Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of writing advice that’s out there? I do. It is exhausting. I have a huge pile of writing books I have yet to get to, a bunch of writing podcasts I barely have time to listen to, and writer upon writer that I follow on social media. And, yes, they do tend to say different things. Why? Because there is no “right” way to write, no “right” way to tell a story. Every writer and every project is unique. So how do we begin to navigate the vast advice wilderness? That’s what we’re talking about today.
Before we jump into this topic, please know that I am a big proponent of lifelong learning. I love to absorb the wisdom and insight of people who are experts in their fields. But I sometimes become overwhelmed. There is so much advice out there about everything, including writing a novel, and often one person’s methods or advice conflicts with what someone else says. I think that this problem has increased tenfold with the access that the internet and social media have given to us. So how do we figure out how to use all of these craft resources?
The other issue that I run into is that sometimes I choose learning rather than taking action. In my writing life, this looks like signing up for classes and workshops, reading craft books, and, yes, listening to writing podcasts instead of using that time to actually write. I’ve heard this kind of choice called taking passive action; we think that we’re being productive or working toward a goal, when really at the end of it we are still in the same place we were when we started.
So, yes, I’m a fan of learning to be a more effective writer, and that means dedicating time to the learning itself. But I am faced with two challenges: overwhelm and using the learning to act like I’m working on my writing when I may not actually be doing so.
Over the last two years, I’ve developed a new set of guidelines for myself to keep both of these problems in check and effectively use craft resources, and that’s what I’m going to share with you today.
Start with What You Want to Learn
The first thing I do is decide what it is that I need to work on next. Maybe it’s my midlife brain, but I find it really difficult to absorb information if I’m multitasking topics. So I intentionally write out a list for myself of the skills I want to improve, and I keep them centered on my current work-in-progress. That way, I can practice the skill as I study it.
For example, first-person character voice is critical in the book I’m working on. I’ve known that since the beginning. As I started writing, I realized that I also need to pay close attention to building tension since my story doesn’t have a lot of wild action. My book coach has pointed out that I tend to explain emotions rather than show them, so I now know that I need to work on that as well. Those are the three things I am currently studying. Anything else that pops up I put on a list and keep handy for when I’ve got the hang of the original skills.
The skills you select might be craft skills, but they also might be more about where you are in the process. Perhaps you need support with knowing how get an idea off the ground. Or maybe you want tips for more efficient revision. There is no wrong decision about which skills to choose; anything you select will impact your work for the better.
Choose How You’ll Learn
Then I find resources relating to those skills. I find books about writing, bookmark articles in the archives of a couple of websites with writing tips, and/or choose a class, workshop or other event to attend. I don’t go overboard. I gather enough resources to help me but not so many that I can’t manage.
Here is the most important thing: any resource I choose has to be directly related to the skills I know I need to work on. Everything else that comes at me, whether it’s tips on social media or emails promoting new blog posts, get set aside for now. I might save them for later, or disregard them all together. I don’t follow rabbit holes down other topics. It’s hard to do, especially with as much as comes at us from every direction these days. But I intentionally remind myself of the skill or skills I’ve said I’m going to work on now and why I have chosen them.
Schedule Your Learning Ahead of Time
After I’ve decided what resources I’m going to use for the next couple of months, I schedule time to read or attend them. I literally put appointments with myself on my calendar to attend to that learning. If you’ve been listening to me for a while, you know I recommend putting everything having to do with your writing onto your schedule, but at the very least I suggest that you differentiate between your writing time and your learning-about-writing time.
Reevaluate As Needed
Once I feel like I’ve got the hang of what I was trying to improve, or if I’ve exhausted the resources and am ready for a new topic, I refer back to that list I mentioned and decide what skills come next.
At the end of the day, you are your own best teacher. You’ve listened to the podcasts, you’ve heard the interviews, you’ve read the books and articles. It’s time to look at your own work-in-progress, decide on a skill or two you’d like to learn more about that directly impacts your project, and use the craft resources that will help rather than distract. You’ve got this. You know what you need.
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