4 Pieces of Writing Advice to My 21-Year-Old Self

Riley Blue

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The first lesson you learn when you start taking writing seriously is that no matter how bad your first draft is, you have got to keep writing it.

In 2014, when I was a final year undergraduate student, I discovered this platform called Quora, where I used to write short stories and snippets from my life experiences.

I thought my writing was terrible, that no one apart from my closest friends would ever be interested in reading what I wrote.

I didn’t know that 57,000+ people would find my stories relatable and keep asking me for more. My inbox was filled with messages from people who said they would be the first ones to buy my book the day I released it.

For a college student, that was incredibly humbling as well as flattering.

It has been six years since, and I have come a long way. I publish my work online almost on a daily basis. Here are four things I would tell my 21-year-old self. Maybe they will save you months — probably years — of stumbling around in the dark.

1. You do not suck

No matter what that voice inside your head keeps on telling you, your writing is not bad.

Yes, your story might have been told before, but just because your idea is not original, does not mean your story cannot be authentic. If you are honest in your portrayal and your narration, the audience will relate to it and fall in love with your writing.

Yes, your story might not be as spell-binding or as awe-inspiring as the ones written by people who have achieved significantly higher milestones than you, but that does not mean your story does not have value.

Your upbringing, your mindset, your circumstances, and your way of dealing with them have carved your experiences into unique lessons that no one else in the world can share.

The situations you have faced might not be unique. But, the way you have dealt with them is. And that is what makes your story worth sharing.

As Elizabeth Gilbert quoted in her brilliant book, Big Magic,

“The older I get, the less impressed I become with originality. These days, I’m far more moved by authenticity. Attempts at originality can often feel forced and precious, but authenticity has quiet resonance that never fails to stir me.”

2. The first draft is for your eyes only

After you get your first few readers and your fair share of praises, there might come a time when you start to think of yourself as infallible, that no matter what you write, it will strike gold.

While it might be true that you have amazing insights, you are but human, and it’s natural to make mistakes and typographical or grammatical errors in your first draft.

Never share it with anyone else.

Editing is the polishing that turns a piece of charcoal to a diamond. Just like every bit of coal needs to undergo polishing to become a diamond, every first draft needs several rounds of editing to become a masterpiece.

Your first draft is supposed to be your rawest, most basic form of the story you want to tell. The subsequent rounds of editing will make it into the end-product the world deserves.

I think Angeline Trevena conveyed this the best when she quoted-

“Your first draft is a petulant teenager, sure it knows best, adamant that its Mother is wrong. Your third draft has emerged from puberty, realising that its Mother was right about everything.”

3. Writing daily is not as important as reading daily

Yes, making writing a part of your daily routine helps you become a better writer. But, if you stop reading, you would never be able to expand your horizons and explore bigger possibilities.

When you read daily, you open yourself up to the prospect of learning from writers with more experience than you.

Reading is like fodder to a writer’s brain. The more you read, the more nuances and subtleties of the language you learn, and the better you can appreciate storytelling and replicate the magic in your own work.

Sadly, in their haste to produce more work in a short time, several writers (including my 21-year-old-self) ignore reading and only focus on creating content.

As the Sahitya Akademi Award winner Ruskin Bond says,

“There’s only one way to become a writer, that’s to be a reader. If you look at the lives of all writers who are successful, you’d find that when they were boys or girls, they were readers and bookworms. It’s from a love of reading that you come to a love of writing.”

4. Don’t edit while you write

If I had a count of the number of times I abandoned an article or a story because I felt it is not good enough, I would probably have an excess of 100,000 wasted words — stories that could have been life-changing, but ended up as unpublished drafts in my computer’s Recycle Bin because I couldn’t stop editing while writing.

Don’t make the same mistake as I did.

While you write, tell the editor in your head to shut up. Pour out your heart on the paper and write it in whichever form or sequence the story comes to you.

The time for editing will come, but that is not while you are writing.

Once your first draft is done, keep it aside for a night (or longer — even two months — if you are working on a longer piece like a novel). Come back to it the next morning, and read through it once.

Don’t edit during the first read — just make a note of all the elements you would like to change.

After you prepared your list, start editing. It might take several rounds, even a few hours of re-writing and re-structuring. But, if you have poured your heart into it, in the end, it will be worth all the time and effort.

As Bernard Malamud famously quoted-

“I would write a book, or a short story, at least three times — once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say. Somewhere I put it this way: first drafts are for learning what one’s fiction wants him to say. Revision works with that knowledge to enlarge and enhance an idea, to reform it. Revision is one of the exquisite pleasures of writing.”

Final thoughts

Writers, especially the ones who are just starting out, often limit the possibilities available to them by letting themselves be consumed by self-doubt.

As creatives, this feeling will perhaps never go away. The best you can do is not succumb to it, and keep writing.

For the world to love your work and for you to reach the heights you know you are meant to, you have to first publish. Once you get past this hurdle and start to write and keep honing your skills, no force in the world can stop you from becoming the best writer you can possibly be.

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