Writing Lessons My Teachers Never Taught Me

by Jody Feldman

Let me start with a confession:
When I was in school, I never took a creative writing course voluntarily. Therefore, not learning these writing lessons was my fault entirely. I had awesome teachers. My peers were awesome creative writers. Additionally, my teachers may have mentioned some of these, but I was probably busy doodling snails and eyes in the margins of my spiral notebooks. Again, not their fault. The important point is, I did learn. And so I present one Top Nine List. Why nine? Look hard; you'll figure it out. Here goes.

  1. Source material. You live it every day. Take notes about what moves you, amuses you, makes your ears perk up, stirs up some excitement in your gut. Even if it's a single word.
  2. Experiment. Sure, you have a series of events in mind and sure, you can envision your scenes. However, your first thoughts might not be the best ones for your book. No matter how much you believe in your characters' story, it's still fiction, a fabrication, totally made up. It's not sacred. Take every opportunity to experiment with pivotal scenes or points of view or secondary characters. Your best work may be limited by your misconception that what you've written is fact.
  3. Patience. I happen to have learned patience from my parents, or maybe I was hard-wired with a nice dose of it, but not as far as the publishing industry is concerned. Other authors and writers did warn me that the industry moves at glacial speed, but no one taught me what it feels like. Then again, that's pretty much unteachable.
  4. Table it. It's okay if you set a project aside. Case in point, 20 years ago I wrote a book that received amazing editorial comments; you know, the best rejections ever, including a couple R&Rs-revise and resubmit. I did and I did and I got the 3rd R, rejection. Turns out I didn't yet have the skills and the life experience to do justice to the concept and the characters. Now, the time is right. At least I think it is. We'll see. However…
  5. End it. Write a first draft through to the finish. If you bail midway through a story, don't expect to pick it back up and remember where you were going with it. There are no excuses here, not even shiny new ideas. Sorry. This discussion is over.
  6. Mine your writing. I can't tell you how many times I've run into a story situation that seems impossible to fix, no matter how much I employ lesson #2. And then, a miracle. I reread certain scenes and there, on page 87 during a fit of frenzied and unplanned writing, the essential idea or the emotion or the twist-or even the random object-is sitting right there. Not all the time, but enough to let me know that my subconscious is often smarter than I am. 
  7. Blaze old trails. Depending on who you ask, there are only 7 (or 3 or 6 or 9 or 20) basic plots, so grab your favorite and go with it. However, a big HOWEVER. Knowing that, it's even more essential you populate your plots with rich and memorable characters and with fresh and unexpected details. That's what will set you apart.
  8. Editors are awesome, period.
  9. Reaching perfection. It's virtually unachievable. Every time you read your work, you'll find something to fix, even if it's as simple as transposing two phrases in a simple sentence. That's the bad news. The good news, it also means you are still learning. And all this can turn you into a teacher yourself.  


  1. Such good advice! I never took a creative writing course either. The extent of my creative writing in school was my own poetry journal and a few mandatory fiction writing exercises in English class.

  2. I was actually glad there was no creative writing at the time. I thought myself incapable. :)


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