This blog was featured on 11/13/2019
8 Changes that dramatically improved my writing.
Written by
Alissa Johnson
November 2019
Written by
Alissa Johnson
November 2019

* This post was originally published in December 2017. 

I’m not one for making New Year's resolutions, but at the end of the year I like to take a look back—did I do the things I wanted to do? What did I learn? Are there insights I can use in the future?

When I look at my creative writing, I’m happy with what I accomplished over the last year. I have a few short stories in the works (some ready to submit for publication), and I discovered a larger story I'm immensely happy to explore.

I haven’t always felt content with my writing. I mean, writers are supposed to suffer, from procrastination or writer's block or something, aren’t they? (Just kidding!) But this year, I made some big shifts in the way that I approach writing—and that’s made the difference between being satisfied, inspired even, and that sinking sort of feeling, the one that ends with, Maybe next year.

Here’s what worked for me:

#1 -- I realized I’m NOT a “Writer First, Everything Else Second” 

I want to write. But I also want to be outside, go on adventures with my partners in crime, and be there for family. In 2016, that meant having my dad spend a few weeks with us—from spending time together to helping his dog learn to like ours, I didn’t touch my creative writing in July. I also set aside writing to go on walks with my dog, who’s been my loyal companion for 12 years (through marriage, divorce and major life changes) but might not make it to 13 (thank you, lung tumor). It also meant going on a much-needed vacation in Baja with my main partner in crime, Pete. 

How did not writing help me? Once I recognized ALL my priorities, my writing no longer bore the sole burden of determining my happiness. Talk about easing the pressure.

#2 -- I adjusted my goals to my priorities.

Once I realized I wasn't going to sacrifice a week on the beach to writing (or pick up a pen while I was there), I knew I couldn’t expect myself to be like Stephen King, writing every day and publishing every year. I finally followed the advice I give my clients: ease the pressure and set small goals you can actually achieve. That meant short stories and fewer pages at a time.

As a result? I procrastinated less because my goals felt attainable. And in a classic life twist, I wrote more and felt better about what I created.

#3 -- I accepted the truth: When it comes to writing, I take my time.

As they say in the construction industry (my better half is a builder), I’m not a whap it, tap it, slap it kind of a writer. I write several drafts of the same story to get to know the characters, figure out what happens, and write in a way that conveys feeling and emotion. I also like downtime between drafts so I can come back to it with fresh eyes. 

Instead of celebrating speed, now I celebrate quality—getting a story to a place that I never imagined, and could only discover with time.

#4 -- I got real about my writing needs.

I’m not intrinsically motivated. I need accountability! So I set up a system with an old friend and former client. We traded writing, setting dates as we went. Then we set a few month’s worth of dates at a time, even planning a writing retreat. Now we send each other work every three weeks, whether that's part of a story, a chapter or a big picture reflection on what we want to do next.

I write more often, produce more pages, and have someone to help me dig into all the parts of writing that I love (see #3)

#5 -- I stopped deciding what to write & let my curiosity decide for me.

No more “thinking up” a story. That random tree decorated by the highway? Who would have done that and why? That time my parents' dog ran away? What was that like? That photograph that turned up in one of my short stories about an early female scientist? What’s her story?

Because I was interested in what I wrote, I was more motivated to stick things out. And as always, I found myself surprised by how much there was to discover.

#6 -- I let go of a project that no longer served me.

This was tough. If you’ve followed me for a while, you know I wrote a novel about the wolf hunt in Minnesota. I even printed it out, a stack of pages with some real heft. But when it came time to revise, I couldn’t see or feel what the story needed to be. When I traveled to my birth state and the setting of the story, I couldn’t relate to the place itself. I felt like a foreigner—in the northwoods and in the book. I also felt pulled to write stories about my new home state.

When I stopped forcing it and let myself write the new stories instead of the old, the writing flowed and I grew to love it again.

#7 -- I put my writing out in the world before seeking publication.

When the opportunity arose to read one of my short stories in public, I did. When I had the chance to share my writing with the editor of a respected literary magazine and get his input, I went for it. Talk about vulnerable… On the way to the reading, my nerves were off the hook. Waiting for the editor’s feedback, I counseled myself not to expect too much. This was about constructive input, not just a pat on the back.

In the end, I got exactly what I try to give my clients: confirmation where I was on the right track, and some new tools to make my writing stronger.

#8 -- I started looking out for any belief that started with “I should.”

This was the big one. I realized that every time writing got hard, I was forcing it. Trying to approach it the “right” way as opposed to the “right way for me.” Now, every time I start to resist or feel like things are too hard, I look for the falsehood I’m telling myself. What way do I think I need to do it? And what is a simpler way? 

Now, I write less chronologically and have less "control," but the progress I make feels better and I like writing more.

As I head into 2017, I’m ready to start submitting my short stories for publication, and I’m working on a bigger story that I love (even when I feel uncertain about how to proceed). I’m excited to see where both take me in the next year… I’m also prepared to return to this list. To remind myself there’s no right way, there’s only what works for me.

Tell me, what works for you?

P.S. Ready for a writing breakthrough? Break free from writing rules that don't work and find your way with my FREE three-part series: Inside the Writers Mind. The first insight (and writing prompt) could be yours today.

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