How do you become a writer?
After thirty years of writing and publishing dozens of books, and sharing more than one million words of instruction via blogging, here’s my easy answer:
Practice. Practice writing. It’s really that simple.
If you wanted to be a gardener, would you just sit at your kitchen table flipping pages in a seed catalog?
Or look at pretty pictures of flowers on Pinterest?
No, you would get into the dirt and dig.
You have to put some muscle into the effort to get those plants in the ground and growing.
Reading about gardening is only going to get you so far.
It’s the same with writing.
You can read myriads of craft books that teach structure and technique.
And you should—because just writing isn’t going to teach you what you need to know.
But the reading will only take you so far. You need to write.
How to Get Started as a Writer
First, realize you are already a writer.
You probably write every day, whether via text messaging, email, or sharing thoughts on social media.
Now, just expand your horizons.
- Write in a journal
- Write poetry (even bad poetry)
- Write about your dreams and fears
- Write about some crazy character that popped into your head
- Write down your dreams and vividly describe what you remember (try to transport your imaginary reader into the world of your dream)
If you can’t think of what to write about, use prompts.
There must be a gazillion writing prompts online, and they can be so fun, the exercises might just inspire your next short story or novel.
Here are a few recommended sites you can check out:
Think of your writing creativity as a rusty old farm pump.
You crank the heavy steel handle up and down, and finally some dribbles of ugly brown water come out.
Sure, it’s undrinkable. But if you keep at it, eventually the flow will increase, clear and fast.
Now … you’re a writer … because writers write, and that’s what you’re doing.
But what next?
How to take your writing to the next level?
Is practice enough?
No, it’s not. So here’s the not-so-easy answer.
Think about Why You Want to Become a Good Writer
You know the argument—if you give a bunch of monkeys a room full of airplane parts, no matter how many years they mess around with those parts, they are never going to accidentally (or strategically) build a functioning aircraft.
To build a plane, you have to not only have all the pieces; you have to have a blueprint.
That’s not to say you must have a blueprint to write something worthwhile.
I can write a wonderful bit of prose off the top of my head. But that doesn’t mean I have created a masterpiece—or anything worth sharing with someone else.
Chances are you are thinking about becoming a writer because you not only love to write, you yearn for readers.
Writing comes full circle when others read our work.
The greatest satisfaction writers have is completing that circle—sharing their writing with readers and getting feedback from them.
When our readers love our writing, we find a deep sense of fulfillment.
I can attest to this.
Not a week goes by when someone doesn’t email me or post a review of one of my books or reach out to me via my website or social media to tell me what a powerful impact my writing has had on them.
I’ve had people tell me my writing has turned their life around, pulled them out of depression and into joy, made them fall to their knees in gratitude for their blessings.
I wish I had compiled all the hundreds of comments I’ve received over the years.
If this is what you long for as a writer, you need to grab your writing by the horns and wrestle it to the ground.
You need to see your writing time as the precious commodity it is—time taken away from family or sleep or other pursuits that clamor for your attention.
Toni Morrison, a single mom with two kids, used to wake before dawn and write. Then she woke her boys, sent them off to school, and worked two jobs. Her writing meant that much to her.
She could have made excuses and not gotten the writing done. It’s not easy carving out time—at least for some.
Imagine if she could have stayed home and written all day long.
I wonder, though, if our writing is much better when it’s done with the awareness of how rare and coveted the opportunity is.
All this to say: If you long to be a writer, then write.
Make the time. Cherish the time. Make it count.
3 Considerations to Becoming a Successful Writer
Everyone has a different definition of success.
Some people churn out what many consider garbage and make a great living at it.
Others write on issues they are passionate about, hoping to spur readers into specific action.
Still others don’t care about making any money but just want to tell a great story and share it with the world.
Anne Lamott says in her wonderful book Bird by Bird about aspiring writers:
“They kind of want to write, but they really want to be published.”
However, she notes,
“Publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is.”
Regardless of your motivation to become a successful writer, these three considerations will help you reach your dream.
1. Approach your desire to be a writer the same way you would any other vocation.
Whether you want to be a designer of cakes, dresses, or software, there is a learning curve.
Pair the practice with serious study, and you’ll make progress.
Consider buying some books on grammar and composition.
Challenge yourself to learn to write (and even diagram!) a perfect sentence.
But don’t get so neurotic that you become paralyzed (See Step 2).
Take online writing courses—many are free or inexpensive.
You don’t have to get a college degree in writing (I never completed my undergraduate program as an English major), but taking excellent classes in both composition and literature will help immensely.
Make a habit of writing every day.
Write anything—just write!
Set an alert on your calendar for your daily writing time, then stick with it.
Even twenty minutes a day will get that rusty, clogged creativity flowing like a refreshing stream.
Read widely. Don’t just read the same old books you always read. Stretch yourself.
If you only read fiction, dip into nonfiction: memoir, history, sociology, science. If techy manuals are your thing, spend some time with your nose in a classic sci-fi novel or a murder mystery.
Listen, you don’t have to spend a penny.
Your local library has more books than you could read in a million lifetimes (and many have online ebook lending).
Free Kindle and iBooks apps make reading portable and accessible. Thousands of free ebooks are available for download on Amazon. You don’t even have to get up from your couch.
Join Bookbrowse. It’s a terrific curator of books of all kinds, and you can read excerpts and search by multiple terms (genre, theme, time period, etc.).
Fall back in love with reading.
But don’t just read. Study what you’re reading.
Pay attention to how the writing makes you feel, what emotions or thoughts it evokes.
