Your Never Ending Writing Improvement Program

james-scott-bell

In Japan, after World War II, the concept of kaizen was introduced into their industrial culture. It resulted in a huge boom in technology and manufacturing that rebuilt Japan and made her prosperous.

It’s a simple idea. It means ongoing quality, and systems set up to test quality all the time. And, every day, striving to do something better.

Why should a writer do any less?

You are responsible for designing your own writing improvement program. One that never ends.

To do that, you have to look at both yourself and your fiction. And you have to take the “critical success factors” of each and figure out ways to make them better.

But most writers don’t think in a kaizen type of manner. We are artists, after all! We want to frolic in the tulip fields of the imagination! We don’t want to get weighed down with things like, yikes, strategic planning! We could have gone to engineering school if we wanted to do that kind of thing.

Come on there, Bunkie. It’s not that difficult.

Here’s the idea. Even if you improve an area only 10%, if you do that with each factor you are improving yourself in an exponential fashion. That’s how to get intentional about your career.

The Five Characteristics of Successful Writers

Here are the five areas in which you need to excel if you’re going to make it in the writing game:

1. Craft knowledge
2. Discipline
3. Perseverance
4. Risk
5. Market sense

Let’s break these down.

Craft knowledge

Mastery of the craft, the tools and techniques of fiction, is of course essential to your success. If you don’t know how to put together a scene, or show instead of tell, or construct crisp dialogue, or any of the other nuts and bolts, it’s over. You won’t write salable fiction.

Keep learning your craft. Do it systematically. At the start of my career, I created a Writing Improvement Notebook (see The Art of War for Writers for details of what’s in this notebook). Do the same. Make it your own, use it. Spend time in it every week.

Discipline

This means, simply but powerfully, a quota of words. Every week. I split my writing week into six days, and go for 1,000 words a day. But I track it weekly, so if I miss a day I know I can make it up later. I take Sundays off from writing, to recharge my batteries. (Discipline is also about working smarter, not just harder).

Produce the words. There is no substitute for this. Even if your quota has to be small because of your circumstances, pick a number that works, and stretches you just a bit. Then go for it, week in and week out.

Perseverance

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

– Calvin Coolidge

Old “Silent Cal” Coolidge wasn’t given to many words, but these are choice. You’ve got to stay in this deal for the long haul, and determine that from the start. Or right now.

You have to know this business is practically all about setbacks and overcoming them: rejections, waiting, criticism, lack of sales. Just determine you’re not going to stop. Ever.

The worst that will happen? You’ve written a lot of fiction. You’ll have spent a good portion of your life in wonderful dream worlds you’ve created. You can live with that!

Risk

You have to stretch as a writer. Not so far that you tear all your muscles. You don’t try to pole vault twenty feet if your personal best is ten.

But to write for all you’re worth you need to go a little further. You need to reach further than your grasp. Take risks with your characters, plots, settings, research. Go deeper. Because if you don’t, you’re just producing what people can get elsewhere. Vanilla.

Market Sense

Headline: publishers and agents want to make money. In fact, they need to make money, or they go out of business.

It’s not a bad thing to make money. If you want to write and not get paid, you can skip this part. But if you do want to make some lettuce as a writer, you should constantly be asking this question: who on Earth would pay good money to read what I’m writing?

Whether you self-publish or seek a house contract, you need to have an answer!

Make it your goal to assess yourself in each of these areas, and then make a plan to improve in each one this coming year. And the year after that. And the year …

That’s kaizen, friend.

jsb-author-photo_framed2

Jim is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure, and numerous thrillers, including, Romeo’s Rules, Try Dying and Don’t Leave Me. You can find his popular books on craft fiction here. His thrillers have been called “heart-whamming” (Publishers Weekly) and can be browsed here. Find out more about Jim on our Resident Writing Coach page, and connect with him online.

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13 Responses to Your Never Ending Writing Improvement Program

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  3. Kessie says:

    Ah, great advice from Jim, as usual! I hadn’t thought too much about specifically improving my craft. This last year, I bought a few Rayne Hall books, which target one area of writing (dialogue, plotting, setting, etc.) and unpack it down to the core. Highly useful. I think I’ll pick up more.

  4. Writing a book is hard enough. Then writers are also supposed to figure out how to sustain a career in writing. I know this is overwhelming for so many people. Thanks for breaking down the daunting process into manageable nuggets, James :).

  5. Mary Kate says:

    Sometimes the best articles are also the simplest. This was great!

    I would also add, under the “Craft Knowledge” umbrella, that reading good fiction (or non-fiction, if that’s what you’re writing) is vital to enhancing your craft. Books about craft can be excellent but sometimes for me seeing it done well helps me more than reading about how to do it well.

  6. :Donna says:

    I actually have THE ART OF WAR FOR WRITERS 🙂 I read it inbetween other things and always find good points!

  7. This article is very informative. Thanks for sharing. I taught Calculus for 15 years and every year I revised my curriculum – I was always learning something new that would improve it. I am finding the same thing is happening with writing a novel. As I learn more about the writing process from people like yourself and Angela Ackerman, I continue to make revisions to my manuscript. Just hope it doesn’t take me 15 years before I’m satisfied with it.

    • LOL, Sharon. Take it from someone who’s been published for twenty years … you’re never really satisfied. That’s why I don’t read my own backlist. I know I’d find something to change on just about every page!

      This where deadlines help. Even self-imposed ones. Do your best, do the work, but eventually you’ve got to let it go.

      Good luck!

  8. Terrific post, James. Writers who really succeed are those who always challenge themselves to grow and learn. And I think you’re such a great example of this–not only do you accomplish a lot of writing by prioritizing well, but as it pertains to writers, you have a good bead on what your audience wants and needs. The topics you write about and the way they are packaged these last few years show your focus to convey specific information in a bite-sized manner tailored to the busy writers who have shrinking amounts of time available. I love that.

  9. Donna Volkenannt says:

    Thanks for this advice. Taking a structured approach to writing success makes sense and is a plan I need to heed. And the new year is a good time to start!

    I do have a question: In the list above is #6 Professionalism blended with #5 Market Sense?

    • Hi, Donna! I think the Professionalism section never made it into the post. Some editor I am, not noticing. I didn’t exactly get my kaizen on there… So it’s five tips now ;).

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