by Meg Dowell
Writing itself is a solo activity. Being a writer is not. We can teach ourselves how to write stories and read books and try to get better, but it’s working with other writers, and finding mentors to guide us, that make us great at what we do.
I’ve had a lot of mentors throughout my journey to becoming a (relatively) accomplished writer, and each of them have taught me something different. Here’s what I’ve learned, and how you can find your own mentors.
1. There is no such thing as a perfect piece of writing
Courtesy of one of my literature professors in college, who never gave perfect grades on papers because there’s no such thing as a perfect literary analysis or any piece of writing.
We spend way too much of our time trying to write the perfect story, the perfect pitch, the perfect beginning, middle, and end. That’s valuable time gone to waste. What’s the challenge of writing something good if all we care about is submitting something without any errors? It’s not possible. Just write; it’s not supposed to be flawless. That’s why it’s called a “draft.”
2. Less is more
Before I became the managing editor of College Lifestyles magazine, I was our former managing editor’s assistant, and before that, I was just an editor. I turned in a 1,000-word article to her for editing once. I ended up trimming it down to under 600, and if you know me, you know how hard that was.
It’s about quality, not quantity. People don’t want to know you can write a lot. They want to know you can send powerful messages in as few words as possible. As a Wrimo veteran, I’m used to cranking out as many words as possible, but that’s a habit we all need to learn to break when we’re not sprinting.
3. Stop using so many “thats”
Before I became a CL editor, as you can imagine, I was a writer working underneath my own section editor. That experience was the first time I had ever really written for anyone else, and honestly, I had no idea what I was doing. Especially when it came to filler words, of which “that” seems to be a popular one.
My editor worked with me for six months to teach me not to use “that” unless absolutely necessary. You can write, “A lot of people don’t know that writing is hard,” or you can write, “A lot of people don’t know writing is hard.” If you can take out a word and a sentence still makes sense, leave it out.
4. Sitting at a computer and typing will not make you a better writer
I was really shy in high school (okay, I still am). All I wanted to do was write. I would have much rather sat alone and written a novel (which I did, many times over) than get up and do things with other people. Then I took a creative writing class, three years in a row, with the same teacher.
He made us do all sorts of things not related to writing (or so it seemed): dancing, juggling, walking around blindfolded, trying to drop eggs from a high point without breaking them. I hated every minute of it, until I didn’t. I noticed changes in my writing, yes, from not writing. We can’t just sit around. We have to get up, do dumb things, laugh. Be with people. Draw from our memories to keep our stories alive.
5. Treat writing the way you’d treat learning to play a musical instrument
This lesson came from a fiction and poetry professor and my academic advisor, who taught one of only two creative writing classes offered in the curriculum at my alma mater. The idea originally came from someone else, I can’t remember whom he read from, but he branched off and elaborated afterward, and that was what stuck with me.
How do you learn to play the piano? By practicing. You don’t just sit down once a month, press down on the keys and suddenly know how to play like an expert. Everything we write counts as practice, but we can’t call ourselves pianists, or writers, if we don’t put in the time and effort, more than the casual player/writer, to refine our skills and be the absolute best we can be.
How to find your own writing mentor
- Connect with writers on social media. Seriously. Everyone is in a different place on their journey, and you never know who you might click with, be able to learn something from, or even teach someone else.
- Take a writing class. They’re not for everyone, but it’s worth a try.
- Join a writing group, post in a forum.
- Read blogs about writing. Hey, you’re already doing it!
- Reach out to publications. Be willing to have your work critiqued by someone else, even if you’re afraid to.
I still have a lot to learn as I continue to grow and develop as a writer and plenty of new people to meet and learn new things from. Some of the lessons I learned on this list, I learned from people I don’t speak to anymore. One, I still do. One, unfortunately, is no longer with us.
But they’re lessons I’ll never forget, lessons I am more than happy to pass along to you if you need them, or if you’re feeling stuck.
Keep writing. Keep learning. It is worth every moment.
Meg Dowell is a twenty-something workaholic with a passion for writing, coffee and health. In addition to her status as an aspiring novelist, Meg is the managing editor at College Lifestyles magazine, a guest contributor with Lifehack and a guest blogger for Food & Nutrition Magazine. She is a seven-time NaNoWriMo winner and has also written for Teen Ink and USA TODAY College.