Creative writing skill is not the kind of thing that you master completely. It’s the same as other creative disciplines. You don’t become the perfect violin player by practicing playing the violin. You don’t become the perfect photographer. The more photographs that you take, the better you get, over time, incrementally. You start to get better as you recognize areas that you could improve – not so much by hearing from other people about how you could improve but by starting to figure things out, on your own, through practice and experiment – and in particular, through deep and personal engagement with the process.

Creative writing is the same. You can improve your writing. It helps to practice. It helps to be aware of areas that you might improve. It helps to think purposefully and meaningfully about the work. It helps to reflect on how you feel about your writing emotionally – because if you’re going to improve, you have to bring a sense of engagement and even passion to that work. You have to have the energy to keep going, to keep trying. It doesn’t matter how much someone else tells you that you need to improve; if you’re not interested in improving, nothing will happen. Of course, if you do want to improve your creative writing skill, there are all kinds of things you can try. But the first and most important thing is to really want to improve. It’s a necessary condition for anything else that might follow. You have to want it. Obviously.

One of the things we know through the research on learning writing is that at the lower end of skill development, the earlier stages of skill development, people think that their writing is better than it actually is. And, conversely, at the other end – the more skilled end – people think that their writing is worse than it actually is. (In the video on feedback, I talk more about this problem). This mismatch between skill and perception of skill is a strange artifact of human nature. When you’re not really good at something you think you’re much better than you are, and when you’re getting pretty good at something you don’t think you’re very good at all. That’s how it goes with a lot of things. People are often weird.

Most of the learners in my creative writing courses are at the lower end of skill development. They’re just starting out, just learning to write. They’ve been immersed in traditional, mainstream education for many, many years, and consequently the kind of writing they’re used to doing is formulaic essay writing. So, if that’s your situation: fine, no problem. You’re in the right place. One of the reasons you might take a creative writing class is to shake up that academic cage a bit, to see what other kinds of writing are out there and to experiment with some of them. That’s great. I want you to do that in my class. So, if you’re just starting out, don’t worry about how skilled you are. Just try to have fun and see if you can improve.

It’s not the case that some people are just inherently better at creative activities than others. Creativity, like every field, is a matter of practice, openness, and positive mindset. A positive mindset is one in which you recognize that you could improve, you could get better. A positive mindset has been associated with improvements in pretty much every area of human life. So, the first step in thinking about how you could improve your writing is to be positive about it: to remember and emphasize that you can make incremental improvements.

The second step is to recognize that writing is not just about writing; you’re writing about something. Writing is always connected to other things. The technical term for this is metacognition: how we can see the connections between one thing and another, and in turn how all things are connected. So, when we approach writing it’s helpful to think about the deep interconnections between things. Writing is the endpoint; it’s not the beginning. So, before you try to improve your writing, ask yourself: what is important for me to write about? What is a subject for which I feel deep, personal, and pressing interest? Start with finding your subjects, and these will help you find your voice as a writer.

And once you begin to shape your voice on the page, remember that you, and me, and everybody else who writes: we make the same mistakes again and again. Common, habitual mistakes. Sometimes people make routine spelling or grammatical errors. Sometimes they make errors in expression or imagery. All kinds of things can get in your way. So, it’s helpful to be able to identify two or three habitual problems with your writing. One of the challenges here is that if somebody else points out your errors, you are not likely to remember or use that feedback. Feedback is not a helpful way to improve your writing –especially when you are at the lower end of the skill spectrum. Unskilled writers have not yet developed enough skill to know how to apply the feedback. People who are more skilled tend to respond to feedback a bit more productively. They know how to use it – but it’s also curiously true that once you know how to identify problems in your own writing, you no longer really need feedback from other people. You just need to keep reading and writing and slowly improving. And some encouragement helps (positive mindset again). So, improvement in creative writing is not so much about me or anyone else telling you how to improve. It’s more about what you do to bring a deep personal interest in skill development to this practice.

There’s a reason that many of the most skilled people in almost every creative area are mostly self-taught. They might have taken courses or programs or completed degrees. But when you ask them about where their deep skill comes from, they often say that it just evolved over time: because they were deeply dedicated to the process of skill development. That’s how it goes. So if you want to improve, try hard to improve. If you’re curious about particular areas where your writing might improve, might benefit from some feedback, then by all means, send me something. Send me a question. Send me a sample of your writing and ask for specific feedback. I’ll be happy to provide it.

It’s best if you identify a couple of areas that you think could benefit from improvement, then ask me about those areas. And of course, if I see other things in your writing that I think you should be aware of, I’ll let you know. But writing is a complex, multi-layered skill, and it’s a good idea to focus on one or two areas at a time, to iron those areas out, to develop the spectrum of skill in a smooth and incremental way. Otherwise it can be overwhelming. The development of deep professional creative writing skill might take you 20 years. That’s no different from other creative or professional fields.

So, don’t be overwhelmed by the amount of time it might take to get really good at writing. Instead, start by being attentive to your inner life: your thoughts and feelings, your images, your dreams – the whole complex, unpredictable, sometimes inaccessible worlds of the inner life where all of your creativity comes from. Start there. Get in touch with your inner life. Much creativity will come tumbling out as a result of that simple shift. Creativity is about a relationship with the inner life. That should be the place we start.