A young author recently asked what tips I might have for him as he takes aim on his future with writing playing a significant role in his plans. Here’s what I told him:
Thanks for asking what I’d say to an aspiring writer. Your note prompted serious thought and I hope the lines that follow prove useful. Imagine that we’re enjoying a big glass of iced tea and have plenty of time. In other words, don’t read this in a hurry. Read some, think some. There’s actually an item a few lines down about the best read-to-think ratio.
First off, consider and call yourself a writer. Because you write.
You’ve met the necessary prerequisite for that title or distinction — you take your writing seriously. Along with that, I’d suggest you choose carefully the modifiers you use with that “writer”. Aspiring says one thing, fledgling says another. Avoid “wannabe”, however, that’s behind you. Avoid being too specific in categorizing your niche because your writing will develop over time and you don’t want to be so specific that you’re always printing new business cards.
Kessler & McDonald, in When Words Collide (see below), say:
Consider writing as a craft, with words as tools of the trade. Master carpenters choose the right tool for each job. They do not try to build a fine oak cabinet using an old saw and a handful of rusty nails. They collect the finest tools they can afford and learn the capabilities of each instrument. Master carpenters care for and respect their tools. So too must writers. Words are our tools, and there is, indeed, the right word for each job. Learning grammar is learning how to choose these words and connect them with precision. (p.5)
Writers serious about their craft learn the structure of language by using it —writing— and by studying how others use it —reading. (p.6)
Dr. Howard Hendricks (Dallas Theological Seminary) told people for years:
If you have half an hour to read, read for 15 minutes
and think for 15 minutes about what you read.
You’ll get more out of it.
A key decision at the get-go: Is this a hobby? Or is this a business?
Deciding now where you want writing to fit into your life for the next 3 – 5 years, you’ll establish not only hopes of where writing is going to take you, you’ll also derive expectations of what you’ll need to do to make those hopes reality. I’m sure by now you know, there are no elevators to success, we all have to take the stairs. It takes about 10 years to become an overnight success.
- If a hobby, will you devote a few whenever-hours a week to it? A chunk of your Saturdays?
- Will your reward be to see your book or articles in print?
- If a side hustle, do you want to earn towards projects?
- Pay for a percentage of your expenses?
- Is writing your new part-time job that’s going to be your full-time work in x-years?
How you define this is pivotal.
Choose your desired level of output and begin to work toward it.
- Write every day. A minimum of 250 words? 500 words? A note from experience here, Writing certain days of the week is not a formula for success. You’ll write yourself a pass because you’re tired, or someone’s invited you to do something fun. Then another, and another, next thing you know it’s been weeks and your pen wonders what it said that you’re no longer stopping by!
I write at the same time every day. My aim is 500 words. Doing the same thing same time every day makes it easier to just start free-writing right on time and move into the stream that soon follows.
- Set yourself up to make it easier. This is your system, your site where you write, and your tools.
Are you writing by hand? Choose a paper or pad and a good pen. Pick a designated write site with good lighting. Minimize distractions. Longhand writing will need to be moved to your computer, naturally. This note began as a longhand note on my favorite pad (iScholar iQ note-taking pad – found mine at Meijer). I find that the typing is a good first-edit experience.
Writing digitally? Set your place and tools like with analog/writing by hand, but additionally set up file folders to help you find your writings easily. For example, my personal writings begin in my directory Documents, folder #amwriting PLR – file project name. (#amwriting shows up first thing).
Use consistent labels you can easily search for. ENV. RESUME. DRAFT. rev1, v2, v3, NearFinal, Final, and others important to you.
Recommended contemporary writers to follow:
Books you want on your shelves – having actually read them.
You may want to check them out from your local library while you look for them in library sales, used book stores, thrift stores, or order online.
The Practical Stylist by Sheridan Baker ISBN: 0690650027
The Elements of Style by Strunk & White ISBN: 1988236517
On Writing Well by W Zinsser ISBN: 978006089154
When Words Collide by Kessler & McDonald ISBN: 0534085741
Find and join a writers group or organize one of your own.
The sense of community is healthy, the sharing of ideas stimulating, and over time the accountability between group members becomes valuable. Read about The Inklings’ contribution to the members of that informal group and society in general.
Keep a writer’s stash
—a folder or project box or expandable file where you drop ideas, clippings, and favorite phrases for later use. Don’t obsess over keeping it highly organized because sometimes the thing you find there on a rainy day or looking for something else triggers the creative process, and off you go.
Grammarly is worth its weight in titanium.
Start with the free version and as you’re able, upgrade. You won’t automatically accept every suggested correction, but going through the rigors, you will know why you keep things the way you have them each time you say “no thanks”.
Lastly, don’t fall in love with your own words.
There will be times you’ll toss entire paragraphs because the real beginning is several paragraphs into where you started to write that day. There will be other times several pages shrink to part of one page. Celebrate each time you can get that to happen.
You want to do as Elmore Leonard said:
Try to leave out the part that readers skip.
This can be an amazing, albeit challenging journey. When you have questions I hope you’ll reach out to me.