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The Secret to Writing Better: Looking Up

I'm always surprised and humbled by the gracious notes I receive from readers about my Editor’s Letters—but no letter in recent memory has drawn as much of a response as the one in our latest, November/December 2013 Writer’s Digest (on newsstands and in libraries now, and available for instant download), which is devoted to a simple but powerful theme: Write Better. My simple little essay has spurred some inspiring discussions, so I thought I’d post it here, as well. I invite you to share your own insights in the comments section below, and thank you, as always, for reading WD online and in print!

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Looking Up

A couple of weeks after my son turned 2, we took him to his first amusement park—one of those little nostalgic ones, with a generous “kiddie land,” a lake full of paddleboats and the smell of funnel cakes in the air. I figured he could ride only two or three things, tops, but thought it would be worth the trip anyway. (Could anything that involves funnel cake not be?)

We began by situating him onto the tamest ride—a circular train—and stood anxiously on the other side of the fence, waving. He did not cry that we weren’t able to ride along with him, as I’d feared he would; he did not panic and try to climb off when the ride started up. He simply rang his engine’s little bell happily and waved back every time he passed by.

So far so good. The next logical step was the turtles. We got in line.

“How ’bout airplanes, Mommy?”

I followed his gaze to the biggest of the toddler rides. I eyed it nervously—the height, the speed, the fact that riders could maneuver their planes up and down. Instantly, I had a vivid image of him pulling the lever, unknowingly rocketing himself into the air and screaming in terror while I was powerless to stop the ride.

“What about these turtles, buddy? Don’t they look fun?”

“How ’bout airplanes,” he insisted, louder this time.

It was the ride’s attendant who overheard and got me to relent. He showed me that a key locked each rider in, and said the lever would likely be too hard for a 2-year-old to pull. “I pilot! I pilot!” my son yelled, beaming, as he rode the ride again … and again … and again, whizzing past the turtles with pride.

On the surface, this sounds like a parenting lesson, about not underestimating what kids can do, letting them take their own risks (within reason), even at a very young age. But I can’t help but think that it’s a lesson in a lot of other things, too.

Have you predetermined, perhaps without realizing it, a safe speed for your writing? Are you avoiding heights you can too easily visualize ending in catastrophe? When it comes to our writing, there’s far more danger in playing it too safe.

The articles in this issue have been crafted to challenge you to take your craft to the next level. Because when it comes to writing, it’s good to feel as if there’s something that might be beyond your reach—and you should always be reaching for it. That’s how we grow. It’s how we improve. It’s how we learn to write better. No one else is going to push you onto that ride. You need to be the one on the alert, asking yourself, Hey, how bout airplanes? Sure, there’s a chance you’ll get dizzy from the spinning—but you might just end up at the top, looking down in wonder at how far you’ve come, with a great big grin on your face.

Preview the complete November/December “Write Better” issue of Writer’s Digest now.

Jessica Strawser

Editor, Writer’s Digest Magazine

Follow me on Twitter @jessicastrawser

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