Few things are shrouded in as much mystery as the process of becoming a better writer. There sure are a lot of opinions about it, too. Some say write every day. Anne Lamott encourages you to write shitty first drafts so you have something to revise. Stephen King writes 2,000 words per day but doesn’t write himself dry, so he can pick up the trail the following day. Some praise a well-crafted outline, while others admit they can’t wrangle an idea until they dive in. Most advise that you don’t self-edit as you go. I personally enjoy hearing about people’s methods, but I think it’s a process of trial and error to determine what works best for you. So much writing advice is about the process itself, which is good and helpful, but I’ve found that having a small tribe of writers around me has made all the difference in both the quantity and quality of what I write.
Finding your writing tribe can make the difference between talking about writing and actually writing.
Writing is a solo sport, not unlike cross fit, where you compete against yourself and share your progress with others determined to grow. Every week, I text with other writers who share what they’re working on, confess areas of artistic resistance they are facing, and share encouragement with me when I’m wrestling the dragons of self doubt. My personal writing community is an informal network of friends and professional colleagues with whom I’ve cultivated a relationship over many years and it includes both amateur and professional writers, editors, and publishers.
Here are a few tips that can help you forge new relationships that will strengthen your own writing process.
Look for People Who Are Dedicated to the Craft of Writing
I’m talking about people who write every single day and push themselves to become better writers. They write, self-edit, invite critiques, rewrite, and publish. This may seem obvious to some people, but you probably won’t be surprised to hear that people often like to talk about writing more than actually write. Dedication to the craft is an internal passion and commitment that drives your work. I think there’s a place for talking about writing, but I appreciate practical conversations about writing more than theoretical postulating.
I thrive in the deep end of conversations where ideas are fleshed out in pings of dialogue between people who observe cultural, political, social, and theological trends and can juxtapose ideas and make new connections. Recently I snuck away for a personal writing retreat in a cabin in the mountains above Sonora, California. It was a glorious two days of writing, and I only surfaced for air to eat and dialogue with my partner in crime, Chrissa Trudelle. Over slices of bread slathered in hummus, we stood in the kitchen and shared our immature thoughts. The verbal processing was helpful, but the real value was hearing her ask questions with the aim of understanding, because it illuminated where I needed to clarify and extrapolate. We compared notes on our experience with resistance and try to give language to this thing called the muse. Those kinds of conversations are stimulating and help me progress my ideas. It’s so much better to be in the deep end than standing on the shore talking about what it would be like to swim. I say, jump in. The water is great.
Writing groups are a great place to meet dedicated writers, but group formats and expectations vary and may not always meet your current needs. For example, some writing groups are prompt driven and are designed to encourage writing during the group meeting time. This is a great format for those who struggle to carve time out to write, who don’t have a specific project in mind but want to stay in shape as a writer, and those who are inexperienced with sharing their work with others and would benefit from some positive feedback. Others benefit from hours of deep, solitary work and their main need is hearing how others are tackling their craft in similar ways.
If You Want to Be a Pro, Look for Writers Who Share and Publish Their Work
There’s a big difference between someone who is passionately devoted to journaling every day and someone who posts a blog twice a week. The former may actually produce more pages, but the latter is serious about contributing their art to the world. Sharing your works involves risk and vulnerability, and the feedback you receive when you publish will definitely help you grow. The only way to get better is to understand your audience better and to listen to their questions and comments. Put your work out there. It’s worth the risk.
On the other end of the spectrum are people who publish their thoughts frequently on social media channels or in a personal blog. In this day and age it’s easy to publish your thoughts, but I have a lot of respect for communicators who carefully weigh what to say and carefully craft how to say it. If you’re not currently sharing your work, surround yourself with people who are. There’s nothing more exciting than hearing a friend share the feedback they got from a piece they published. Trust me. You’ll want this, too.
Try to surround yourself with better writers (even if that just means they are proficient in a different writing style)
I spent 4 years working as a full-time book editor in the niche of Christian non-fiction teaching books written by (mostly charismatic) pastors. In that arena, I mingled with authors, acquisitions editors, freelance copyeditors, ghostwriters, managing editors, and publishers. Then, I dove into business and marketing, where writing is put to the test in ads and website content that either compels or repels customers. I really enjoyed rubbing shoulders with those in the marketing field, because their skills for subtle persuasion and their ability to guide people from casually interested to loyal follower or customer are enviable.
Now, I work in a public affairs office with professional communicators who are more skilled and have decades more experience than I. I’m learning a lot about how to write clearly and accurately, how to trim extraneous words, and how to develop key messages than can be retooled for a variety of applications. My immediate supervisor is an experienced speech writer who can take my work and make it sing with just a few reworded phrases. He understands cadence and rhetoric, is very witty, and I am just glad to be in the same room with him when he’s on a roll. My other colleagues have journalism backgrounds, which is relatively unfamiliar to me, and I learn by how they construct their articles. The upside-down pyramid style found in news articles is vastly different than the style found in non-fiction teaching books, and my submissions are often bleeding red with corrections. It’s definitely humbling, but it’s also a great opportunity to learn from great communicators. If you want to be a great communicator, there’s no room for ego. And I get the opportunity to share my marketing and branding skills with them.
Look for Smarter Writers
I have to admit that I am almost immediately drawn to someone who is more well read than I and who suggests books to read that pique my curiosity. I have a dear friend who intellectually stimulates me; our conversations push the limits of my mind and it’s not uncommon for us to talk for 3 or 4 hours and be unaware of the time. Just like equally matched athletes competing on a tennis court, our conversations zing back and forth with new exclamations of, “Oh, that reminds me of something I read recently. What do you think of this…”
Adopt a Passion Twin
It’s a gift to find someone who is passionate about the same topics you find fascinating. When someone is familiar enough with your area of expertise, but who sees it from a slightly different perspective, they can help you make new connections and offer new language for expressing your ideas. One of the greatest joys of attending college is meeting people of like minds and passions. You find people nerdy about the same things you’re nerdy about. I enjoyed my fellow English Major nerds, but my closest friends in college were those also enrolled in the Literary Editing & Publishing program. Now, I find camaraderie among professional editors who enjoy debating the Pros and Cons of the Oxford comma.
Focus on relationships and long-term writing development goals
I think this is the same for business networking, but it’s a good idea to meet people without an agenda of needing or wanting something from them. It’s okay to be a writing novice and ask lots of questions, but look for ways you can be generous with your gifts, too. Offer to read other people’s work and give feedback. You don’t have to be an expert editor to share your experience as a first reader. Consider this: ask for feedback to the extent that you would be willing to offer it back to another. I’ve observed some novice writers handing a published author their manuscript and asking for their opinion. It’s a little off-putting to be approached this way, because people overlook that they’ve just asked for a large favor from someone they just met. (A good manuscript evaluation could be 10 or more hours of work with detailed margin notes and insights into the book’s content, voice, and tone.) And often, the novice writer isn’t in a position to offer the same quality of feedback to the published author they approached. I would suggest playing it low key and asking the author how they got valuable feedback when they started out. You’ll learn a lot more about their writing process than you would if they added a few notes in the margin of your book.
For many professional writers, it’s not uncommon to know other writers, but if you’re an amateur it may seem harder to find a tribe. Consider joining a writing group (either online or in a person). Look for people who write different things than you focus on–you’ll grow by reading and offering feedback on different genres of writing. Try emailing your favorite bloggers or author and compliment their work. Check out universities, libraries, community centers, Facebook, and MeetUp to find writing groups. Ask around; writers aren’t that hard to spot in the wild.
How have you connected with other writers? Tell me about it in the comments!