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Are You a Competent Writer?

One of the highest compliments I ever received from one of my writing professors in graduate school was that they really couldn’t teach me anything more because I was “self-aware.” What he meant was that I knew what I had to work on in my fiction, and I knew how to do it. I had made the leap from a beginning writer to a competent writer. Now, while I was writing fiction, the same holds true for nonfiction. As Grand Canyon University puts it,

"[Writing is] the fuel that drives communication, and

communication serves as a framework for society.

Clear communication--and hence, good writing--is critical because it facilitates coworker collaborations,

business transactions and interpersonal interaction."

Now, I know OpenAI's ChatGPT is revolutionizing (we think) what business writing and other types of writing will be (potentially) in the future, but this shouldn't influence how we write currently for business, education, fiction, or nonfiction. Just because AI will be able to supplement (and maybe even replace) our ability to get our points across, to provide information, to create sales copy and collateral and perhaps to even write the fiction we read for enjoyment, we shouldn't let it transplant or diminish the process of educating ourselves--or being educated to--write.

Writing itself is an important aspect of how we're able to communicate and understand the world around us, in whatever format we choose to consume or present it. It is a bond we share with those who speak the same language(s) as us, and one that needs to be strengthened, not weakened, by the tools becoming available to us. And since this type of communication will remain important for as long as we're around on this earth conducting business, writing novels and essays and articles, we should, at the very least, be competent in doing so.

“To be a competent writer, you need to have mastered spelling and proper grammar usage, you need to have a rich and deep vocabulary, and you must have the ability to express yourself with clarity and eloquence. What this means is that good writing skills will be the proof of your skills in many other areas as well.”

Here are some signs that you may be a competent fiction writer

*Many of the numbered items below also apply to business writing, i.e., instructional, informational, persuasive, and transactional writing

  1. You understand the elements of storytelling, including but not limited to plot, place and setting, theme, characters and characterization, conflict, narrative arc, scene, dialogue, point of view, structure, and so on

  2. You write. You don’t wait for the muse or inspiration to hit you. You know that to write, you must get the words down on paper or on your screen, and you do it because it must be done

  3. You don’t make excuses for why you can’t write; you don’t procrastinate

  4. You read like a writer; you see how the professionals do it, and you study the craft elements they’re so good at (and what makes them stand out from the crowd)

  5. You read craft books consistently and keep them handy--this isn't always the case, but it's good practice and should be part of your process

  6. You keep lists of words in a spreadsheet or document that are style/context appropriate for whatever work of fiction you’re working on

  7. You research everything you need to research to get the facts correct in whatever it is you’re writing. You don’t guess, especially if it’s something specific— a setting’s look and feel, its culture, industry-specific jargon, historical information, etc.

  8. You get it all down first, before you begin editing in earnest. You know writing is rewriting, but you also know it’s critical to get something down that you can then work on in future revisions/drafts

  9. You put your manuscript aside after your first draft and you automatically begin working on your next novel, novella, or short story

  10. During the revision process, you focus on each element separately, after giving your manuscript a once-over just to understand what you have to work with

  11. You read your manuscript as many times as it takes to ensure that each element within your manuscript is addressed and addressed appropriately. This means you read for structure. You read for exposition. You read for dialogue and scene. You read for plot and subplots. You read to make sure you’ve tied up all the loose ends you’ve created for readers, because they’ll want to know, and it’s your job to satisfy that need. After all, you’re the one that created the questions they want answers to

  12. Once you’ve revised your manuscript and run spell-check and have your book at a place where you need feedback and criticism, you share your novel/novella/short story with fellow writers or readers you trust to provide you with the constructive criticism you need to help you improve your work

  13. You don’t get offended by the criticism you receive, even if you think it’s off base or just flat out wrong

  14. You know that once you receive that criticism you can either accept or reject it. It’s your novel, your short story, your article or post, and if the criticism makes sense, it’s your call if you want to implement it into your work. If the criticism doesn’t make sense, you discard it

  15. Once you’ve rewritten your work based on the feedback you received, you do it all over again. You ask the same readers if they’ll re-read your manuscript now that you’ve edited it based on their comments, recommendations, and suggestions

  16. When your novel/novella/short story is the best that you can get it, you know it’s time to send it out into the world

  17. If you don’t have a literary agent (for novels and potentially novellas), you know you need to start writing your synopsis and query letter (and how to format each), and that they must be as compelling as your manuscript. You know you’re selling not only your work of fiction, but also yourself, and part of that is making sure you’re targeting the right agent (this assumes you're going traditionally rather than self-publishing)

  18. You know you have to do your research on the literary agents that may be interested in your work, and you do this by searching online for agents currently seeking clients, but also by knowing the genre of your book, which of those agents represent the type of book you’ve written, and by looking at the acknowledgments section of books similar to yours for the names of the literary agents representing those books

  19. You keep a spreadsheet of all of the literary agents you’ve queried, including the houses where they work, the dates of when you sent them the query and what the outcome was (rejection/they asked for a partial/they asked for a full manuscript), and are gracious with whatever communication they have with you afterward

  20. You don’t quit. You keep writing. You keep submitting your work, be it short story (to keep your name out there as well as validate to others that you’re a pro), novella, novel, whatever. But you keep submitting your manuscript until you either get that agent or run out of agents to submit to

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