Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Becoming a World Class Writer

I'm not a sports fan, but even I have heard about this little shindig they are cooking up in London called the Olympics. While I will probably be watching a Law and Order marathon or something during that time, I do understand and respect our Olympic Athletes. I also know there are several things writers can learn from the Olympians.

Excellence Requires Hard Work

Those athletes get up at 4:30 and by 6:00 A.M. they are out on the field practicing. They continue with that for hours at a time. Notice what I'm saying. They are PRACTICING. I didn't say they are competing or performing. They are all alone going through exercises perfecting their skills one at a time without an audience or even the expectation of an audience.

Many of us who write seem to want to be able to do world class writing (You know the type that gets published by people who pay you as opposed to you paying them) without putting in the time and effort. We want to sit down for a couple hours a week and dash off some wonderful words and send them off to a publisher waiting for a check to arrive in the next week or so.


Success in any field requires practice. That means writing 10,000 words for every 100 that get published, especially in the beginning when you are learning your craft. How many laps do you think Michael Phelps swam before he competed in his first swim meet? How many before the regionals? How many before the nationals? How many before the Olympics?

Okay, today you spent an hour writing stuff only good enough to line the bird cage with. Big, Fat, Juicy Deal. Do you think Dorthy Hamill never fell on the ice? That's just part of the practice round before you get to the main event.

Excellence Requires Time

Can you imagine an Olympian saying to his or her coach, "I would really like to workout today, but I have to clean the house and then there is a sale at the mall I must go to and well I've been wanting to redecorate and.... and.... and...."?

Let me tell you something that no one else has probably told you about excuses. Even if an excuse for not writing is valid, it is still hurting your writing effectiveness.

I can say, honestly, that there are many times I don't write because I have something that is a higher priority, an unavoidable circumstance or a physical ailment. I recognize that as a legitimate excuse for not writing. However, I do not fool myself into thinking that it is not hurting my writing career.
The fact is when I break my "training routine" for my writing career, I lose some of my momentum. I get behind on projects. It takes me longer to get back on track later. All that is the same whether I took a break from writing because I wanted to go on vacation or if I was sick.

The good news about this is that there are a lot of time management tools available to writers today. I'll be sharing some of these tips and tricks over the next few weeks. Also, technology has streamlined some tasks, like research and editing, which in the old days (which I remember well and never want to return) took a lot of time.

However, at the end of the day, your development as a writer will correlate directly with how much time you spend developing your craft.

Excellence Requires Prioritizing

How important is writing to you? Right now, I could be watching a rerun of Franklin and Bash from earlier in the evening. Writing this blog is more important to me. It helps me to develop my writing. It is part of an effort to market some of my books and writing services. It also makes me feel good to share my knowledge with others. Paying it forward, as they say, is important to me. All of that is more important than watching a show I can catch later "on demand."

The athletes that make it to the Olympics have made their sport a priority. It may not be number one, but it is very high on the list. Where is writing on your list of priorities? On mine right now it comes in third after my service to God (which often involves writing) and my family. However, even my family knows to cut me a little slack for my writing because we all benefit from it just in different ways. At one time, it had to come in fourth, because I also had a full-time job which I loved and took a lot of time.

Now, some people say, "Well, my family is a priority and they take up so much of my time." That can be true, but let me ask you this: "If writing were your 9-5 job that you went to an office everyday to perform and got paid a salary for, would you leave it to take care of family matters as you do your writing at home?" Seriously, would you leave the workplace and tell your boss you have to take the rest of the day off because you need to help your daughter pick out her dress for the prom? You would probably wait until you got home from work to do that. Just because family is your priority, doesn't mean that everything your family wants from you needs to be a priority. We understand this with work that takes place at an office or store or worksite, we need to be able to apply it when working from home.

