This week, I had the closest thing to whatever the writing equivalent of a near-death experience is.
After deciding that my old blog was begging for a makeover, I pummeled through almost 80 long-forgotten posts in a day. In the process, I saw my writing life flash before my eyes:
- My “writing emo (but sometimes pretty good) relationship articles for Elephant Journal and getting spoiled by receiving way too many views for someone starting out”- phase.
- My “writing actually helpful but overly formulaic articles while going through a business course”-phase.
- My “trying to write on my own blog rather than other platforms while getting disillusioned over having so much less exposure”-phase.
- My “awkwardly doing SEO”- phase.
- My “I started a new blog on WordPress that I like a lot better but I’m still pretending to be updating this blog”-phase.
And then… blessed silence. My work here was done. My writing journey had moved elsewhere, to a somewhat more successful blog.
Perhaps it wasn’t a near-death experience as much as a trip down memory lane. Either way, here are 5 lessons I learned in the process:
1. The embarrassment is real
If you ever review your early writing, be prepared to have your cringe reflex put in overtime.
“OMG, what was I thinking?”“Geez, even my grammar sucked.”“I really hope nobody read this.”
Before sharing more thoughts on this, I would like to take a moment to apologize to my early readers. You’re either incredibly kind or incredibly tough or potentially both.
While I am sorry for whatever I put my early readers through, I also now realize that this is the only way I could have learned. Whether that is in martial arts or content creation, you don’t go from a “white belt” to whichever belt color you’re aiming for in an instant.
No, you stumble. Embarrass yourself. Land on your butt — metaphorically or literally. And then you pick up your pride and do it again.
In other words, “dare to suck.”
2. Some of my early writing was actually quite good
In contradiction to my previous point, my review also showed me something that is hopefully reassuring to you if you are a new writer.
To my surprise, some of my early writing was actually… good.
I came across articles that were coherent, original, and even nicely formatted. I wasn’t necessarily writing in my own voice, I was perhaps overly stilted, and my real personality didn’t come through… but it was still decent writing.
After comparing my good early writing with my bad early writing, I realized what made the difference. With my good articles, I would be
- spending more time on each post rather than just trying to crank one out every day, and
- getting and incorporating feedback from editors or more advanced writers.
If you are a new writer who wants to decrease embarrassment to your future self, keep in mind that you probably have to choose between quality content or quantity when you’re early on in the game.
My really bad articles were the result of me trying to self-publish each day, without reflection time and feedback. My good articles were the result of me putting effort into each one.
3. Becoming a better writer isn’t a straight line — but there is an upward trend
Related to the last point, my review also helped me realize that becoming a better writer isn’t a straight line. Progress isn’t inevitable. Your newer work might sometimes be worse than your earlier one, particular if experiment with different writing styles.
For instance, some of my earliest articles were better than some terrible ones I published two years into my blogging adventure.
But even though it’s not a straight line, over the years I have been able to see an upward trend. If I compare my recent articles with my earliest ones, I can clearly see how much better I’ve become.
Allow your writing journey to unfold organically. If you’re sincerely trying to improve, you will be better a year from now.
At the same time, don’t become jaded and assume you should be a good writer just because you’ve put in your reps over a period of time. You still have to give it your best shot.
4. To rapidly improve your writing, do a writing challenge
After noticing that I had improved as a writer but not necessarily in a straight line, I asked myself if I could pinpoint what had made the difference. And I’m pretty sure I figure out what gave me the biggest bang for the buck: a focused writing challenge.
A focused writing challenge is different from the “write every day”-advice (that led to my flurry of bad articles) in two ways:
- you only publish daily for a limited amount of time (I recommend 30 days), and
- you focus on improving every single day.
If you want to improve your writing as quickly as possible, do a focused writing challenge (here’s how).
During my “write every day”-phase, I hadn’t improved much. I somehow thought just publishing each day was enough. It’s not. You have to deliberately focus on improvement — and that’s what this challenge is about.
5. Enjoy the journey
This is, perhaps, the most important lesson. Writing is, ultimately, about life. And life is always about the journey, not the destination.
As writing goddess Ursula Le Guin put it in her book The Left Hand of Darkness: “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
In my own journey, I realized that my writing got better once I became less interested in the destination (number of views, income, business prospects, etc.). I became a better writer when I enjoyed the process for its own sake. When writing itself was enough for me. When I wasn’t writing for the reward but when writing became the reward itself.
The only legitimate reason to become a writer is if you love the art of writing. And if you love writing, then the process by itself should be fun, at least most of the time.
If you’re going through a rough stretch with your writing, try to figure out if this is part of a necessary learning curve (just like flailing about in martial arts class is part of the process) or if you have genuinely fallen out of love with writing.
And if you have fallen out of love with writing, stop! As poet Khalil Gibran put it in On Work:
“Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love, but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms from those who work with joy. For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half our hunger.”
The same is true for writing. A blog post or book written with indifference is bland and boring. Both our readers and writing itself deserve better than that… they deserve that we rekindle the love for our art, instead of creating from emptiness.
Upon thinking more about it, my cringe reflex is gone. I’m not embarrassed anymore about how my past self wrote. Instead, I’m beyond grateful that my past self dared and persevered. It’s been an exciting ride!
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