Getting Started as a Writer, Part 1: Laying the Groundwork
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So, you want to be a writer.
It can be daunting to know how to get started as a writer. A lot of us feel we can write, know we can write – or better yet, know we can’t not write. We love the unfolding of stories beneath our pens, the spray of words across a computer screen, the sound of imagery narrated in our heads. We are story-tellers, truth-seekers, teachers, and sharers of life’s joys and sorrows, beauties and uglinesses.
But there’s a huge gap between scribbling our thoughts in a journal or writing a couple of essays in a college class and actually being a writer. I know I’ll be contradicted by… well, by everyone on the Internet trying to make a buck selling you their Super-Amazing Get-Rich-Quick-Writing-from-Home System for only $97 or $297 or $497, but while writing may come easily to you (and it doesn’t especially matter if it doesn’t), actually being a writer is hard, hard work. Not the hardest ever, but hard enough.
I don’t say this to discourage you, or to test your mettle, or anything like that. I want you to be a writer. Or I want you to at least have given it a shot, to have at least tried it on – better that you try and fail than to not become a writer out of fear, laziness, or simple lack of knowledge. But if you’re going to become a writer, I’d like you to be prepared for the long haul, and all those scammy “anyone can write” programs and products do a piss-poor job of preparing would-be writers for the job of actually writing.
So this series, which I intend to be 4 posts long (but that’s subject to change if I feel like it), will look at what it takes to get into writing as a professional pursuit. The goal is to take you from getting started to the point where you’re just getting your feet under you and “standing up” in the writing world. I hope you won’t quit your job and hole up with this blog and a stack of legal pads – writing is a dangerous career and all writers have to make sure they have a steady, reliable income, whether at a “day job”, through an established network of publishers and editors, or via a constant stream of freelance commercial work.
Building Up Your Chops
The first step you need to take if you’re going to become a writer is to build up the basic skills you’ll need to write well. If you dream of becoming a writer, you might already feel you write pretty well – get over yourself. While you may have a way with words, there is no writer who can’t do with a little improvement (read in most cases: “a lot of improvement”) .
Learning to write well is more than just learning command of grammar, structure, and narration – though those are all important. On top of that, you need to learn the jargon of your new industry – what a “dek”, “lede”, and “nut graf” are; the difference between a novella and a novelette; the ins and outs of direct submissions vs. using an agent; how to write a query letter or proposal; how to identify an appropriate market for your work; and so on.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t be writing while you’re learning. By all means, write! But make sure you’re working on the other stuff too. Taking writing classes and workshops, reading books about writing, and blogging are all ways to build up your basic writing chops – get into them!
If you have the time and money, you might consider pursuing a college degree in creative writing or journalism. While the jury’s out on whether these programs are a fast-track to fame and riches – or even to publication – the skills you learn will certainly help you in whatever path you decide to pursue as a writer.
However, a college degree is by no means essential – plenty of writers, even most writers, don’t have a degree in writing, and many don’t have any degrees at all.
But the classroom experience can be quite useful – you’ll get some feedback (at least from your instructor; students are supposed to give feedback but somewhat notoriously most do not, or give useless feedback) and you’ll have ample opportunity to push your skills into unknown territory.
Your local community college probably has dozens of writing classes you can take for usually rock-bottom process. Semester-long for-credit courses at the community college I teach at run about $130.
Community colleges, and many universities as well, also offer shorter not-for-credit courses through their adult extension programs. These courses might meet only once or twice a week for 6 weeks or every other Wednesday for two months or whatever. Because they are intended for adults they often offer courses in the evenings and on weekends to accommodate working schedules.
Other options include the Learning Annex if they have it in your city, local writing conferences (which often offer workshops as part of the program), or short programs offered nationally with 2-4 weeks residency.
These are some of my favorite books on writing, the ones I’ve found most useful over the years.
- William Zinsser, On Writing Well: This book is my go-to book for writerly style. With clear, likeable language, Zinsser spells out how to craft solid, readable, and stylish prose. This book is a joy to read, and I find myself “dipping in” quite regularly when I need a dose of inspiration.
- Stephen King: On Writing: Easily one of the best books ever about the process of writing. You don’t have to be a fan of King (I’m not) to recognize that the man knows how to write in ways that reach deep into the hearts and souls of readers. Here he gives advice both on how to reach your audience and how to structure your life as a writer – all wrapped up in an inspiring and at times heartbreaking auto-biography of King’s own writing journey.
