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writing without writing
10 ways to be a better writer... with a twist
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)

You already know how to be better. You know all the pitfalls, all the traps, all the flaws. You know that to be a better writer, you need to hone your manuscript over and over. You need to work on it until it's the best possible piece of writing you can make it. You need to write and rewrite and re-rewrite. You need to craft your sentences, build your plot, develop your characters. You need to polish that sucker til it shines.

Forget all that for now.

There are 10 things you can do to be a better writer that have absolutely nothing to do with working on your writing project.

You can succeed without doing any of them. Sure. Know what? You'll be a lot better off if you try at least some. And I'm coming at this from a novelist's perspective, so that's where I'm picking my examples from, but a lot of this applies to short stories, memoirs, poems, essays, the whole bit.

Without further ado:

1. Buy a book. It's stunning how many people want to be published novelists and rarely, if ever, go to a bookstore and buy recently released novels. I'm not saying buy a book to read it and see what's working in the current environment. That's folly. I'm saying buy a book because you're supporting another writer by doing it. Not read a book. Buy a book. If you don't, who will?

2. Critique someone else's novel, all the way through. Ongoing critique groups are great. I've been in several that have changed my life and my writing for the better. But if you're going along getting critique on one chapter at a time, you can end up with a lot of beautifully polished chapters that add up to one gorgeously written, completely unpublishable novel. (Speaking. From. Experience.) Questions like pacing, scenes to include/exclude, character development and arc... these require a reader who gets a look at the whole thing all at the same time. You should provide that service for a fellow writer. Maybe it's tit-for-tat and maybe it's not. Don't go into it expecting that this person will necessarily give you a complete critique in return. Go into it because you as an outside reader can perform an incredibly helpful service for someone who, like you, will keel over in joy when he sees his book on the shelves.

[Note: don't worry, JG, I'm working on it!]

3. Go to a reading. See how it's done. If you're lucky, someday you'll need to know.

4. Meet writers in person. If time and funds permit, go to conferences or workshops. Local, national, it doesn't matter. Some conferences hook you up with agents and editors, and these are great, but if you focus only on the agents or editors you're not getting your money's worth. Meet the other writers too. Establish a connection. Talk writing with these people, in person and then later over e-mail. What challenges are they struggling with? How do they feel about, say, first person present or books over 100K or agents who still only accept queries via snail mail? Encourage each other.

5. Meet writers online. If you can't do #4, #5 will do. Or do both. I am a sucker for Backspace for several reasons, but here's the important one for you: it costs $30. For a whole year. To have access to forums where intelligent, dedicated writers are talking about writing every single day. You can do the same for free at Absolute Write, if $30 is a problem. Or just go hunting. There are all sorts of groups out there. And all of those people, whether they're published or not, whether they're writing in your genre or not, have something to teach you. Go learn it.

6. Practice your hook. "What do you do/What are you up to?" "I'm working on a book." "What's it about?" "Uh... it's the story of a woman who... I mean, she's different... she has these problems and her husband is cheating on her and her kids are acting up, so she runs off with this guy, and then they break up and she's alone, so she tries to find her way back, but then a whale eats her, but then spits her out, and... hey, where are you going?"

Have a hook. Also called the premise, also called the pitch. One sentence spoken out loud. Even if you think you don't have one, you do. Figure out what it is. Then tell people what it is and watch their reaction. If you get "oh", it needs work. If you get "wow!", you're golden. You may think that this isn't relevant to the type of book you're writing, but it is. Every book can be summed up in a sentence. Make yours sing.

7. Learn how to write a query. "But it's so hard to sum up my book in a paragraph!" Well, that's your first problem. You're not supposed to be summing it up. You're supposed to be telling the agent just enough about it to make them go "That sounds awesome!" and scroll down to the sample pages. Get on the interwebs. They'll help you. Here's a great place to start.

8. Join in. Join writing groups, yes. But more than that. What's your book about? Now is the time to establish yourself, where appropriate, in online communities or offline associations that include your future readers. If your book is about food, join eGullet. If your main character has Asperger's syndrome, bookmark the forums at WrongPlanet. Okay, those happen to be examples that work for my book and not yours, but seriously, there are groups specializing in every single thing under the sun, so chances are there's some group out there that's relevant to your book, whether you're looking for homeschooling moms or Godzilla fanboys, Anabaptists or Zoroastrians.

9. Comment on agent blogs. Reading them is a great first step. Start there. But when you're ready, start talking back. Ask questions if you have them. Offer opinions if you have those (and you should). All these experts are just sitting out there wondering what you, a writer, want to know. Tell 'em. (Politely.) Maybe commenting on an agent's blog and building name recognition with them is a step toward getting a positive response to your query when you send it. Maybe it's not. Do it without assuming it's some sort of magic ticket. It's just good practice.

10. Learn about publishing. I don't mean that you have to figure out which editors at which houses are buying which books, because that's what you hire an agent for. But learn the basics. Why is the fiction buyer for Barnes & Noble one of the most important people in publishing? What's a realistic expectation for publicity on a debut novel? What is a print run? Why is getting your book bought by Random House better than self-publishing anyway? Can you sell a memoir with a proposal and sample chapters? Can you sell a novel that way? Do your research. All this information is just sitting out there like a ripe peach. Pluck it. Otherwise you may find yourself sitting in a meeting with a bigwig editor and you'll say "And I'm willing to write the screenplay!" and they'll say "So what?" and you'll feel like a tool. An amateur tool.

What do all these things have in common? They bring you into the community of writers. You may be able to succeed without it, but why try? Why wouldn't you want to step out of the cold lonely fistfight of writer-vs.-book and get into somewhere warmer? What do you gain from holding yourself apart from a huge group of people who have the same desires and goals you have?

Pretty much nothing.

Get out there and do all the non-writing things writers do that make them -- us -- better writers.


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry


how to write a novel in three days*
based on a true story
by jael mchenry
topic: writing
published: 6.5.02

the debut author's planifesto
sanity and sense for your first book and you
by jael mchenry
topic: writing
published: 5.4.11


sandra thompson
1.6.09 @ 8:08a

Thanks, Jael. All us wannabe writers now have a to do list. Most of us probably couldn't have written it because we didn't know half this stuff, but now we do and have no excuse to ignore it, which we probably will anyway. I hope you feel good about trying to help us poor sods. Maybe some of this stuff will help me with my writers' block. At least I can feel as if I'm "doing something" when I'm not actually writing, which I'm doing most of the time ---NOT writing. Thanks, again.

alex b
1.7.09 @ 1:13p

I've always done #1. But I hadn't thought of doing #'s 2-10. Great piece, and I'm glad this is up here as a to-do list.

jael mchenry
1.8.09 @ 1:03p

Glad to be of help! It's easy to get stuck and feel demoralized if a writing project is causing you trouble, so this sort of points out some other ways that you can be moving forward and tapping into the community, making good use of your time.

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