Want to Be a Writer? Start With the Writing

Ignore the writing industry. There are only so many lessons to learn.

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I’m glad I’m not a new writer today. I would never make it. I was nervous enough worrying over the ridiculous thought that I could be that magic word — a writer — without having to be inundated by thousands of warnings and millions of bits of advice, much of it contradictory, about what I would need to do to get it done.

If you go to Amazon and type in “books on writing”, as I did today, you’ll find over 60,000 of them. That’s just books. That’s not magazines, conferences, courses, seminars, or webinars. That’s not individual coaching, for-profit editing, or the bazillions of articles on how to be a better writer.

I’ve written a few of those how-tos myself. In fact, you’ll find many of them here eventually. But I’m frustrated by the lie that anyone can become a writer without actually sitting down and writing until the hours turn into days, then into weeks, then into months, then into years. There are no easy shortcuts, no magic elixirs, no honest way to become a writer without the required apprenticeship. I feel the need to keep repeating that.

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So, new writers, listen up: If you want a career in writing you have to learn the trade. You get that. But please know going in that there are forces outside of your writing desk that want to distract you from the hard part — the actual writing. If you believe everything you hear and read about becoming a writer you’ll come away thinking all you have to do is this thing and that thing and that other thing…and, oh wait…that thing, too.

The truth is, there are good sources for learning to be that writer; there are EXCELLENT sources, but when you’re skipping from one to the other, thinking the answer is right around the corner, always at the next stop, you’re missing what’s right in front of you.

There are rules for good writing, but there aren’t that many, and they’re not that hard to find.

If you have no money, don’t waste a penny on paying to learn to write. Everything you can learn is out there for the taking. Everything. You can join local writers groups, check out books from the library, and, by all means, once you’ve learned to sift through the stuff you don’t need, read what applies to you, even online. (Even and especially here—ahem…) If you’re open to learning the basics, you’ll learn. But if you spend too much time away from your desk trying to learn it all, you’ll fail.

The two main components to becoming a writer are reading and writing. Spend your time wisely. Read the kind of writing you aspire to. Study the words, analyze what makes them resound, turn your reading into lessons.

Every bit of writing can be a lesson, even the crap stuff. If you cringe at something you’re reading, congratulations! You’ve learned what not to do.

If something you read thrills you and makes you stop and ponder, come down off that cloud and study what the writer did to make that happen. It’s not a trick, it’s a skill, and it didn’t happen by wishing upon stars.

Every would-be writer wants to get noticed fast. Slow down. You still have a lot to learn. If you push it and you’re not ready, you’re going to crash and burn. You’re going to hate what you’ve written (trust me), and you’re either going to quit or you’re going to settle for mediocrity.

Because writing is hard.

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Go into it knowing you have much to learn, that there are no shortcuts or easy fixes, and you’ll develop the kind of mindset that will sit you down and cause you to write. Writing is learning. Making mistakes is learning. Writing a paragraph you never thought you were capable of writing is learning.

You can’t learn to be a writer without writing, and when you’re chasing the elusive solutions you’re not writing. There is no magic except what you bring to it. Magical things will happen when you settle in and discover the writer within you. Nobody else can help you with that.

There are books, of course, that can teach the elements of good writing, as well as inspire you, but you don’t need an entire library full of them. Choose the ones that resonate and dog-ear them to death. Get out your yellow highlighter and go for it. (But not if they’re library books. Oh, God, no!)

My own choices are these:

Bird by Bird, gentle inspiration by Anne Lamott.

On Writing Well, the classic instruction book by William Zinsser.

Stephen King On Writing, instruction and inspiration.

Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. (My earliest and most influential inspiration)

The Passionate, Accurate Story, by Carol Bly (dog-eared and highlighted to death)

Writing For Story, Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction, by Jon Franklin

The Writing Habit: Essays, by David Huddle. (This book should be re-issued. By all that’s holy.)

It depends on what you want to write, of course, but my point is that you will learn far more by streamlining your choices than you will by constantly looking for more.

As you learn the writing craft, don’t overlook reading just to be reading. The lessons are embedded in your favorite novels or essays or memoirs. As you read them, you’ll be reading them as a writer. Now that you know what to look for, you can’t help but study them.

But don’t rush. Savor these moments. Writing should be a joy, not a chore. Even at it’s most difficult it should be a joy. If it’s your calling you’ll know it and you’ll get better and better.

And you’ll never stop learning. The joy of it is that you’ll never stop learning.


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Take a minute to comment if you think of something to add, or just want to talk. We’ll all learn from each other. Thanks. See you next time!

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