As a reader, I have admired writers for as long as I can remember. I marveled at what they could do, and I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything like it. The more I read, the more my taste improved–I knew good writing when I saw it, and I knew bad writing when I saw it. I also knew when my own writing was bad (and it usually was) and when it was good (which was very rarely, and usually on accident). It’s like how Ira Glass famously put it:
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
His advice has taken root in me. I have been further encouraged by other authors who talk about writing as a commitment to time and consistency. Only until now have I dared push past fear and self-doubt and start my time. It is thrilling, delightful, and terrifying.
So, why do I write?
- to exercise my writing habit.
- to practice the feeling of getting my thoughts on paper without letting my inner critics stop the flow of ideas
- to see what I think about things
- to push myself
- because it feels good
- to be creative
- to be a part of the writing world that I’ve admired for so long
- because it’s the natural response of an impassioned reader–to talk back
- because I want to send something of myself out into the world.
So why do you write; or more specifically, why do a writing course?
There are a lot of different approaches you can take to designing your own writing course. Do you want to write in a journal every day, write a full-length book, write blog posts, write an essay or article, write letters to your grandmother? You can choose to focus on any kind of writing.
First, just like in the Learning for Mastery course found in my Learning Project post, I have a list of course materials I would like to use. Below are some of the best books and resources for writing that I know of:
The Complete Artist’s Way: Creativity as Spiritual Practice by Julia Cameron
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd
The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark
The Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge Approach by Betty Flowers
The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White
Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing by John Trimble
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser
Creating Character Emotions by Ann Hood
The Maeve Binchy Writer’s Club by Maeve Binchy
The Writer’s Idea Book by Jack Heffron
How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish:
Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro
The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
Building Great Sentences: Exploring the writer’s craft (Great Courses)
Writing Creative Non-Fiction (Great Courses)
Write Great Fiction: Storytelling tips and techniques (Great Courses)
Analysis and Critique: How to engage and write about anything (Great Courses)
One of the most important books on this list is Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. This book really helped me bridge the gap between my excessive reading habit and my strong desire to write a book of my own. Here are a couple of my favorite quotes from the book:
If we want to write, it makes sense to read—and to read like a writer. If we wanted to grow roses, we would want to visit rose gardens and try to see them the way that a rose gardener would.
Every so often I’ll hear writers say that there are other writers they would read if for no other reason than to marvel at the skill with which they can put together the sort of sentences that move us to read closely, to disassemble and reassemble them, much the way a mechanic might learn about an engine by taking it apart.
Her book points out all the ways that we can notice the “behind the curtain” workings of authors. She also argues that it takes a careful reading: you can’t just rush through a book.
With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious, but oddly underappreciated, fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. I realize it may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.
Stephen King has also said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.” There have been a few books that I found myself marveling over as a writer:
- The Harry Potter Series — plot!
- The Happiness Project and Better Than Before — clarity and sharing personal insight effectively
- Mastery — well researched, clearly organized, compelling ideas
- The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens — laying out steps and making them memorable
- The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making–voice and narration
- Simple Abundance–organization for practical use of the reader, but what to avoid with style and voice
- Big Magic–voice, style, and sharing an idea with passion
…among others. So, what books have you read that taught you the most about writing?
I bet you saw this coming. Writing is the main objective here.
Now that we have a list of things to read, it’s really time to get writing. These objectives are really just a collection of writing goals to provide you with the opportunity to write a lot.
- Write at least 750 words every day
- Earn as many badges as possible
- Sign up for NaNoWriMo and complete 50,000 words
- Outline any book ideas you have so they are ready to work on
I have a busy life, just like everyone else. I realized that if I really truly want to write, I’m going to have to make time for it. I would sometimes fall into fits of determination and I’d sit at my computer or with a blank notebook and pen, poised to write something amazing, and I would have nothing to write about. I’d stumble around writing stream-of-consciousness stuff. I would end up thinking, “What a waste of time this is!” Sometimes I would benefit from a little mindless writing–it can be like therapy. But I wasn’t getting any better at writing. I wasn’t going anywhere as a “writer” because I had no planned direction or goal.
I started looking for ideas. After I had a good idea, I outlined it. After I had an outline of a promising idea, I would just write away at each part of the outline until I had the idea fleshed out. I could stop and start easily. I could continue for as long as I had time, because I had a map of where I wanted to go.
I even outlined my journal entries. I have a “Life List” where I keep a prompt of all the events of my life until this point that I might want to write about. On any given day, I just choose one little prompt–like when I learned that Santa wasn’t real, for example–and write until I felt finished.
I have outlines filed away for book ideas I’ve had, blog posts I’d like to write, random prompts I’ve heard about from other sources. I am never at a loss for something to write about again. With a writing map so full of options, of places I could take my writing, I find that my writing is getting better and that I’m having a lot more fun.
At some point, writing became a habit. Planning for it became natural. It’s like planning to eat: I just do it because I have to. I’d be going about my usual routine, realize I was hungry to write, and I’d wander into the office, like a person might wander into the kitchen and to the fridge, and start writing something. I have decided to take this as a sign that writing is something I’m supposed to be doing.
You can probably guess what the final project for this course is going to be. Writing a book is the goal; more specifically, finishing and polishing your book for publication and finding a way to get it published is the final project for this course. I acknowledge that it isn’t a simple project. Writing and publishing a book often takes years.
To get started, do the following tasks:
- There are many options for publication. Part of prepping for this final project is to research publishing options and the publishing process for each of those options. Amazon has some great resources for self-publishing ebooks and physical books.
- List the steps you need to take to get to publication for you particular project. This list might be dictated by the instructions for submitting that different publishers have. It might involve designing your own cover and doing some intense editing.
Look for a note-taking workbook coming soon to The Workbook Shop!