I took writing courses as an undergraduate and earned an M.A. in writing. Even got a distinction. Such a waste of time.
After writing for a living for the past decade, I have mixed feelings about academia’s role in producing the next crop of writers. My studies made me a worse writer. A MUCH worse writer. It took me years to undo the damage.
Writing for a living requires a different skill set. One that’s not based on pleasing the teacher, but rather pleasing the reader. No one wants to read work that doesn’t pull them in and deliver value.
Professional writers know these three truths:
If your writing is to have commercial value, ordinary people must be able to read it.
You can’t count on ordinary people having read Joyce and Woolf. You can’t count on them knowing what “trans-cultural diffusion” or “semiotics” mean. You can’t count on them reading past your first few sentences if you bore them.
Your writing must interest your readers enough that they willingly spend a few minutes or hours of their day in your world.
There’s a reason sensational journalism sells, and it’s because people want to be grabbed. They have short attention spans. You’ve only got one shot at capturing their attention, and you’ve got to take it. Challenging them and confusing them is a recipe for getting your books thrown in the bargain bin.
Write the stuff that gets you paid.
If you have the chance, bag those university writing courses and take an internship at a local newspaper or copywriting agency. Be among other people who write for a living. (I know too many writers who take shelter in universities because no one else will pay them to write.)
Even if you’re doing nothing but contributing a column once a week, at least you get to see your words in print immediately. You get paid for your efforts. You learning to adapt your style to an editor’s choosing. You learning to write without thinking too hard or too much. Those are skills that will help you in the commercial writing world.
Here are 7 tips I wish someone would have given me when I first started to write.
A life well-lived—rich in relationships, adventures, hard times, and risk-taking—is fertile soil for great writing.
An immature life can be just as loquacious, but painful embarrassing. Remember: writing bares your soul to the world. Who you are as a person is revealed in what you write. Make sure you can be proud of what you’re communicating between the lines.
Although confidence and competence often go hand-in-hand, there are arrogant writers with little to say, just as there are talented writers who’ll never be published because they don’t think their work is any good.
I was almost one of the latter. If I wrote for myself alone, I could enjoy the pleasures of reading my “babies” and never have to expose them to a cruel, harsh world. Submitting them for publication was like walking out of the house naked. It left me bare.
Work on those shadows that keep you from writing.
Most writers want to write for a living, but they don’t want to compromise their principles by writing garbage for the masses.
Get over it. If you want to truly make your living as a wordsmith, it pays to be as versatile as possible.
Commercial writing teaches you the art of communicating clearly and simply, without literary flourishes. Plus, you learn speed. You can’t sit on a project for months and revise it until it matures like a fine wine.
You’re going to have to make a living while you write. It’s possible that writing for work will leave you no energy to write for pleasure. Perhaps the answer is to work at a simple job that leaves you lots of time for daydreaming.
Whatever you decide to do, make sure you’ve thought it through.
You can go at it alone, but it’s easier with a cheerleader.
Many of the literary world’s best writers attained their brilliance because of the company they kept. It helps to bat ideas around and share perspectives on the writing life.
It’s a lonely pursuit, being a writer. At the end of the day, it’s just you and that blank screen. You need to switch off the computer at some point and come home to humanity.
It’s easy to look at other brilliant pieces of writing and say, “That person is a genius. I wish I could write like that.”
All writing is subjective. Someone else might read the same thing and think, “It’s okay but not brilliant.” Who knows, they might prefer your work instead.
Write in the strongest voice you can muster. Try not to second-guess how other people will read it. The more you doubt and second-guess yourself, the more muddled your work becomes.
I suffered for ages because what I wanted to write didn’t fit neatly into any genre. I thought it wasn’t right to base stories off from personal experiences, even though I did it anyway.
I pictured myself and the people involved as characters rather than real people. Externalizing an incident—pretending it didn’t happen to me but rather my “character”—helped me deal with difficult experiences.
Ultimately, I wrote what I needed to write at the time. I just wish I hadn’t spent so much time suffering over whether I should have been doing it.
Write a journal, write letters, write a blog, write reports. Make converting your thoughts into words on a page a HABIT. Think of it like eating: just a natural, pleasurable part of what it means to live.
We writers can often get sucked into spending our time in other ways, like reading (the writer’s #1 addiction), surfing the net, or endlessly talking about ideas.
If you find yourself engaging in those activities as a substitute for writing, or a way to postpone doing any real work, you need to take steps to limit yourself.
As a kid, I always had to have a book in my hand if I was traveling anywhere. I wouldn’t get in the car without one.
Then, as a young adult, I didn’t have room in my suitcase for books, so I brought empty notebooks instead. I converted my reading habit into a writing habit.
Now, any sort of traveling makes me want to get out a pen. If I go for a coffee, I always take out a notebook and doodle a conversation with myself. It’s a habit. It’s not hard. It’s just what you train your mind to do.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve never be published before. It doesn’t matter if your actual job is completely unrelated to writing.
You have the right to call yourself a writer, because it’s not just a profession. It’s an IDENTITY. It’s how you see yourself.
You don’t need anyone else’s permission to call yourself a writer. If someone asks you what you’ve published and you say, “Nothing,” that doesn’t mean you’re not a writer. Writing is the act of putting words down on a page. You can put words down on a page regardless of whether you get them published or not.
Calling yourself a writer will free you to be what you always wanted to be. Now get out there and do it.