I felt sick to my stomach.
“How the hell did I write this?”, I thought. “Was I that bad?”
A few minutes before, I had found a draft of my first blog post while browsing my documents. It was titled, “3 Reasons Every Business Should Have A Website.”
The writing was nauseating. The content was viciously rehashed. And while reading it, I couldn’t help but notice all the mistakes I had made while writing that abomination. Mistakes I would never make today.
Reading that piece made me realize, for the first time, how far I’ve come as a writer.
I’ve gone from producing “garden-variety” content to “kinda-decent” content, all in a year’s time.
1) I learned from the babies.
I used to be an avid World of Warcraft player.
In 2013, when I was a high-school sophomore, I’d spend 8 to 10 hours a day playing 3v3 arena battles on my level 90 Survival Hunter. And over the course of 2 years, I worked my way up to a rating of 2200 in both 2v2 and 3v3 arenas — an achievement I’m still proud of.
I was a great player.
And I was desperate to become a great writer too, but I had no idea how to get there.
So, just like any other rational person would’ve done, I looked to my days as an “elite” World of Warcraft player for guidance.
And I realized something.
My success wasn’t a result of the long hours I put in. It wasn’t because I was obsessed, talented, or well-connected with other great players, either.
It was because I learned the game one baby-step at a time.
When I discovered a new winning strategy, I focused my full attention on mastering it, and I didn’t move on until I did.
Like the time I learned how to “stun”:
“Stunning” was a tactic used to prevent enemy players from moving or using abilities that would help their teammates. You couldn’t win high-level arena games without it. The only problem?
It was insanely hard to learn.
I struggled for weeks — no, MONTHS — trying to get it right. Effective stunning required you to pay attention to a hundred different things at once, and my brain was unable to comprehend that level of multitasking. But that didn’t stop me.
Each time I entered the arena, I forced myself to focus only on stunning other players.
And I slowly began to suck less.
Within five matches, I could track three different “stunning variables” at once, rather than the measly one or two from a few games before. And after 10 matches, I could track five. After 30 matches, seven.
By match 211, I could stun enemy players effortlessly, all while maintaining my attention on other aspects of the battle.
…and that was it.
I didn’t download every eBook promising to make me a great player, and I didn’t cram every “52 Ways to Stun Your Opponent” article into memory. That would’ve overloaded me with information.
Instead, I “put one foot in front of the other,” and I did that every. single. day.
2) I wrote (and edited) every. single. day.
“Writing every day” wasn’t new to me. I was ~~ahead of the curve~~ and had established that habit a few months before.
But something still felt…. missing.
Daily writing was great, but I wasn’t writing better words because of it.Rather, it was only helping me to overcome my fear of writing (think, exposure therapy). I wasn’t practicing “good writing” until I started editing.
“Editing,” I thought. “That’s it.”
Editing was my process of turning shitty words into decent ones.
It was where I actually applied the skills I was learning, like “varying sentence length” and “cutting fat” and “creating transitions.” In the words of a cliched gym analogy…
Editing was like exercising, while daily writing was like getting over the fear of judgment from other gym-goers.
They’re both necessary — but it didn’t make sense to only practice one or the other. So I started doing both.
Have you ever wondered how I’m able to consistently produce breathtakingly immaculate words with such grace and flutili… flul… fluidity?
3) I imitated (with caution).
Establishing a writing “style” is hard as f**k.
I know because I tried — and miserably failed — for five months to do it.
Embarrassingly, my struggles continued until I discovered a quote from William Zinsser in his book, On Writing Well, only two months ago:
“Never hesitate to imitate another writer,” William wrote. “Imitation is part of the creative process for anyone learning an art or a craft. Bach and Picasso didn’t spring full-blown as Bach and Picasso; they needed models. This is especially true of writing.”
I can confidently say that my own style, whatever stage it may be in, has developed tremendously from following this advice, and I recommend it if you want to do the same.
But be careful.
When I discovered that quote, I was also reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, an absolute masterpiece of a novel. The combination of William’s advice and Ray’s brilliant style spawned an absurd idea in my head.
“What if I could copy Ray Bradbury’s style and develop my own from his influence? If I practiced every day, I think I could do it!”
Spoiler: I couldn’t.
Every time I wrote, I felt as if Ray’s ghost was standing behind me, whispering abuse in my ear:
“You call those sentences? I could shit better sentences than that. Look at all those grammar errors and cliches… my god. You’re a disgrace.”
I couldn’t even manage a single word. It was hellish.
So, if you choose to practice this, I have one piece of advice:
Stay within reality’s boundaries.
4) I hired a professional editor (once).
A few months ago, I hired Greg, a professional editor, to critique my writing.
My plan for Greg was simple:
I had recently written an article that was due for publishing on the beyourself Medium page, and I wanted to impress their readers, so I hired him to kill the remaining errors in my piece before it went live.
“I’m giving this guy such an easy time,” I thought.
By that point, I had furiously self-edited the article and was confident that Greg wouldn’t spend more than a day fixing my tiny mistakes. And I was right.
He sent me his finished work the next morning.
And when I opened it, I was blinded by a gang of red highlights.
“No,” I thought. “This can’t be right.”
All those “polished” sentences and paragraphs, all those “elegant” metaphors I had scattered about the piece — Greg tore them apart, and he shattered my ego in the process.
But that was exactly what I needed.
Months of self-editing had conditioned me to overlook the stupid mistakes in my drafts. It was as if the “pronoun switches,” “fatty words,” and “logical errors” in my writing were camouflaged.
With the extra set of eyes that Greg provided, however, spotting (and fixing) them was easy.
I haven’t worked with Greg since the last massacre — but I need to. The knowledge he gave me from one editing session has carried over to every article I’ve written since.
5) I lightened up.
Writing is a burden.
It’s taxing. It’s sluggish. It makes me feel like garbage/shit/bunkum/hogwash when I have a lousy session. And if I ever want to succeed, I know I must endure those feelings regularly.
“But isn’t that unsustainable?” you ask. “Won’t you tire after so many days of abuse?”
And so far, there’s only one way I’ve avoided burning out:
I stopped taking writing so seriously.
When I write, I have low expectations.
No, when I write, I expect to write like shit, and I force myself to accept it.
I know I’m not going to produce anything beautiful on the first go. As much as I’d like to have the literary capabilities of Ray Bradbury or Dostoyevsky, I must recognize that I’m nowhere near. And that’s fine.
I simply focus on giving my absolute best effort — without bullshitting myself — and I worry about the rest later. That’s how I make progress.
That’s how I survive.