Learning from other writers

The first thing you learned from another writer, most likely passively, was by partaking in their unique way of telling stories. If you’re a writer today, you’ve spent your whole life until now learning from other writers.

Writing is about shared meaning — through the spoken and unspoken agreements humans have about how the components of language work, as well as through the cultural movements that impact many aspects of a writer’s voice and life. Although it’s vital to being a good writer that you go out and live a life full of details worth writing about, it’s also vital that you sit quietly and listen, one way or the other.

Here are some ways you can set out to intentionally learn from your fellow writers.

Actively

Ask someone to review your work. You may not want to reach out to your favorite bestselling author to request their time in this way; save your burning questions about writing in general for those interactions. This is for your fellow hard-working laborers in obscurity! Reach out to someone you know who writes and see if they’d be willing to do a feedback trade. You can gain so much by listening to someone else who understands how to craft stories talk about your current work.

If you want a real burst of motivation, collaborate on a shared story with a fellow writer. It’s weird. I’ll tell you, trying to write on the same thing with a brain you have zero actual access to is weird. But it’s fun! And it can give you a real kick in the pants to get moving and produce something. Plus, trust me, you’ll learn a ton from the other writer(s) you work with — about style, characterization, and process (both what you’d like to steal and do yourself, and what you’d like to avoid ever doing).

If you’re lucky enough to get the chance, take a class from another writer. Workshops are also weird, but they can be really amazing if they go well. If you don’t have the opportunity to take a class, there are some online resources for watching video series from writers with credentials, such as Masterclass. Videos are nowhere near as good as the real thing, but I understand not everyone will have that chance.

Passively

Re-type their work so you know how it feels to write well (and in their voice). One of Jake’s favorite stories about his favorite writer, Hunter S. Thompson, is how he learned what it felt like to write like the big guns. He would take a novel like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” and furiously re-type it until he had a sense of the “music” they were writing. You can do the same when you’re stuck on a certain passage or scene — find a writer you admire who has created similar scenes, and re-type away until you know what it feels like to write that kind of scene well.

Read their work critically. Instead of simply being entertained by a written work, a critical reader pays attention to what the writer left unsaid, and what is implied by adding up what they did say. The next time you want to learn from a writer, pick up something of theirs you’ve read before and go over it with a metaphorical fine-tooth comb.

Read what they’ve written about writing. Whether it’s King’s “On Writing” or Bradbury’s “Zen in the Art of Writing,” writing about writing has a storied (ha!) tradition. These days, a lot of authors write about writing on their blogs. I like to look at this kind of reading exercise as “curious consumption”: I’m open-minded, but I don’t let myself feel guilty if I don’t immediately click with another writer’s process. The point is to absorb a lot of different processes, and filter aggressively until I have my own system that works for me.