At the moment, I’m helping to teach the daughter of a friend of mine how to drive (a prospect that, at first, terrified us both), and I’ve been thinking about when I learned to drive myself. Back when I first got behind the wheel it all seemed so impossible to get the hang of, especially given that here in the UK pretty much every one learns to drive in manual car and not an automatic. Now, after more than twenty years of driving, it all seems so straight forward and natural that I can do it without even thinking, but back then, it all seemed so complicated and alien, and at times I thought I’d never be able to do it. Yet, despite this, I did.
While musing on all of this, it occurred to me that learning to write is a lot like learning to drive. When you first start out, you look round at all these other people with their brilliant books, and then you look at your own raw scribbles and you think there’s no way you’ll even end up being able to produce anything even vaguely competent.
This puts a lot of budding writers off. This is because they have this amazing idea for a story in their head and when the sit down to actually write it, it turns out that it’s all a bit crap. Mostly, this is because they haven’t tried to write anything since their high school English class and even then, it was an essay titled What I Did On My Summer Holiday.
However, just like driving, it takes practice to learn how to write, and particularly to learn how to write well. Everyone knows you can’t expect to just get behind the wheel of a car and be able to drive perfectly right away, but a lot of people seem to think that the ability to write is a skill you’re either born with or you’re not. This just isn’t true. It takes a lot of hard work to learn how to write a good story, and just like learning to drive, you need to have an instructor who will give you encouraging, but honest feedback. You need someone who will read over your work and point out where it doesn’t work, and then explain why, but they need to give you praise when you get it right, too.
This means that when you’re learning to write, you need to seek out someone who’s opinion you value, but who you trust to give you honest, yet positive, feedback. This last part is important. Negative feedback, even if honest, can put you off writing forever, while over-positive feedback which isn’t honest gives you a false sense of confidence and will rob you of the chance to learn how to improve your writing skills.
So, how do you go about finding someone to give you the feedback you need as you learn how to write? This is always tricky. Your first instinct will be to go to a family member or your best friend, yet they are often the worst person to go to. This is because if they are too brutally honest, it may damage your relationship with them, and they know this. This means they will tend to avoid criticising you, even when you need criticism, because they want to preserve their relationship with you. This is not good and will do nothing to help you learn how to write. Instead, you need to find someone you trust, but you who you are distant enough from to avoid this conflict. In addition, this needs to be someone who is widely read and who knows what they are talking about.
When I first started writing, I turned to a colleague I knew from work who was also a budding author, and showed him an early draft of my first book. It took some persuasion to convince him that no matter what he said, it wouldn’t damage our friendship, but What I eventually got in return was a five-page critique and some of the best writing advice I’ve ever received. It helped me turn the book from a basic and two-dimensional story into something much more complete and compelling. Even today, I look back on that advice and remember the key issues and short-comings that it raised. Without it, I probably wouldn’t be the writer I am today.
So, just like driving, when you start out writing, it might seem at first like you’ll never get the hang of it, but with plenty of practice and some good advice you’ll get there in the end. All you need to do is stick with it and eventually you’ll get to the stage where you’ll look back and find yourself thinking ‘why did I ever think this was so difficult?’
Once that has happened, the chances are that, at some point, you’ll meet someone else who’s just starting out and that’s when you get the chance to pay something back by becoming the person who provides the advice to help them become the writer they want to become. Yet, when you do, you have to remember back to what it was like for you when you were just starting out. This is when you finally learn for yourself how to give honest, but positive, feedback to others, and through doing this, you’ll learn that helping others will make you a better writer, too.
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.
To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.