I’m a writer. Not in the romantic notion where people talk about a child so gifted that words flowed magically out of her and onto the page, but in the hard-earned way where I spent evenings in high school embroiled in class paper critiques with my mom, or hours on the couch in college rubbing my face and grasping at words to form a conclusion. Through those hours I honed my craft. But that hard work didn’t just teach me how to be a better writer. Turns out all that time battling through stories also gave me a new perspective on living.
Don’t make assumptions
The more time you spend learning about the different facets that make up your story — the people, places, history and context — the better you write. The challenge comes when you need to boil those hours of research and interviews down to a story, and a short one at that. You need to always be conscious of two brains, the one in your head and the one in your reader’s head. As the writer, you’re working from a wealth of extra knowledge. Most of that the reader isn’t privy to when they read the final version of your story. When you write, you have to consider that second brain and make sure you’re not only writing a story that makes sense to you, but to your reader who doesn’t know the same background information.
The same goes in life and relationships. It’s easy to make two assumptions: that others can guess what we’re thinking, and that we know what’s in someone else’s head. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt unsure about what someone thought, assumed the worst and then lashed out at them in response to a hypothetical situation I built up in my head that turned out to be untrue. But we’re not mind readers. Assumptions cause confusion. The only way around that is to ask for honesty, and to offer honesty in return.
Keep it simple
A sentence laced with an inordinate amount commas, em dashes and semicolons means you’re trying to cram too much information before a single period. Simplicity reigns supreme when you’re trying to communicate information to an audience.
There’s a secret life behind every published story, one readers rarely get to see. The first draft. The back and forth with the editor. The slew of red marks denoting changes to make. Tough editors make good stories great, but that behind-the-scenes work isn’t apparent when you’re reading an article published in a magazine.
Our society consumes an incredible amount of content every day, from national news outlets to social media. All of these narratives are edited in some way or another. When we look at our own lives we see the unedited version, yet somehow we still think the two should be compared evenly. Editing is a beautiful thing. It creates a perfectly packaged story from beginning to end. But there’s more to each story than its edited version, and that’s a beautiful thing, too.
Take (the right) critique gracefully
My freshman year in college I reviewed three local bakeries for my first college newspaper story. I felt confident in the draft I turned in to my editors. So confident that I wasn’t prepared when I read the heavily edited final draft printed in the paper. I barely recognized my own writing. Instead of taking that experience and growing from it, I lost confidence in my writing and stopped for a year. I let that critique kill my spirit. A couple of years later I took an internship at a newspaper. It was there I learned the true value of a good editor. I got over my fear of failure and learned to editing it as an opportunity for growth and improvement. That year I became a better writer, and it was because I had someone in my corner who wanted to see me succeed.
That being said, it’s important to assess the value of each critique you receive. There are some individuals in life who nitpick and critique others just because they can. Don’t listen to those whose only goal is to bring you down. A good editor lifts you up and will always help you move toward the best version of yourself.
The people matter
The root of every good story? A strong character. As humans, we like to connect with others. But like any good story, life off the page is more fulfilling with others around us, too. Share your journey.