How to be a writer


“So, you are a writer. I would love to write, but need some training. What would you suggest?”

That’s a Facebook message from a high school friend who found me again via the social networking site.

That’s a big question. What would I suggest? It made me think of the many things so many of us aspire to be or to do, and the obstacles that get in our way. I would like to play a musical instrument and speak a second language. I’m closer to the later rather than the former, having taking some classes in Spanish, but I did join a chime choir this year, too.

What should a person who aspires to be a writer do? I guess part of the answer is to determine what kind of a writer you want to be, because it’s a little like saying “I want to be an athlete, what should I do?” Learn a sport. Learn how to shoot a basketball, what a foul is, how to dribble, do a jump shot, etc.

I also feel a bit inadequate trying to answer the question. Although I teach writing courses and was a journalist for around 18 years, that qualifies me to talk about only one kind of writing—and a fairly narrow branch of that writing, too. I’ve never written a book or a TV script, for example. I have done feature stories, news stories, editorials and opinion columns, but not a lot of work that’s more than 700 words.

Still, here are my suggestions:

1) Write. Start a blog. Keep a diary. Pen letters to the editor. Volunteer for a church or organizational newsletter, if you can fulfill those obligations. I am a much better biker than my wife—not that she doesn’t have the “basic” skill of balance that most of us learn as kids—but I can go much farther and avoid more spills. I don’t have any special physical talent (those who know me might with some accuracy say I don’t have any physical talents at all, let along “special” talent—I was, after all, a star of the debate team in high school) but I do have experience. I have long ridden various bicycles as a form or relaxation and usually ride a bike to work, which means I get at least 50 miles of seat time a week. Audrey can ride a bike, but I can go 13 miles from my house to Kirkwood Community College and then turn around and ride back with no soreness. She can’t do that, but only because she doesn’t practice bike riding very often. I do. If you want to be a writer, ride the bike every day. Write.

2) Read. I am not a very fast reader. When the “Harry Potter” books were new, my kids were avid fans and we excitedly awaited each new installment. A “pecking order” developed over time for each new Harry Potter book, based on family seniority and reading speech. Despite my advanced years, I was always near the end of the book queue. Not because I lack family seniority—but because I don’t read as quickly as either Audrey or my kids. I’m almost 51; I don’t think that harsh reality will change. I’ve been reading “The Brothers Karamazov” for a week now, and am only on page 75. Granted, it’s my “bedtime” book and Russian fiction is a great cure for insomnia (if only Michael Jackson had tried Dostoyevsky) but still. Yet, I always read. I read “Hot, Flat and Crowded” before this book. I’ll pick another book after TBK (which, by the way, I’m only reading because I enjoyed an American book, “The Brothers K,” so much that I wanted to read its inspiration). I also read “Newsweek” every week, “The Gazette” every day, and I skim the “New York Times” web site, reading what interests me (I love Dowd’s column about Sarah Palin’s resignation, by the way). I read news every day, and I chug away at a longer work of fiction or non-fiction daily. I suppose there are many more readers than writers in the world, but I doubt many of the writers aren’t readers.

Other than that, there are many venues for practice. If you’re young, major in English and print journalism (yes, learn to write a newspaper story even if there is no newspaper industry—the art of journalism is the art of collecting and writing non-fiction).

Regardless of age, experiment with different forms of writing and see what you like. Again, writing is like sports, there are many different forms, types, tones and venues.

Finally, remember writing is also a bit like singing. Many of us enjoy it, at least in a shower, but it takes extraordinary talent and luck to turn this pleasurable activity into a livelihood. Be honest with yourself about what your goals are. For me, my singing goal is usually not to be overheard so I don’t bug people—my writing goals are legitimately a bit loftier. Don’t let anybody keep you from singing, but don’t think you’re the next pop star, either.

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1 Comment

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One response to “How to be a writer

  1. Bob

    Bang on Joe. Your advice basically mirrors Stephen King’s in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (Yes, I was THAT extremely devoted to reading everything King wrote). He said “read much, write much,” and if you have some native talent that sort of practice may allow it to blossom. Or it may not. I began blogging on your advice, and continue to do so not so much out of excess vanity or sheer stubborness but because I genuinely think it helps to organize how I think and write. I have to say, I now have ideas of what to write about far more often than previously.

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