Learn HOW to Write

As a freelance editor, I sometimes have writers ask me why I think they need to “learn the craft of writing”. Let me set the record straight. It’s not that I believe they need to know their craft—well, I do, but that’s not the point—readers, other writers, agents, editors, and publishers expect a writer, who’s serious about getting published, to know his craft.

Here are some of the responses I’ve heard:

“But I already know how to write.”

There’s a difference between writing for yourself and writing something that’s actually publishable. The industry has expectations, and independently published novels aren’t excluded. While readers may not always know why a book isn’t good, they can pick out a poorly written book and won’t hesitate to give it a bad review. If the reader is a writer, there’s a chance he’ll detect the problems and could possibly even mention them in the review. Neither situation is ideal. Writers don’t want to disappoint their readers. The same expectations are found in traditional publishing. If an agent reads a manuscript and sees the writer hasn’t taken the time to learn the craft, she’ll issue a rejection slip. It’s not her job to teach you how to write well enough to become a published author. It’s up to you to learn the craft on your own (by taking writing classes or reading “how to write” books) or with the help of other writers and industry professionals like freelance editors and/or writing coaches.

“I’ve written a 200,000-word romance novel. I think I know how to write.”

Since the word count is so high, I wonder if the writing is as tight as it could be. Romance novels should be between 80,000-100,000 words, unless it’s a category romance, which is shorter.

“My teacher, professor, friends, and family all love my story, so I think I’ve figured it out.”

The problem with having friends and family, even if they’re writers, read your work is that they want you to succeed. They’ll support you, even if their gut is telling them the story isn’t all that good. Or they may not be able to recognize that the novel doesn’t fit the industry standards. You really need to have other people evaluate your work, preferably those who don’t have an emotional connection to you. This could be a critique group, a freelance editor, or a writing coach. Be prepared to receive true criticism, which may be the opposite of what you’ve heard from your friends and family. And, yes, it’ll probably sting until you develop a thicker skin.

“I’ve been writing since I was a kid. I’ve had enough practice and can recognize bad writing from good.”

But can you recognize bad writing in your own work? Or are you too emotionally attached to it? Do you know some of the most common errors new writers make? Have you heard of GMCs (goals, motivations, conflicts)? What about show, don’t tell, or two-dimensional characters? Do you start at the inciting incident? Is your dialogue flat? Is the writing tight or do you have info and backstory dumps? Does your manuscript suffer from POV (point of view) slips or author intrusion? Do you recognize any of the terms mentioned above? Would you be able to check your own work for errors associated with those terms?

“I don’t want to follow any rules or formulas. Nobody is going to tell me what I can and can’t write. It’s my story.”

Whether you call them rules, formulas, methods, or industry standards, you shouldn’t ignore them. There’s a reason these standards exist. Expectations. You can’t get away from that, even if you self-publish. While becoming an independent author, you certainly have more freedom to write what you want than you may have if you’d gone the traditional route. However, self-publishing isn’t a “get out of jail free” card. Who are you selling your books to? Readers. And readers have expectations. They want to join the protagonist on his journey (deep point of view, three-dimensional character, realistic dialogue). They want to experience what he’s experiencing, not be told about it (show, don’t tell, author intrusion). They want the story to flow and the pace to continue (no info dumps, no backstory dumps, no overwriting, no extra details, layer in details). The point is that the reader wants to be lost in the story, but by ignoring the “rules”, you risk tossing her out of the story instead.

If you’re planning on having your book published, be it traditionally or independently, don’t lose sight of who you’re writing for: the reader.

Lynnette Labelle

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2 Responses to Learn HOW to Write

  1. I totally agree with you.

    Craft is the skill set needed to make your story understandable and enjoyable, not to mention publishable.

    Craft skills like grammar, punctuation, plot, and characterizations are like the skills needed to play basketball. Those people who think they don’t need craft skills would think you were an idiot if you tried out for a pro team but couldn’t dribble or shoot a basket, but it’s the same thing.

    You gotta learn the basics if you want to play the game.

  2. Lynnette Labelle says:

    Marilynn: Well said. Thanks for sharing.

    Lynnette Labelle

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