There’s one talent more useful to writers than the ability to dream up sensational story ideas, write quickly and fluently, and sit at a computer for hours without losing their minds. It’s called grit. Do you have it?
Take this very quick quiz to find out.
The website doesn’t say it, but I’m pretty sure the scale was developed by Angela Lee Duckworth, a researcher at Penn and a highly engaging TED speaker. You can see her six-minute talk on grit, here.
Here’s how you can use grit to improve your writing:
1. Write every day whether you feel like it or not
If you don’t take the time to write, your words won’t end up on paper. The diligence of just showing up, and writing, whether you feel like it or not is hard to muster. Do it, and you have grit (and, soon, a manuscript.) Don’t and you won’t have anything to show for all of your talents. As Peter de Vries and William Faulkner have both said: “I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.” The hard, slogging task of producing a first-draft and the detailed persnickety job of editing it into something better is not for idlers. It’s work, and it’s something you need to do every day. Five minutes a day is better than five hours once a week.
2. Anticipate and work through setbacks
Think about Olympic rower Silken Laumann’s tragic accident. Think about the guy who invented WD-40. If you have grit, you know it’s important to press on no matter how discouraged you may feel.
3. Find a supermodel
Smart writers never re-invent the wheel. Find something similar to a piece of writing you need to do —whether it’s a report, article or a book. Then take that model and imitate it! I don’t mean you should copy word-for-word; I mean you should follow the broad outlines developed by the other writer. Models will not only help you understand what your client wants, they’ll also give you a more precise measuring stick. Supermodels rule the world!
4. ID your best writing time
Some of us are morning larks, others are night owls. Still others get a burst of energy at 4 pm. Figure out whatever time works best for you and use it.
5. Don’t get distracted
It’s so easy to lose buckets of time on fruitless Internet searches. Worse it’s even easier to be sucked in by the lure of email, Facebook or Twitter. Make a rule that you will only allow yourself to use these time-wast tools as a reward, after you’ve finished your writing.
6. Use deliberate practice
Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, at Florida State University, has pioneered ways of using feedback and focus to improve musical and athletic performances. Deliberate Practice works for writing as well, if you can identify what you need to improve.
7. Assume a growth mindset
So many people talk about writing talent. They assume you’re either born with it or your not. Others, however, know that the harder they work at something, the more skillful they can become. Psychologist Carol Dweck makes a convincing case for believing in what she calls a growth mindset. This is the assurance that anything can improve — grades, motivation, relationships, writing — if you work hard at it.
8. Spend your energy wisely
Don’t sit at a computer staring vacantly into space. Not only is this unproductive, it’s also surprisingly exhausting. Instead, produce your first draft as quickly as you can. Giving you more time for editing, which is where the real writing work occurs.
9. Always submit your work on time
Never — and I do mean never — miss a deadline. I’ve worked as an editor for 35 years, and if anyone ever misses a deadline with me, I never use them again. As well, I won’t rehire writers to run over their word counts. If I request a story of 500 words, I don’t want one that runs 515, no matter how excellent the writing. (Smart writers who sincerely believe the extra 15 words are necessary will always submit two stories: one at the requested word length and the other that’s longer, giving the editor the ability to make up his/her own mind. This is the respectful thing to do.)
10. Know how to handle your critics
It may not feel like it, but criticism is a privilege. If you’re lucky to have an editor, then celebrate. And if you ever feel threatened by his or her comments, one of the best things you can do is ask lots of questions. This will help you understand what the person is saying, and make your own work better.
11. Be your own toughest editor
Don’t submit your work to your boss or editor until you’ve given it a thorough going-over yourself. And be sure to allow some incubation time before you do. (This helps empty your mind so you can approach the story with fresh eyes.) Then, read it aloud, slowly ensuring it all makes sense. Question every fact. Check the names of sources, book titles, etc. to ensure you have them right. Double-check spelling. Look for the grammar errors that you typically make and correct them. The grit of a tough self-edit will impress editors more than just about anything else you do.
12. Read voraciously
The best writers are always the best readers because learning to write is a bit of an apprenticeship. Begin by imitating a “master” and then eventually you will develop your own independent voice. For example, no one would ever mistake the music of Elton John for that of Elvis Presley or Ray Charles – but the former did learn from the latter two.
Grit — also known as fortitude, guts, chutzpah and sticktoitiveness — is a core strength for anyone who wants to get better at what they do. And for anyone who wants to become a great writer.
What ways have you found to grit it out with your writing? Please share in the comments below and let’s discuss!
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