupid, horrible person who will never understand how to be a writer — I’ve just been going about this writing thing the wrong way. I’ve been operating under the assumption that if I put in my 10,000 hours of practice, I’d be a writer. But you know what would make me an even better writer? Picking up those books and reading them. Someday that could be me standing at the front of the classroom, teaching other writers how to be awesome.

That insight was well worth the cost of the writing conference.

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