What I’ve Learned as a Writer
I’ve been a professional writer since I was 17: so nearly 24 years now. I’ve made my living with words, and have written a lot of them — more than 10 million (though many of them were duplicates).
That means I’ve made a ton of errors. Lots of typos. Lots of bad writing.
Being a writer means I’ve failed a lot, and learned a few things in the process.
Now, some of you may be aspiring writers (or writers looking for inspiration from a colleague). Others might not ever want to be a writer, but you should still care about writing. I’ll tell you why: it’s an incredible tool for learning about yourself. And if you’re an effective writer, you’re an effective communicator, thinker, salesperson, businessperson, persuader.
So for anyone interested in writing, I’d love to share what I’ve learned so far.
- Write every damn day. Yes, even weekends. Yes, even when you’re busy with other crap. Each day I write a blog post, an article for Sea Change, part of my new book, or perhaps part of a novel. If I don’t have enough to write every day, I start a new writing project. I write at least 1,000 words a day, but you don’t have to write that much. Writing daily makes it a routine thing, so you never have to think about it. You just do it. It gets much easier, less intimidating. You get better at it. It’s like talking with a friend: just how you express yourself.
- Create a blog if you don’t have one. Whether or not you’re a writer, you should have a blog. Why? Because it’s a great way to reach an audience, to practice writing on a daily basis, to reflect on what you’ve been learning, to share that with others so they might benefit, to engage in a wider conversation, to learn about yourself. Anyone who wants to learn about themselves should have a blog. (Protip: Try Sett to start a blog — it’s a great way to grow an audience and community.)
- Write plainly. I think this is from Strunk & White, but it works well for me. I write in plain language, leaving the flowery stuff for others. Academic writing is the worst — it’s so stilted no one wants to read it unless they want to show others how smart they are. Technical jargon, business-speak, pretentious vocabulary, insider acronyms … none of them have any place in communicating with your fellow human beings. Only use those things if you want to hide the fact that you don’t know what you’re talking about.
- Don’t write just to hear yourself talk. Lots of people like to go on and on about themselves and their lives, but readers don’t come for that. Readers come for their own purposes. You’re reading this to get ideas for yourself as a writer, not to hear the life story of Leo the amazing writer in technicolor detail. Now, you can tell stories about yourself if they’re vividly entertaining or inspirational or really instructive. But have a purpose, and be sure you’re meeting that purpose. Don’t just ramble.
- Nearly everything can be shortened. Including this post, of course. I could probably cut 25% of this post and get away with it (I’ve already cut 25%). Go through your sentences and ask: is this necessary? What purpose does it serve? How would this read without it? And if you can, drop it. It makes your work more readable, clearer.
- Fear stops most potential writers. Most people don’t write (publicly at least) because they’re afraid their writing will suck. Well, it will. Everyone sucks at first. You don’t get better at something by sitting on your hands. Suck it up, put yourself out there. You won’t have many readers at first, when you suck, but as your audience grows so will your skills.
- Read regularly for inspiration. I might write more than 1,000 words a day, but I read 10 times that. I read books and (online) magazines and blogs and more. Reading gives me ideas, shows me better ways to write, gives me access to the best teachers in my craft (amazing writers).
- Procrastination is your friend. Every writer lives daily with procrastination. If you allow yourself to feel guilty about that, then you’ll feel bad about yourself as a writer. Instead, embrace your procrastination as a friend, enjoy it … and then ask the friend to leave for awhile so you can get your work done. No friend should monopolize all your time. Get your writing done, then invite the friend back when you have free time.
- Have people expect your writing. This is another reason blogs are fantastic: if you build up an audience, you feel the pressure of their expectations. This pressure is a good thing — it keeps procrastination from taking over your life. You know the audience expects you to write, so you get off your butt and you do it. Before I had a blog, my editors were the people expecting my writing.
- Email is an excuse. We often go to check email because it feels productive (and it can be), but it’s easy to use that as a way to put off the writing. Honestly, if you close your email for a couple hours, nothing bad will happen. Close it, close everything else, and get to writing. Your email will be waiting for you when you’re done.
- Writing tools don’t matter. Most people tinker with their writing tools, trying to find the perfect system. Screw that. You can write with anything, as long as you have a keyboard. Yes, I much prefer typing to writing by hand, because I’m much faster at typing. I can get the words out closer to the speed of my thinking. But what writing program I use is irrelevant: I write in TextEdit, Sublime Text, Ommwriter, Byword, Notational Velocity, in the WordPress or Sett editor in the browser, in Google Docs. Just open up a new document and start writing.
- Jealousy is idiotic. Writers can often be insecure types — perhaps it’s a byproduct of putting your soul out in the world for all to criticize. So they’re often jealous of the success of other writers. That’s a complete waste of time and energy. It does you no good as a writer. Instead, learn from the success of others, see what’s good about you, and merge the two. Be happy for people. It’ll make you happier too.
- Writing can change lives. When I publish a post, I hope it’ll be of use to someone. But the responses I get are often incredible — people tell me how much a post or my blog in general has changed their lives. I’m blown away by this. When you put something with good intention out in the world, you have no idea what kind of impact it might have on others. It might do nothing, but it could have a profound effect on someone’s life. That’s truly powerful. That’s truly a reason to get up and write.
And one thing I’ve learned, above all, is this: the life that my writing has changed more than any other is my own. Writing for you has changed me, in ways I am only beginning to grasp. In wonderful, crazy, lift-you-off-the-ground kind of ways. And that makes me want to do it forever.