- Robert Bly: Secrets of a Freelance Writer: Although intended for aspiring freelance writers – and particularly for commercial writers – Bly offers plenty of advice about managing your career as a writer, as well as very strong tips on crafting persuasive language.
- Michelle Ruberg: Handbook of Magazine Article Writing: This is on my list because this is closest to the kind of writing I do, and the direction my own career is heading in. Covers the nuts and bolts of coming up with ideas, pitching stories, and working with editors, as well as the steps to research and write a compelling article (most of which would apply to any non-fiction writing).
- Philip Martin: The New Writer’s Handbook (2007): A collection of articles all offering practical advice on everything from tracking your writing goals to brainstorming ideas to building your author’s website. There are articles about every possible kind of writing in here, which means plenty for everyone.
You’ll notice the absence of Elements of Style. I own it, of course, but I find that I almost never open it – and have never just sat down with it and soaked it all in. Your mileage may vary, of course – Stephen King swears by it, and will lay a curse on any writer so full of pride as to not own a copy (I just squeak in under the wire on that one!), so it’s probably worth your while to at least have a copy. I just can’t promise you’ll learn much from it.
I’ve been pretty vocal about why writers should blog, but in this context, the important thing is that blogging a) gives you a regular outlet to practice writing, b) puts work (potentially) in front of an audience and therefore invites feedback, and c) helps build your “platform”, that collection of marketable qualities that make up your salability as a writer. (I’ll talk more about platform later in this series.)
The Passion Test
One of the side-benefits of investing time and energy into improving your writing is that it functions as a kind of self-test of your passion for writing. This is important because, contrary to our idealistic desires, a lot of writing is a deadly slog through idea-less wastelands. If you’re going to do commercial or journalistic writing, you’ll find yourself writing about topics you could not care less about – and it had better be scintillating prose. If you’re going to write novels or non-fiction books, there will come a day when you absolutely do not care one whit about what happens next.
What’s more, while you might have plenty of ideas right now, you’ll use them up – and without passion, it can be damned hard to come up with new ones. Even worse, you’ll find that the ideas you do have simply don’t interest you any more.
Then there’s all the dull-work. Oh, yeah, it’s not all martinis and nymphomaniac fans in the writing world. There’s a lot of bookkeeping, doing taxes, filing, networking, filling out obscure paperwork (non-disclosure agreements, publication contacts, image licenses, etc.), legal mumbo-jumbo, and so on – all the stuff that you probably thought you were escaping by becoming a “creative person”. Oh, no no no – in fact, given a writer’s income and lack of institutional support, you are probably going o be doing more business stuff than any business person you know. And if you don’t have a real passion for the writing, for the whole kit-and-kaboodle of the writing life beyond the simple act of putting word to paper, you won’t make it.
Next time: Breaking into the writing world.
Great post, Dustin. I’m really looking forward to the rest of this series.
There really are a lot of folks online these days who promise to teach the secrets of making a good living by writing. I’m glad you’ll be taking the time to give us a more realistic look at things.
The books I most recommend are:
Writing Without Teachers, by Peter Elbow — at the link, copies available for $1.
The Reader Over Your Shoulder, by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge (copies at the link for $1), if that is used as an exercise book as described in this post toward the end.
Great list (an article of mine was published in the Writer’s Handbook), though basically, you’re doomed to the eternal fires of damnation unless you read Elements of Style. Sorry. Just the way it is.
I’d also toss a style manual in there somewhere (AP Style book or Chicago Manual of Style). Why wrestle with the stuff somebody else has already done for you?
“This is important because, contrary to our idealistic desires, a lot of writing is a deadly slog through idea-less wastelands.”
How true is this! There are of course the moments of beauty and passion, the soaring verse, and other feats of la-te-da. In the end though, it’s hard work.
Another great post, Dustin!
can we please get more parts? Part 2, Part 3, Part 4??
Deepa: They’re coming. I got swamped with my day job and a trip out of town, but have mostly cleared everything up now. I should be able to get Part II up this week, and also have some non-series posts to get finished. Stay tuned!
Great list….I can’t tell you how important classes can be, and how important is to get a group of writer friends, (from class perhaps?) because all that time in “chop development” can get mighty lonely if there is no one to read your stuff.
I don’t understand why this article has (needs?) references I wouldn’t want my kids exposed to, adjectives used to draw attention to difficulty or low quality could be replaced with alternatives. I imagine that most of you don’t care, but I prefer to work in a realm that can be viewed by anyone in my family.
“rock-botton process?” Another necessary skill in a writer: proof-reading.