10 lessons from a decade of writing

Over the last decade, I graduated from high school, got a bachelor’s in writing, earned an MFA in fiction, and began my career as a copywriter.

In that time, I grew a lot as a writer — so I thought I’d share the lessons that helped me most along the way.

How does one from each year sound?

2010: Never let high expectations be a barrier to good writing

As a teenager, I had unhealthy expectations for my writing. This not only made writing painful, but also held back the quality of my work. Thankfully, in my last year of high school, I had to crank out a short story for a class, with no time to revise as I went. The result? I had fun, and ended up writing a story that was better than anything I’d written before it. That’s when I realized how toxic lofty expectations could become, if left unchecked.

2011: Good stories often depict, or inspire, change

In my first college writing workshop, our professor told us that a good story often does one of two things: it either depicts a change in a character, or inspires a change in the reader. While a bit simplistic, that guidance was invaluable to me at the time. The first path gave me a clear target to aim for in workshop, while the second introduced me to the full, baffling mystery of what makes a story worth telling. 

2012: Clear, specific language brings scenes to life

As a sophomore, I fell in love with Raymond Carver’s minimalism and was particularly struck by the following description from “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”:

Mel handed me the saucer of limes. I took a section, squeezed it over my drink, and stirred the ice cubes with my finger.

The description struck me as remarkably vivid, yet lean — making me realize how even a small description could breathe life into a scene when written with clear, specific language.

2013: Personal experiences fuel good writing

After years of avoiding the genre, I took my first poetry workshop as a junior, and SURPRISE. I loved it. It was the first time I’d ever really tried writing about my own experiences, and it brought an invigorating sense of reality to both my poetry and my fiction. It also inspired me to become more observant, which fed directly back into my writing.

2014: Never mow the same grass twice

Throughout college, I had a trumpet instructor who’d often say, “Michael, I hate to mow the same grass twice!” You can find a full explanation here, but long story short, he encouraged me to fix flaws in my performance immediately upon discovering them, because if you repeat mistakes, they become habits. Bad habits that only get harder to break over time.

I didn’t take his advice to heart in my music, but I did apply it to my fiction. In the coming years, it would be instrumental (ha) in honing my craft.

2015: How to tie plot to character growth

In high school, my stories were all plot. In college, my stories were all character. During the first year of my MFA, I learned how to merge the two by writing narrators with:

  1. Emotions that drive actions,
  2. Actions that trigger consequences, and
  3. Consequences that compel growth.

This structure is simple, but effective, particularly when your character is motivated by a clear emotional struggle. More about this structure here.

2016: Write the stories that excite you

Throughout college, I almost exclusively wrote realistic fiction, because I wanted to pursue particular goals in that space. I learned a lot in the process, but it wasn’t until the second year of my MFA that I realized my stories themselves had lost a certain spark. So I switched back to writing the fantasy and sci-fi stories I loved. Like an old friend, the spark came back — and the writing became a lot more fun.

2017: Accept that you’ll never catch up to your expectations

The great irony of being a writer is that the more you hone your craft, the further away “perfection” seems. Why? Because as we improve, we not only overcome weaknesses, but also discover the flaws we never knew existed. So we fix those flaws. Discover new ones. Fix them. And so on. It’s a frustrating, never-ending cycle, and it wasn’t until my final year of the MFA that I was able to fully accept it — finding comfort in the fact that dissatisfaction is a sign of growth.

2018: Be willing to let stories go

In my first year as a copywriter, the fast pace of agency life quickly taught me the importance of knowing when to “let go” of my writing. At work, it was because I had deadlines. But in fiction, I realized I couldn’t keep revising the same stories forever, when others were waiting to be written. “Art is never finished, only abandoned,” said Leonardo da Vinci, and it’s true. Our stories will never be perfect, so it’s our responsibility to decide when it’s time to cut the cord.

2019: If you want to write meaningful stories, start with what’s important to you

After my fiction professor gave that brief explanation (back in 2011) of what made a good, meaningful story, I became obsessed with finding a clearer answer. Something to grasp onto to guide my writing.

But last year, I realized it was a bit of a fool’s errand. The things that make a story worth telling are incredibly subjective and different for everyone — naturally arising from their backgrounds, desires, fears, and more.

You can’t predict it. Or at least, you can’t predict it well.

So you just need to look inward. To find what you think is important.

And then write.

2020: TBD

Five months into 2020 (and about to start month six), there’s a lot I’m sure we’ve all stewed on — but I won’t distill my own thoughts just yet. I think I’ll leave those reflections for 2021.

In the meantime, I wish everyone luck in honing their craft, and may we fill the months (and years) to come with wonderful stories.

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