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A non-traditional beginner's guide to writing

Jun. 13, 2018
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“Great writers are not born. They’re made.”

I can still see myself sitting in Mrs. Saulsberry’s small, underlit twelfth-grade English classroom as she said those words. I wasn’t sure if I agreed with her at the time, but I have learned that there is a lot of truth to what she said. Writing is like any other skill. It takes time, practice, criticism, and experience to get to where you want to be. My personal journey as a writer is a little sensitive. There are many things about my beginnings as a writer that I’ve never shared with anyone but in doing so, I hope to offer some insight to my fellow writers and provide useful takeaways that can help. 

My writing journey began at an early age. I always say that I started writing at four because of the autographed writings I once found in my grandmother’s house. They usually consisted of short poems about my childhood adventures and were written on an assortment of colored construction paper. As I grew older, these poems gradually developed into short stories and scripts. I absolutely loved creating characters that could live out adventures that I would never be able to. Plus, writing stories was the best way to satisfy my vivid imagination. My mom and grandmother were so proud and always made sure to compliment my writing. I owe a lot to them for their encouragement, because I really felt like I had something special. With just a pen and paper, I could be as creative as I wanted. But, my stories weren’t always full of fantasies and epic adventures. In fact, sometimes they revealed many things that I only wanted my eyes to see.   

Part of my story as a writer also involved growing up as a black girl in a predominately white, small town in Alabama, and as you can imagine, it wasn’t easy. I was bullied, humiliated, and occasionally singled out for being the only black person in my class. School often felt like hell, and things weren’t always much better at home. My parents argued constantly, and the occasional verbal abuse that I received from my father made me feel hopeless. I felt like the only thing that I could confide in was my notebook. I filled page after page with my thoughts and emotions. It was the best way for me to externalize the feelings that I wanted to keep to myself. Almost every day, I wrote detailed entries about what was happening in my world. It was a time that often felt too overwhelming to handle, and writing was the best way for me to process it all. Writing was one of the only therapeutic tools that I had in my survival kit and in many ways, it saved my life. 

Of course, your story might differ entirely from mine, but hear me out. My story is special to me because it gives me insight into what I want to do with my writing, and it’s likely that your own story will do the same for you. But if you’re still in need of advice that’s a little more straightforward, I’ve written a few things that I’ve learned from my experiences as a writer below. 

  • Find and know your reason. 

Ask yourself why you write. Deciding where you would like to go with your career begins with a clear motive. As mentioned, I discovered my passion for writing at an early age, and although unaware of it at the time, I learned that my reasons for writing are part of what fuel the stories and adventures that I create today. Knowing your reason can help in many ways. Whether it’s in developing your style, choosing a genre, or deciding what you want long term, being aware of your purpose for writing will set a solid foundation that will be beneficial in the future. 

  • Practice.

Write like hell, and then write some more. It turns out the phrase “practice makes perfect” has some truth to it. No professional has gotten to where he or she is by sitting around and hoping for the best to happen. While I don’t consider myself a professional just yet, I understand that in order to get to such a level, practice is essential. All those years of writing for hours in my bedroom didn’t go to waste. They were the practice that I needed to write successful academic papers, cover letters, personal essays, articles, and so much more. I wouldn’t be as confident as I am in my writing had I not taken the time to work on my craft, and I guarantee that you’ll thank yourself for working on yours. 

  • Read.

Writing and reading go hand in hand. One of my writing professors in college once said, “In order to be a better writer, you must also be an active reader.” She was right. Reading, and more specifically, reading the writing of accomplished authors and writers, can be a great guide for how to write clearly and effectively. Think about some of your favorite writers. What do they like to talk about in their pieces, and how do they say it? I don’t have a favorite writer myself, but there are certain genres that I enjoy reading over others. I then use what I’ve read as inspiration for creating my own pieces. 

  • Take criticism when it’s given.

Rarely does one ever reach his or her goals without the help or guidance of someone else. Feedback is just as, if not more, important than practice. If no one ever reads your work, you’ll never know what you need to improve; in the long run, you’ll stunt your growth. Apart from my mom and grandmother, I asked countless numbers of friends to read my work. Their feedback alongside the criticism I received from my professors gave me a better understanding of my strengths and weaknesses. This allowed me to improve my writing significantly, and I suggest that you do the same if you would also like to improve yours. 

Regardless of where you are in your journey, it’s important to know that confidence will come with all the things aforementioned. Don’t kick yourself if you’re not yet where you want to be, and don’t rush anything. The challenges and hurdles that you’ll face are an essential part of becoming a great writer. In the end, it’s likely that you’ll look back on them with a sense of gratitude instead of regret, because it is often the struggles in life that help get us to where we want to go.