Anyone can become a solid writer…just don’t expect it to happen overnight.
I learned the fundamentals of writing and editing while working on my college essays with my mother (almost fifteen years ago). She never judged my writing, even though it was terrible at first. Since there was no judgement, I could engage in the process openly, without fear of being scolded or humiliated. This is crucial to working with anyone on their writing.
The way you write is easily tied directly to your intelligence, which makes the act intimidating. If you can find a mentor or teacher who will be kind, encouraging, and thoughtful about your work, hold on tight and learn everything you can from them.
Keys to working with others on your writing:
1. Push through the uncomfortable I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing phase. No one knows how to be a strong writer at first, just suck it up and live through the awkward phase (it will be back to visit you again and again).
2. Listen & smile. You don’t have to agree, but I’ve learned that it is best to receive constructive criticism with grace. You can sort through what you do and don’t want to incorporate into your writing practices later.
3. Give back. Editing is a labor of love. It takes full attention and a great deal of time and energy. Anyone who delivers quality feedback is giving you an invaluable gift. Return the favor as much as possible.
Back to my first turning point (I will always be a student of writing). While working on college essays with my mother, I would take a stab at the piece on my own, print out the document, and give it to her. She would sit at the kitchen table for at least an hour to dissect my draft, red pen in hand. When she gave it back to me, you could barely see the original words. We would walk through her notes together, one by one. It was during those moments at our kitchen table that I built the foundation for every word I would write in the future.
I’d return to the computer with her shorthand notes–squiggly lines, abbreviations, and symbols that she had picked up in law school–to rewrite the piece. We’d repeat this process 5, 10, sometimes 15 more times, until it read effortlessly. Reaching the finished product was exhilarating.
My mother always told me that I was a good writer. Since I knew that she was revered for her writing and editing skills, I was honored by the compliment. Somehow, she could sort through my immature prose and see that I had potential. I believed her. Every time we tackled an essay together, her notes on the page lessened.
I still follow the guidelines that I learned in my late teens during my kitchen table critiques. At first, I felt like a robot, following her notes blindly. But with time and repetition, the editing language became fluent and found its way to my gut.
I experienced the same learning curve when I joined a local writer’s group five years ago. It was my first attempt at fiction and my initial submission was returned covered in notes. I was overwhelmed and embarrassed. I could have left that first meeting and never returned, but I swallowed my pride and took the monthly critiques to heart. Three years later, I landed a literary agent. I’m eternally grateful for the generosity and honesty of that group. Their teachings still influence my writing today.
These lessons have grown roots inside me. Now, when I read and edit someone’s writing, I follow an inner compass. As I sort through and stitch together each sentence, I feel calm and fulfilled. Time is irrelevant. I’m in the zone.
I’m not a grammar guru. I don’t have a degree in English. I wasn’t a book worm as a kid. For all these reasons I used to think that I couldn’t succeed as a writer. Finally, I’ve embraced my own path, even if it doesn’t include formal training and a personal library filled with classic literature. I believe that vulnerability, commitment, and a willingness to listen and learn from your teachers (whether they’re your professor, boss, mother, or fellow writer) are all you need to hone your craft. Just hang in there.