Words on a Page Writings about writing

On becoming a writer

The keyboard on an old manual typewriter

Recently, someone asked me How do I become a writer? That was a loaded question if I ever heard one …

I had to shatter a few of that person’s illusions about writing. To be honest, I don’t think you can become a writer. Instead, you want to write. And learning to write well is a long, hard path. There’s no magic incantation. There’s no miraculous shortcut. If you want to write, you’re in for a lot of hard work.

The keys to writing are simple. But, then again, they aren’t. Let’s look at the bare minimum of what I think you need to do to learn to write well — either as a solid amateur or as a good professional.

Pick a style of writing. A genre, if you will, like fiction or business writing or script writing or non fiction. But be flexible. You might, for example, start out trying to write short stories but then discover that you’re a pretty good essayist. Feel free to dabble, and find what style you’re most comfortable with.

Learn the rules. By rules, I mean grammar, style, proper spelling, syntax, and the like. Find a teacher or two, an established writer who’s willing to mentor you. Failing that, use a book or three. Those rules, while they might not make you a better writer, will give you the foundation of your craft.

Break the rules. But only after you’ve learned them. Only after you’ve internalized them. Knowing the rules gives you insight into where they fall flat. And breaking the rules sparingly can give your writing a freshness and spontaneity it might otherwise lack.

Learn to edit. The secret to good writing, as I’ve said in the past, is editing. Learn how to cut down and cut out words. Learn how to use editing techniques make your writing tighter and easier to scan. Again, you might need to track down a teacher or two, or dig out a book. But taking the time to learn to edit is time well spent.

Read. Within your chosen niche or outside of it. You never know what you might pick up and apply to your work. You might absorb the narrative techniques of fiction and apply them to non-fiction articles. Or, you might learn how to write dialogue by interviewing people. What you get out of reading will depend on what you read, so make sure that you read quality work.

Learn to take notes. Quotes. Anecdotes. Lectures. Interviews. Speeches. And more. Efficient note taking, whether you do it digitally or use the analog method, gives you a record of what you’re thinking and reading and hearing and seeing. Being able to capture any or all of that quickly but in a way that preserves detail is an essential skill for any writer.

Write. Every day. Whether you feel like doing it or not. Even if you just jot down a sentence or a paragraph, even if what you delete or toss what you write into the recycling bin, do the deed. Writing every day, no matter how much or how little, teaches you the discipline that you need to do the work. The more you write, the better you’ll become.

But don’t just write. Try to write well. Practice. Be critical of what you write. Work with a writing coach to learn, recognize, and address your weaknesses as a writer. Grow and improve.

As I pointed out at the beginning of this post, writing is a lot of work. If you’re serious about it, all that work will pay off.

Thoughts? Let's start a conversation on Twitter.

Did you enjoy this post or find it useful? Then please consider supporting this blog with a micropayment via PayPal. Thanks!