How I Became a Good Writer
The first time I won a writing competition, I was probably twelve or thirteen years old. I was obsessed with a blog called Go Teen Writers that hosted monthly 100-word story contests. Winners and their stories were shared with the blog’s many readers, and I craved the idea of my peers reading my work. After all, I was writing for them.
I wrote and submitted a 100-word story every month, and every time I lost I tried harder. I read the winning entries, I obsessed over their details — why they were better than mine, what my peers had to say about them in the comments.
Studying paid off. When one of my stories finally won, readers raved about it. I’m still proud of that stupid little excerpt, because I worked hard for that win. It was my first taste of victory. But more than that, it taught me everything I needed to know about being a writer.
I want to share those lessons with you today.
First of all, I did my homework. For writers this means reading the competition. The winners of the prize or distinction you crave need to be committed to memory. Your goal isn’t to copy them — it’s to learn from them. You are a student of good writing.
Writers are always learning. You need to be willing to fail over and over. I was a part of the Go Teen Writers community for a couple years, and I probably submitted a story every month even though I only won once. That’s because I was willing to fail.
Occasionally I was a runner’s up and got feedback on my work, which was awesome too. I have submitted to many writing contests and been thrilled to not have placed, but gotten feedback from the judges. Any opportunity to have a professional tell you how to improve is an incredibly valuable lesson.
I didn’t just read good writing. I also read books on writing. Whatever books were recommended by the writers I admired, I bought or loaned from the library or begged my parents to gift me. I couldn’t take courses on writing outside of my normal English classes at school, so I learned from these books. I read blog posts and prizewinning writing and my peers' work.
I learned from everything I could get my hands on. I also learned from what others were willing to tell me, whether they realized they were giving me advice or not.
Back in middle and high school, I would bring whatever book or story I was currently working on and read it to my friends during art class or our breaks. Our school was very artsy and most of my friends would be pouring over their sketchbooks, so I would read my writing to them while they worked. I learned which characters and storylines they liked and disliked. This taught me a lot about my readership and what to change about my work.
I also talked about my writing to see if people were interested in the plotlines. In one memorable moment during my senior year, I was telling some friends about a book I was working on and some classmates I didn’t know very well overheard us. They were so wrapped up in the story that they had mistaken my characters for real people and the plot for gossip. When I explained it was actually a novel, they squealed with excitement.
I was giddy. That told me I was on to a book that would capture readers' attention (and it did, in fact, win me a small scholarship to a creative writing program, although I didn’t end up committing to that school.)
By now you’re probably realizing that I spent a lot of my formative years writing. It’s true — while my peers played sports or took community college classes or partied, I buried myself in my writing. I read books during lunch (and class) and wrote every spare minute that I had time.
Maybe you’re thinking that was lame. But I was willing to do it because I was passionate about my dream. I still am. While other people have gym memberships, I have writing magazines and Medium and books. The outdoors is free anyway — I can take a walk after I write.
I am also willing to practice. Most of my life I have either kept journals or blogs (usually one or the other, or else I burn out) in addition to whatever current writing project is occupying most of my writing time. These days I don’t tend to journal unless there’s something on my mind — instead I review books and write blog posts like this one.
The point is, I practice. And when I’m not practicing, I’m reading good writing. And when I’m not reading or writing, I’m taking a writing course or studying a book on writing. There are plenty of free courses, resources, blog posts, and newsletters out there. The internet is absolutely saturated in content about writing. Just look at Medium. There’s almost too many posts exactly like this one. Almost.
You can find the resources you need. You can make the time to practice. It will involve sacrificing something, though. Socializing with friends, or being a gym rat, or sleeping in on the weekends. There is a cost to being a good writer. For me, it was my formative years. My writing surpassed the level of my peers' from a young age because while they were out there being kids, making friends, playing sports, I was inside writing.
In my defense, I didn’t have the opportunity to play sports and join girl scouts and be in clubs with my friends. I had a reclusive family and was homeschooled for many years, which left me with a lot of time on my hands and little to do with it. I filled my days with writing because I was lonely, because it gave me purpose, and because it was an escape.
Writing was an opportunity to breathe, to prove my skills, to be involved in something bigger than myself. My friends were winning sporting competitions and getting invited to parties and I envied them, so I poured myself into winning writing contests and trying to get published.
What is your reason for writing? What is distracting you from being a better writer? What are your obstacles and how can you overcome them? For me, writing is my purpose and my escape. Today my biggest distraction is discouragement, and my biggest obstacle is work.
What about you? What are you willing to give up to attain your writing goals? Because I’d be willing to give up just about anything. Always have been, always will.
I think that in order to be a good writer, writing absolutely must come first. It must be the thing you wake up thinking about and go to bed thinking about, even with life happening in between. And the thing is, for those of us born with a love and passion for writing, it will be whether we want that to be the case or not.
It is our obsession. It must be, because it’s what makes us who we are: writers.