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6 Things Teaching Taught Me About My Own Writing

If you do something long enough people around you assume you must know what you’re doing. Next thing you know you end up as the instructor. I’m fairly sure this is how I started teaching. I’ve found that teaching writing to others has taught me a lot about my own writing. Regardless if you teach for your local college, or provide mentorship within a critique group, being a teacher can make you a better writer. Six of my biggest lessons include:

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With-Malice-book-cover

Column by Eileen Cook, author of 12 YA novels, including,
WITH MALICE (June 7, 2016, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
She is a frequent speaker at conferences and is a teacher/mentor
for Simon Fraser University’s Online The Writer’s Studio.
You can find her online at eileencook.com.

1. Explaining Things is Hard. There are many aspects of craft that are instinctual. You read pages and you can just tell if they’re working or not. However, when you teach, people don’t want to hear: “What you have isn’t working, but I have no idea why.” In order to help another writer you need to learn to dissect what’s on the page so you can point a writer toward what works and what doesn’t. It will give you a stronger lens to view your own writing.

(Agents define their "ideal client" -- hear what they have to say.)

2. Focus. When top chefs learn their art they focus on perfecting separate skills (knife work, making sauces, seasoning etc.) one at a time so that they are instinctive under the pressure of cooking and result in a perfect dish. Teaching allows you to drill down in a particular area: how to increase conflict, realistic dialogue, pacing, character development. You explore how to improve in each specific area so that when you weave them together in your own writing the overall result is stronger.

3. Spotting Errors. Reading others pages with a critical eye forces you to slow down, looking at each line as well as how it works as a whole. You catch mistakes, repeated words, on the nose dialogue, slow pacing, limp conflict, and clichés. It’s far easier to see those mistakes when they aren’t your own pages. However, once you’ve seen them in another’s work, it becomes far easier to see it on your own.

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4. Not All Critique Is Created the Same. If you ask ten people for feedback you'll get ten different responses. What one reader responds to may leave another cold. As an instructor you do your best to be objective and respond to a student’s story as it’s written versus how you might approach it, but there’s no way to leave yourself entirely out of the process. Critiquing another’s work reminds you that the creator of the work always has the final decision of what feedback to take.. Some people may provide good feedback that is still not the right feedback for your project.

5. No Right Way to Write. All writers, especially those just starting out want to know the secret. Do you need to plot? Create vision boards? Character interviews? Write your final scene first? Spin three times and spit at the full moon before starting a new project? The more you have the chance to work with other writers the more you’ll realize that every writer has their own process that works for them. There is no right or wrong way to approach the creative process. Embrace what works for you and don’t sweat what doesn’t. However- it can break you out of your routine to try a new approach so don’t be afraid to think outside of the box once and awhile.

(What makes an agent more likely to sign one client vs. another?)

6. Overthinking Can Kill Your Muse. The more you learn the more you realize how much you still don’t know. However, the more you know the higher the risk that you freeze in place- unable to write because nothing on the page is as good as you know it could be. The secret is to realize that your first draft is supposed to be rough. The important step is to get words on the page. You can use what you’ve learned in the revision. Don’t let it stop you before you start.

The most important thing I’ve learned by teaching is that there is no final destination with writing. No finish line. There’s always something new to learn, a new story to tell, and a new way to tell it. Learning the craft of writing is a lifelong quest and when you get so far down the road you’ll have the chance to help others o their journey. Helping others will give your own work new direction and an excitement to keep the process going.

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