If I could give writers only one piece of advice, it would be this: let go. Two simple words that hold so much meaning. Letting go—in any or all of the three ways that I talk about here—may be difficult to do but I believe it’s one of the most crucial requirements for writing.
Unlearn What You Have Learned
Some of the wisest advice Yoda ever gave to Luke Skywalker was to “unlearn what you have learned.” In other words, forget what you think you know to be the truth. I’d love to get into what all that means on a spiritual level and I probably will at some point in an unrelated post about chakras, but for the purposes of this post, I’m talking about forgetting whatever preconceived notions you have about what it means to write, who can and can’t do it, and how it’s supposed to be done. If you can’t do that, then all of those so-called rules are just going to haunt you like a malevolent specter. Listen up, padawan: a writer is someone who writes. Period. Some people may begin with advantages that make it easier for them to pursue writing and some will be better storytellers than others, but writing—just like any other skill or craft—is something that is developed and improved upon with time and practice.
There are plenty of resources—many of them free or available at low cost—to help you both get going and get better. Apart from actually writing, the number one way to improve your craft is to read the work of other writers. No writer exists in a vacuum—not even the Dickinsons and Faulkners who isolated themselves from society. They still read the work of other writers and so should you. Don’t compare yourself to those others and expect to be able to churn out something on par with their work, especially if you’re just starting out or have never published before. Do, however, pay attention to the ways in which your favorite writers tell a story. What do they do that you like? How could you do it yourself or do it differently? It’s completely natural and totally OK to start out by modeling those you admire. Eventually, as you grow in both experience and confidence as a writer, you’ll develop your own style. Enrolling in classes or workshops or participating in writers groups is an excellent way to develop your skills; you can not only learn practical tips and strategies but also get useful feedback from teachers and peers (if you’re looking for a group, you’re welcome to join Paper Cuts).
Abandon Your Pursuit for Perfection
The second part of letting go involves giving yourself permission to screw up because you will. You should certainly aim to produce your best work, but you need to accept that doing your best doesn’t mean producing a 100% awesome, just-the-way-you-want-it draft on the first pass. Your goal during the draft phase is only to tell the story, to WRITE.
If you can’t curb your pursuit for perfectionism, then you’ll end up spending far too much time reworking every sentence or nitpicking over a single word when you should be focusing on the important elements of your story instead. You can figure out exactly how the murderer confesses to the crime, find just the right words to describe an important battle scene, discover the name of your character’s dog, and all of those other little details later. Even things like grammar and spelling aren’t crucial to your draft. There’s this lovely tool called Spell Check, for example, that you can use once you’ve finished the actual story writing, and you can employ an editor to help you polish up your finished product (it’s their job to help with wordsmithing).
The third part of letting go is about being flexible and this is at the heart of what it means to be creative. It’s good to work with an outline or at the very least a general overarching idea of your story/plot because it helps to keep you focused, but don’t cling so rigidly to it that it prevents you from being creative and allowing other possibilities to enter your mind. Huge changes could happen between draft one and draft three; what you thought was a love story could morph into a horror story or you could find out that the character who started out as your hero actually isn’t the main character at all. You can stress over these things OR you can recognize that all those “what ifs” that seem like detours or road blocks might actually be epiphanies that make your story stellar rather than mediocre. So, instead of ignoring an idea because it doesn’t fit into what you thought your story was about, go crazy and embrace it. Let go.