Excellence Requires Coaching

You see the athletes on the field performing. What you don't see are the coaches behind the scenes helping them develop their skills. Coaches help the athlete take raw talent and shape it into skilled performance. As with any other skill, you have to learn to write well. You may have a way with words, but you need to learn how to use that knack to create stories, articles, books, plays or whatever. You can find that type of coaching in many places. You can find it in night schools, community college enrichment programs, online, in writers groups or from personal mentors. It is important, though, that you choose your coaches (you will usually have several over time) well. First, can they do what they are going to teach you to do. There was a class offered by a major writing school in novel writing that was taught by a woman who had never written a novel. Indeed, aside from her book on novel writing, the only other things I found she had written were a couple of essays and a short story for a little literary magazine.

Secondly, can they teach? Not everyone who can do something well can teach it. Do you know other people who have taken this course or read these books or went to these workshops? What do they have to say? Can you get a sample lesson or a copy of the syllabus? If you can't understand what they have written in a syllabus why should you believe they can make their lessons clear?
Third, are they a good fit for you? If you want to write novels, then taking a class in writing the nonfiction book, probably isn't going to help you much.

Excellence Requires Patience

I dreamed of writing and publishing a novel when I was 11 years old. I was 58 when it happened. Okay, I had done a lot of other types of writing in between. I wrote everything from newspaper articles to magazine pieces to documentary videos to nonfiction books. Meanwhile, I had been practicing my fiction writing skills, wrote a few short stories that people seemed to like and finally took the plunge and wrote a novel. That took two years to write and another six months to edit. It takes time to learn any skill. You just have to keep plugging along and not give up along the way.

Finally, Excellence Requires Sacrifice

We have built a culture which tells us we can lose weight without diet or hard exercise, that we can get rich overnight without working, that by reading a book and applying a few simple rules we can find the person of our dreams, raise great kids, and become the perfect manager at work. All this will take place without having to give up anything.

The truth is you cannot have it all. The art of living lies in managing the trade offs. You may have to give up an hour of TV with your family, watching the game with your friends, catching that sale downtown or taking on some optional household project in order to pursue your writing.

Yes, excellence takes time, effort and sacrifice, but it pays off. For the athlete it is that medal hung around the neck and the cheers of the crowd. For the writing, it's a bit quieter. It's seeing one's name in print, getting an email from a fan or seeing your book on the shelf at the local bookstore. And when that happens, you know the hard work and discipline has been worth it all.


  1. Terri,
    Excellent post. A good reminder that writing for publication, like any worthwhile endeavor, takes more than dreams, it takes hours of practice and determination.

  2. Good advice. Even when I can't physically write, my mind is working on writing.

  3. I have a friend who commutes 2 hours to the city on a shuttle van. In the middle of other passenger's snores and body odors, she writes. Every morning and evening she perfects her craft at writing children's books--4 hours a day! I have no doubt with that dedication and the proper guidance, she'll have a ms accepted. I'd probably be slumped in the van, wishing I was home so I could fulfill my dream of writing--and she is just plowing ahead no matter what the circumstances!

  4. Thanks Terri--something which needed to be said. Publishers are becoming more and more selective year by year and with smaller budgets for editing, they are all looking for the perfect work rather than one which still needs rewriting.

  5. Thank you, Terri, for a much needed kick-in-the-pants for me. I have a book I am working on, but can't settle down to it. I have to just do it! I am planning on working on it, but I can't today because....... Uh, oh...You are so right and thanks for this very thoughtful post. I look forward to reading moe of your posts and insights. Thanks for founding this blog!

  6. I am guilty of the above excuses. It is good to see it written out and good to face the ugly truth. I do want to be a writer - I am a writer. Writers write. Thank you!

  7. Terri- you really put it all in perspective. To be successful at anything we have to be determined, committed and work hard; there is no other way. Some past times will have to be sacrificed for the greater good. I'd say your blog is off to a very good start. Well done!

  8. Terri, this is an excellent post. I look forward to more of your sharing. It's so easy to get sidetracked when we're writing. Thanks for the reminder.


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