Author Toolbox Blog Hop: Learning how to write

When I took a step back at the end of the 2017 to think about what I wanted to accomplish writing-wise in 2018, I reflected on the times I felt most excited about writing. As I was making my list, a specific trend emerged: I was most excited about writing when I felt I was learning the most about it. Whether it was through reading blogs in the Author Toolbox Blog Hop or taking classes with the Gotham Writers Workshop1, learning about writing inspired me to write more.

So I’ve decided to be more intentional in my writing goals for 2018. Yes, I have my word count targets, submissions milestones, et cetera, but I’ve decided to incorporate more writing practice into my, well, writing practice. As much as I like to think that I can learn writing simply by doing it—by writing short stories and novels and revising and rewriting and repeating the cycle over and over—the classes I took last year helped me realize the value of writing just to practice a particular element of storytelling.

For this blog post, I’ve decided to share the current iteration of my learning plan for 2018. This will likely change as I figure out what’s realistic in terms of daily tasks, but I’m excited for what I’ve laid out so far.

Part I: Back to the basics

I recently took a trip through memory lane and looked at essays I wrote through my undergraduate years. Aside from the numerous lab reports (all of which I’m really proud of; I put a lot of work into those and it really showed), there are only two, maybe three, essays that I felt were decent pieces of writing.

So I’m re-immersing myself in the world of expository writing. While this isn’t strictly improving my fiction writing, by re-learning expository writing I hope that I’ll be a more effective communicator overall. Plus, expository writing doesn’t have to be a bone dry subject. I’m taking advantage of MIT OpenCourseWare2 and will be going through the syllabus for the class Writing and the Environment3. It won’t be a perfect imitation; I have limited access to some of the main textbooks and I won’t have the same kind of collaborative environment found in a college classroom, but it’s a start.

And I’ll be spacing out the readings and assignments like I’m taking a real college class4. My first assignment is “due” next week. Hopefully by the end of April I’ll have a few halfway decent essays and have a deeper understanding of composition, all while learning more about environmental science.

Part II: Daily practice

As I mentioned earlier, one of the most useful parts of taking the Gotham Writers classes was having regular exercises that focused on a specific part of storytelling. The exercises would never go on for more than ten minutes, and though I very rarely incorporated what I generated in those exercises into a story, the practice pieces informed the stories I did eventually complete.

So I’ll be including short, ten-minute writing exercises as part of my daily writing routine. I’ll be planning out my exercises at the beginning of the week, writing down the daily prompts in one place so that I don’t have to spend too much time every day hunting for a decent prompt. This also allows me a chance to think about what story element I want to practice. This month is all about characters, so I’ve been compiling decent character-building prompts. Though I often make my own prompts (I’ve often found writing prompts to be largely disappointing; more on that subject in a later blog), I’ve found some decent character prompts through resources like Writer’s Digest5, Poets & Writers6, and Writing Exercises7.

Part III: Reading more intentionally

Every year I set my Goodreads challenge8 at 50 books, and every year I’ve failed to reach that goal. (To be fair to myself, if I actually took advantage of the “reread” feature on the site, I think I would actually reach the 50-book goal. However, I don’t think my annual reread of the Harry Potter series really counts; I want to read 50 new books every year.)

This year, my goal is still 50 books, but I’m also going to be more intentional with my book choices. As nice as it is to read widely, in genres I would normally have no business reading (the Outlander series is a guilty pleasure of mine), I also recognize that I must have a deeper familiarity with my chosen genre of literary fiction.

So this year I hope to focus on reading American literary classics, contemporary literature, as well as more nonfiction. In addition to being more focused in my choice of reading material, I want to regularly reflect on the books I read. I’ve done this informally for years, in my journals and in the odd book review blog, but I want to be more systematic about reflecting on my reading. Nothing too heavy, just answering questions like “What made the book an enjoyable read?” or “What did I not like about this book?” or “What do I think of the treatment of the subject matter?”

Why am I studying writing?

2017 was a mixed bag of writing for me. Some highlights of the year included taking classes with Gotham, volunteering to read submissions for a few literary publications, and starting to submit my own work to literary magazines I’ve been reading regularly. But I also failed in a few ways that were disheartening. I started several blog posts only to let them languish in my drafts. I wrote 40,000 words of a new novel during the first half of the year, but I haven’t added any more words to it since June. I missed deadlines for literary magazines. I failed the aforementioned Goodreads challenge. I failed all my NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo attempts in 2017, whereas I blasted through them in 2016.

To me, my failures were all clues that something needed to change about the way I was going about writing, and figuring out the patterns of what excited me most has helped me decide what to change. Plus, there will never be a point in my life where my writing reaches “perfection”—whatever that is. Writing will be a lifelong pursuit, and I will be constantly learning new things in order to keep growing as a writer. This learning plan that I’ll be testing out this year will hopefully extend beyond this year, into the rest of my writing career.

What about you? What are you learning this year?


This post was written as part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop organized by the human dynamo, Raimey Gallant. Every month, authors at all stages of their career blog about specific resources/learning opportunities for fellow writers. To continue hopping through other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, click here.

Header image from Pixabay.

[1] Gotham Writers Workshop

[2] MIT OpenCourseWare

[3] Writing and the Environment, Spring 2005

[4] Google Calendar of W&E “due dates”; follow along if you’re interested!

[5] Writer’s Digest Weekly Writing Prompts

[6] Poets & Writers

[7] Writing Exercises

[8] My 2018 Goodreads Challenge

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