Becoming a Writer
There have been quite a few people over the last few months who’ve asked for advice on how to start writing. They usually say something like “I don’t know how to start” or “I’m not sure what I’d write about” or the dreaded “I’m just not a good writer.” So, to all of you out there dealing with those feels, here are a few thoughts on writing and how to make it a part of your craft.
First, why write at all?
It’s really important before you start anything to know why you’re doing it. Personally, writing is a very selfish act for me. I’m usually struggling with something professionally and writing helps me develop and articulate my thoughts on the topic. Other times, I’m writing from a place of frustration and putting it down is a type of catharsis. Again, getting it out helps me hone my position and voice on things that are important to me.
Unsurprisingly (though I was surprised at first), writing about challenges resonates with people. I’ve been told many times that a blog post helped someone by basically reassuring them that they aren’t alone. It turns out that our struggles aren’t unique, and sharing them can help others know that a) they aren’t crazy and b) there’s a community out there of people trying to solve similar problems.
Finally, it turns out that great communication is an invaluable asset. We’ve all suffered through long, rambling emails (or just archived them). Being able to say what you mean clearly and concisely will, without a doubt, make you more successful. I’ve also noticed that writing more has helped my verbal communication as well. When I spend time writing out what I think and why I think it, saying it out loud is much, much easier. Writing keeps me focused and scoped, and that spills over into all my other forms of communication.
I’m totes convinced. How do I get started?
Writing stuff down can seem deceptively easy. We write emails and tweets and text messages and Slacks all the time, so writing a bit longer seems simple. Then you sit down, open up your text editor or blog software and… nothing. Or you write a bit and realize it’s a huge mess and holy shit none of this makes any sense what were you thinking? How do these people that write all the time get it done? It must be a special skill you’re born with or something.
Nope. It’s just a lot of work.
You are what you read.
So read regularly and thoughtfully. I think a lot of people intuit the first half of that, but forget the second. You want to read things like the thing you want to write about. Want to write fiction? Read a lot of fiction. Wanna write poetry, steep yourself in as much as possible. Want to write about your profession and career? Pick up some books on that. Not only will you become better at writing that genre of material, you’ll also be educating yourself about what the current thinking is on the topic. Two birds with one stone! The corollary, of course, is that if you read trash you’re going to write trash. So put down that Dan Brown book. Step away slowly.
Make it a habit.
This is the most annoying of the suggestions, but arguably the most important. When I was in college (getting my Creative Writing degree), I got up at the same time every morning, sat down at my computer and wrote, either my blog or pieces I was working on. Even if I wound up throwing away the work later or editing it, the schedule helped me build up the mental muscle required to get into that gear easily. When people talk about writer’s block, they’re basically describing not having exercised their creative muscles enough to reliably produce work. Everyone gets stuck, but experienced writers can more easily get into the zone and know that when they’re struggling they just have to keep writing to get out.
At this point, I’m not on a regular schedule, but as long as I sit down to write once or twice a week, it’s enough to keep my brain in that zone. If I go more than a week without writing anything, the next time I sit down, I have a much harder time getting started and producing good work. If you’re just starting out, make a schedule and stick to it. Write a ton of stuff and don’t publish it. Writing a lot will help increase your productivity and skill, but will also help you find your voice. I’ve seen lots of writers’ work evolve over time from something more dry to something that sounds exactly like them. Your goal should be to get there: to writing like you speak, which is actually pretty tough and, again, requires a lot of practice.
Turns out, writing doesn’t just happen when you’re sitting down at your desk. A lot of my blog post ideas come while I’m out running. Lately, I’ve been listening to lyric-less music while working out, which gives my mind more space to zone out and just think. I mull over the last few days, interactions I’ve had, things I’ve been challenged with. And what usually starts out as a jumbled mess starts to hone over the course of my run. It’s kind of magical, honestly.
A lot of folks start out trying to write a lengthy masterpiece and are quickly discouraged. That shit takes a long time and, many times, grandiose ideas turn out to be extremely simple to explain on paper. Also, most great communication isn’t longwinded. Think about the most helpful email you’ve gotten or blog post you’ve read. Was it the epically-long, Instapaper-worthy stuff? Or was it something short and to the point that got to the crux of the matter quickly? My guess is it’s probably the latter. There’s a definite time and place to write long-form, but when you’re just starting out, keep it brief. Limit yourself to 300-500 words. It’ll teach you to be economic with your words and increase the impact of each and every sentence.
Do it for yourself first, others second.
I get a lot of requests to write about different topics (like I said at the top, this article was born from getting asked a lot about how to do this). But the truth is I usually just make note of interesting topics and leave them sitting on a shelf until the day I personally feel compelled to write about them. Write first and foremost for yourself. Solve your own problems and write about things you’re passionate about. If you write trying to please everyone or to get people to read your work, you’re going to have a really bad time and, eventually, quit because it’s just not any fun. Writing is a powerful tool - for communication, for problem-solving, for pushing your profession forward, for honing your voice and point-of-view. Make it yours.
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