How to be a writer: If you want to be a writer, read on...
How do you become a writer? Here’s the essential advice that every writer needs to hear as they set out on their writing journey.
• Write. And then write some more.
If you write, you’re a writer. So write. The more you exercise your writing muscles, the easier it will feel and the better you will do it. Write about anything that takes your fancy. Write about it at length. Write for the pleasure of writing. But above all, keep writing.
• Cross it all out and start again.
The more able you are to look at your work and see that it’s not as good as you want it to be, the better a writer you will be in the long term. Put your heart and soul into your work and then be prepared to delete every single word of it and start again. And again. And again. Until you get it right. In the short term, it will hurt like crazy. In the long term, it will give you an editor’s eye, and that will make you a better writer.
• Read and read and read and read. And then read some more.
Every time you pick up a book by another writer and immerse yourself in the world they 've created and the language they’ve used to create it, you are not just reading for pleasure. You will be learning things that will affect your own writing. Read widely. As widely as you can. Leave your chosen genre behind and explore the vast treasury of books out there. Every writer you read will have something to teach you. It may be about plot, or atmosphere, or how to create a scene, or how to use words. It may be about how to create suspense. It may be a lesson in what you don't want to write yourself. And reading the great writers will inspire you to reach for the stars in your own work, even if you’re realistic enough to know you’ll never be the next Virginia Woolf or Dylan Thomas.
• Write about something that makes you want to write.
Have you ever met a writer who wasn’t passionate? About writing, about what they’re writing about, about the subject they’re currently researching, about the new thing they’ve just heard of that they need to find out all about? If you write about something that you love and that fires you up, that enthusiasm will bring your writing to life. The best music writers love music. The best sports writers are obsessed with sport. The best crime writers are fascinated with criminal psychology. You can’t write about nothing – well, you could, but it would probably be limiting – so find something you really want to write about, and write it.
• Be curious.
Writers are interested in everything that might feed into their writing. Be the sort of person who asks ‘why’ and ‘how’ and ‘who’ and wants to know the answers. Good writing is full of insight, even when it wears its knowledge lightly.
• Experiment with different kinds of writing.
You think you want to write poetry but you’re fascinated by dialogue, so why not try a script? If your short stories have become formulaic, why not think about the challenge of a novel? Maybe that novel you started hasn’t come to life because you’d be better writing a non-fiction book, or articles. But if you don’t try, you’ll never know where your voice best comes to life. And there’s never any harm in having more than one writing style. You may find you can express yourself in different ways though different media. Don’t get stuck in a rut – try everything to see how your writing voice works.
• Write for yourself but remember your reader, even if it’s only an imaginary reader.
Write what you want to write because you want to write it, but remember that one day it might have a reader, and that reader will need to understand what you've written, and where they are in the landscape you have created. Don’t assume readers know what you’re trying to say. Read everything back to make sure you haven’t inadvertently forgotten to explain something vital, or left any plotholes for a reader to fall into. Keeping your (imaginary) reader in mind will give you a reality check as you write.
• Take the work seriously – but don’t take yourself seriously.
The work is important, we get that. And it’s amazing that you’re doing something creative and quite possibly ambitious, and that needs to be acknowledged. But the more modest you are, and the more open, the more likely you are to be engaged with new ideas and looking for ways to improve what you’re doing. It's good to be able to admit when we've made a mistake, or could do something better, and to laugh at ourselves and then try harder. All of us, no matter how successful we may be and how many times we’ve seen our names in print, can always be better writers.
• Remember the difference between talent and skill.
Talent is what brought you to the page in the first place. A way with words, a creative imagination, the ability and desire to use language to create worlds. Skill is what happens when raw talent is combined with the application of knowledge. And practice. At this point, you can start thinking of writing as your craft. If you’re truly gifted with talent, you might even get as far as art, but for most of us, craft will do nicely.
• Take your craft seriously enough to learn it properly.
Skilled craftsmen and women create beautiful things, and this is as true of writing as it is of woodwork. Craftsmen traditionally undertook apprenticeships to learn the skills of their craft, and writers need to bear this in mind too. There are many ways of learning to write, whether it’s a creative writing course, or journalism training, or teaching yourself, or reading books and articles. But true writers will always want to learn the best ways to unlock their talents.
• Remember you can always learn something new about writing.
No-one ever knows everything. The moment you get complacent and think you know all you need to know about writing, it will show in your work. The best writers are always learning new things and setting themselves new challenges to keep their writing fresh.
• Believe in your writing.
Because you need to. There are times when it is very hard to be a writer. When no-one wants to read what you’ve written. When no-one wants to publish you. When you can’t make that wretched chapter do what you want it to do. When your characters won’t stick and you can’t work out why. These dispiriting times seem endless but they are part of the writing life, and if you believe in what you are writing, and in yourself as a writer, you will get through them, and onto the next page of your writing life.
• Write because you love writing, and you love what you’re writing about.
Not only can it be hard to be a writer, but writing can be hard. The best reason to write, and the one that will see you through, is to write for the love of it. Write because a bit of your soul will curl up and die unless you put some words on a page. Write because if you don't, your day will be incomplete and you will be unfulfilled. Write because writing is the way you make sense of the world.
… and finally… Write because you can’t not write. Write because you are a writer.