Tear apart what you read to see how the author made those chapters intriguing.
This oft-quoted phrase is true: “Easy reading is hard writing.”
So is this saying: “Anything worth doing at all is worth doing well.”
Be prepared to work.
2. Avoid the trap of perfectionism.
In Camus’s famous novel The Plague, Joseph Grand, a clerk in the municipal government, spends so much time in the quest of a “flawless” manuscript, he finds himself stuck.
He explains to Dr. Rieux:
“Evenings, whole weeks, spent on one word, just think! Sometimes on a mere conjunction! I’d like you to understand, Doctor, I grant you it’s easy enough to choose between a ‘but’ and an ‘and.’ It’s a bit more difficult to decide between ‘and’ and ‘then.’ But definitely the hardest thing may be to know whether one should put an ‘and’ in or leave it out.”
To this, the unflappable Dr. Rieux responds, “Yes, I see your point.”
Grand works on one sentence throughout the novel. Needless to say, he doesn’t get very far. And his book never gets written.
Don’t be like Grand.
Perfectionism is often what we do because we are afraid.
Which leads me to my next point…
3. Fear is overrated.
“Fear is the mind-killer.”
I’ve always wanted to use that line from Dune.
May as well finish the litany because it’s worth memorizing:
Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
Do you really want to be a writer?
If so, then fear needs to be put in its place.
It is a nuisance and sabotages you with its slings and arrows.
Afraid to pursue writing because maybe someone, somewhere will laugh at you? Give you a bad review? Tell you your writing is awful?
Join the club.
Let’s peek inside the room full of authors who’ve received scathing reviews.
Here are a few I see milling around the dessert table: Ernest Hemingway, Margaret Atwood, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Harper Lee, Aldous Huxley, Jack Kerouac … wow, it’s so crowded in there, I can’t tell if the cake is all gone.
Afraid your poems or play or novel or memoir will get rejected by agents?
Here’s another club you can happily join if you get some rejection letters.
All these authors were basically told their work was so bad, they should give it up:
- Dr. Seuss
- James Joyce
- William Golding
- Agatha Christie
- Joseph Heller
- Zane Grey
- Tony Hillerman
… Hmm. I can’t even get my foot in the door, it’s so jam-packed with authors.
What does this tell you about fear?
Maybe if you look at rejection as a badge of honor instead of a fatal humiliation, you will be able to face your fear and let it pass over you.
Sure, rejection hurts.
But face this truth: you will never please everyone with your writing.
Just as you love some authors’ works and dislike others, so too some people will love what you write and others may not.
Having a humble, teachable attitude will serve you well on this journey to become a writer.
One of the best thematic quotes is from my favorite movie Strictly Ballroom: “A life lived in fear is a life half lived.”
How to Tell if You’re Improving
At some point, you’ll wonder if you’re improving in your writing.
While your friends or family members might be happy to give you feedback, they often aren’t knowledgeable enough to give you the insights you need.
Or they’ll hesitate to be honest, especially if your writing falls far short of brilliant.
So how do you find the best people to read your writing?
Critique groups are often full of well-meaning writers, but you need to realize that there is a difference between professional coaching and personal opinion.
Everyone is happy to give suggestions, but not all suggestions are going to work for you.
One author friend complained to me how she tried to apply every suggestion her critique group gave her, which turned her book into a disastrous mishmash.
Her insecurity assured her they knew best, so instead of trusting her gut and feeling confident about her story structure, she defaulted to others.
If you can afford to hire a writing coach (or enroll in an online critique group that has a writing coach facilitating), that’s where you’ll likely get the best feedback, as well as hand-holding as you work on making improvements.
But, here too, you have to use discretion, for writing coaches have different methods and approaches.
Before committing to a long-term relationship, give the coach or editor a test run on a small project or a chapter or two.
If you can’t afford a coach or editor to give you feedback and direction, try to find someone who reads what you write and who is willing to be honest and encouraging.
If you’re writing your first murder mystery, find groups or forums online (Facebook groups, for example) where your target readers linger.
Or post that you are looking for readers.
Ask these readers to tell you what they liked or didn’t like about your piece.
- What confused them?
- What needed elaborating?
- What seemed missing?
- What moved or bored them?
Again, you have to take all the advice you get with cautious scrutiny.
But, chances are, you’ll get some feedback that will help you see your strengths and weaknesses and what needs work where.
Pay special attention to multiple comments regarding the same issues.
If three or more readers point out the same problem passage, you can safely assume it needs reworking.
Once you’ve received insightful and useful criticism, work hard to make improvements.
Check your ego at the door.
You are not your work.
Don’t take it personally.
Develop a hard shell.
You won’t survive a writing career otherwise.
How to Break into Writing as a Career?
That depends on what kind of writing you plan to do.
If you hope to make money blogging for Fortune 500 companies, for example, you’ll want to have your own blog.
You can start guest blogging on top sites, maybe at first for free, to build up a portfolio and a reputation.
If you plan to freelance by writing articles for e-zines or trade journals or do technical or web copy, start sending queries into the marketplace.
The Writing Cooperative has a great 3-month plan to help you create a writing portfolio.
If you’re interested in becoming a book author, consider attending conferences (either in person or via live summits).
Honestly, in this day and age, you don’t ever have to leave home to learn everything you need to know about becoming a great writer and building a successful career.
There is a plethora of blogs, podcasts, online courses, along with books on craft and career and marketing.
Read and study best sellers in your niche genre, targeted to your audience.
And then follow my simple advice: practice.
Practice may not make perfect, but it sure makes better.
One page at a time.
And that’s how to become a writer.