September 4

5 myths of being a good writer that are holding you back

    5 myths of the(3)
    We carry around a lot of assumptions about what it takes to be a good writer, some from our schooling days, some from reading published authors, and some from conversations that we may never have even realized were impacting us.

    The more I talk to clients, the more I see that there are some deep-seated myths of being a good writer that have ingrained themselves in our minds and likely prevent us from feeling like we can ever be truly “good writers.” Let’s put some of them out in the open, right here, right now, so we can deal with them:

    Myth #1: Good writers have perfect grammar. They always know where to put commas and hyphens.

    Truth: No, you do not have to have perfect grammar in order to be a good writer. Sure, in school, grammar was a part of your grade in English class, but out in the real world, the process of writing is often separate from the process of editing. Did you know that the average book goes through six phases of editing and proofreading? SIX! Why? In part, to catch all of those commas and hyphens that the author didn’t know where to put. The next time you pick up a published piece, just think of what it might have looked like before those six rounds of editing – might make you feel better.

    Myth #2: Good writers have large vocabularies. They use SAT words like, “agoraphobia” and “deleterious.”

    Truth: Language changes over time and from one context to another. In previous centuries, authors tended to use a wider variety of vocabulary (see Tolkein’s The Hobbit for examples, like “renumeration” and “promontory”). And, certainly, today’s academic circles have a certain pride in veiling their meaning from the public with jargon.

    But, times are changing. People are expecting, more and more, for even complicated ideas to be explained in more straightforward language. Literacy is spreading widely, and authors who want to sell books to a broader audience now feel pressure to actually write more plainly. So, if you tend to steer clear of SAT words, your work might actually be both more readable and more marketable!

    Myth #3: Good writers use poetic metaphors and beautiful turn-of-phrases.

    Truth: Yes, some writing is much more poetic than others. It is true that I continue to read certain fiction authors over and over again because their use of language is just so beautiful. (Just try to read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 and not be floored in amazement.)

    But most of what I read is not purely for the sake of poetic beauty, and I would bet most readers would say the same. We pick up different types of books for different reasons. Some writers are down-to-earth and funny, some help us see a truth we had never noticed before, some explain difficult concepts and theories to us, some help us solve a problem in our lives, some write about far-away places that we want to visit. All of them are good writers, in their own purposes and their own capacities.

    Myth #4: Good writers write quickly, with confidence, and they probably never have writer’s block.

    Truth: Holy moly! I would say, actually, that most writers feel that they plod along at a slow pace and that they far too frequently hit a wall, unsure of what to write next. If you have similar feelings, you are in good company.

    The good writers aren’t the ones who type at a certain words per minute and churn out a set number of words per week. The good writers are the ones who persist, even when their fingers feel like lead and their brains feel like mush. The good writers continue to believe that somehow, someday, they will have something valuable to contribute to other people. The good writers continually come back to the pen and keyboard, armed with nothing more than hope and faith.
    As Dorothy Parker said, “I hate writing, I love having written.”

    Myth #5 For good writers, writing just comes naturally, like they’re born with the talent.

    Truth: I won’t say that talent is not a part of the recipe for what makes a good writer. Some writers do seem to have a born in bent with words.

    But I will argue that there’s a heck of a lot more room on the spectrum from bad writer to good writer than we generally admit and that much of moving along that spectrum toward “good writer” is about persistence, willingness to learn, and just plain practice.

    I don’t think we often realize how much our early years of formation affect us. I have distinct memories from my earliest years in elementary school of teachers telling me that I was a good writer. My older brothers were good at sports and math, so I latched on to “good at writing” like a lifeline. Was I really any better at writing than most of the students in my class, objectively speaking? I have no idea, but in my mind, I was a budding writer, and maybe that’s all that mattered. As I progressed into junior high, high school, and beyond, I specifically sought out opportunities in English classes and on the school newspaper to perpetuate that positive identity of “writer,” and it wasn’t long before everyone from my parents to my peers were echoing that “good writer” identity that I so desperately craved. So, how much of my own identity as “good writer” came from talent, and how much came from my environment? I’ll never know.

    What I do know, from being a college-level teacher and now a writing coach, is that people can make remarkable progress in their writing skills. I have seen college freshmen progress from constructing incoherent sentences to writing paragraphs that actually have an argument. (Okay, so the grammar and such was still not great, but that’s major progress!) I have seen writers whose 4th language is English progress from only being able to outline an argument to being able to articulate all of their points with passion and enthusiasm. What a remarkable feeling, to see such breakthroughs. Much of what it takes to become a good writer requires persistence, learning, and practice.

    The cumulative impact of all of these myths is that people tend to feel like they either are a good writer or they’re not, and they never will be.

    It’s dangerous to believe either.

    If you believe fully that you are a good writer, those moments of embarrassing grammar errors and freezing writer’s block will eat away at your confidence. You’ll let those tiny infractions chip away at your “good writer” identity, and one day, you’ll loose all hope in becoming a successful writer. Or, honestly, even if you’ve been successful in the past, you’ll begin to doubt that you can continue to be a success.

    If you believe fully that you are not a good writer, you’ll hinder your own progress. You’ll take short cuts, like hiring a ghost writer or limiting your content to the spoken word or constantly having someone else help you with re-writing. You might never realize what a good writer you could become.

    The most honest assessment of yourself as a writer is to say that you are making progress every day and learning how to share your message with your audience. That’s the best we writers can hope for. Push past the dichotomous labels of “good writer” and “bad writer,” and challenge yourself to see your writing career as a journey, a long climb up a high mountain. If you are on the journey, you are a writer – every day a better writer – and I hope you never doubt that.

    What about you?

    Do you struggle against any of these myths? Any other myths that I left off?


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