So you want to be a writer, or you think you are one or (worst case scenario) you are one…
I don’t know where in these categories I fall, more exactly, but I do know that writing has been my religion since around age seven. And in this two-decade—sometimes heaven, others hell—word roller-coaster, I’ve learned a few things.
But, like most lessons, I’ve learned them by making the usual mistakes first, a method still somewhat inseparable from my stubborn fingers.
I’d like to share some of my weaknesses (hopefully) turned into muscle with you—and in the process, remind myself.
Take what you might, and give the rest to your dog. All advice is organic and anti-inflammatory.
1. Instead of telling, show.
Whether you’re writing poetry, a novel, a short story or an essay, the poetic essence should be present as an invisible muse in any genre (a scientist may disagree with me here, but bring it on, I got my caps lock on).
Think of it as the blood that runs through all the different organs in your writing, connecting the unspoken dots. It’s the magic touch, and if you’re not trying to cast a mindful spell on the world with your fingers, then I don’t know what we’re doing here.
And how do you get the poetic essence? Well, by painting pictures with words.
Par exemple: Don’t tell me that you’re scared. Show me how your heart is trying to climb out of your chest, how you’re leaving a trace of cold sweat on everything you touch, what the darkness tastes like when you’re forced to swallow it, what the trees are murmuring in Sanskrit behind your back and how the wind is feasting on your skin.
Don’t “tell it like it is” because nothing is before you tell it. In telling it, you’re making the world. So tell it like you see it, create it like you feel it. Imagination is your best chance for survival. And it’s your readers’ favorite food.
Humans are problem-solvers and creators at heart. If you give me fast food, you’ll take away my joy of cooking and adding my own spices to the meal. Don’t digest your thoughts for the reader, let him/her chew.
2. Bullsh*t is a real, stinking problem.
Stay real. Don’t tell me how great you are, or how much you’ve accomplished. You can leave the Ode to Self for your bio. Let me, the reader, decide your degree of awesomeness, based on what you’re doing to me with this piece (a.k.a. inspiration, ideas, insight, emotion, reading experience, connection, etc.).
I’m sure you’re at least 20 shades of amazing, if only just for trying to be true to your call and write like your life depends on it, but if you feel it’s necessary to highlight your own worth, it means you don’t believe it (yet)…And if you don’t, why should I?
BS is kryptonite. I don’t know how it works, you’d think that just because your readers can accept any kind of fiction you make up or any point of view, they’ll also accept your insecurities. But that’s perhaps the only thing that turns them off, because when you’re insecure about your own imagination, it makes me feel like I can’t trust you with mine.
As an artist—and, in the broader sense, a creator—-it’s hard to believe that you’re enough. In fact, as Leonardo DaVinci reminds us,
“Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
But whether you’re enough or not—you could always get better or learn more, this is a lifetime journey—I like you enough right now to click on you. And you like yourself enough to put your essence, your truth, into words. That’s about all we need in order to enjoy each other.
So please don’t let your ego interrupt me. Lock your insecurities in the basement until you’re finished writing your piece. They won’t understand, but who cares?
3. When you’re making a point or speaking for a cause, instead of trying to convince readers of your arguments, inspire them to reach their own conclusion.
You can only hope it’ll match yours. (Or not).
This is the more difficult, deeper side of the “don’t tell them, show them.” The truth is, nobody likes to be told what to do. The only key to change—whether it’s big, personal change or just a change of opinion—is inspiration, not explanation.
Instead of indirectly manipulating the reader’s opinion with unsolicited emotion or out-of-place emphasis, forcing them into feeling you, and giving them a deer-in-the-headlights sensation—which may not appeal to their story and as such, make them disconnect from yours—you can focus on building your arguments as creatively as you can, so there’s no way they can be met without at least some serious consideration.
It’s not about getting people to agree with you—that may or may not ever happen. It’s about showing them what you mean, and getting them to consider it.
You’re not a lawyer in a courtroom, you’re a magician.
4. The shock-effect is trashy.
By that I mean trying to shock the reader into “seeing” your point, or you, or clicking on your article or buying your book.
The Jerry-Springer shock effect can be noticed in:
Unnecessary cussing. Unless you’re Bukowski or you’ve made cussing into your writer’s trademark, limit trashy talk for when the situation demands it.
Cussing is an essential part of life and fuck-this-shit are decent words and often funny, when used to complement, not to describe (unless you’re describing a character who likes to cuss).
It’s a common mistake to use strong, flashy, meaningless words to emphasize an argument or describe a feeling. It’s like using bold words in a text. One of the golden rules of editing is: no bolding in the article, for emphasis, use italics.
Italics mean: tell me but don’t force me, invite me but don’t make me, touch me but don’t strangle me.
Let your words speak on their own and when you have to cuss, let it be situational and come naturally, out of emotion, and not to make a point that otherwise would be too weak. Let it compliment your arguments, not build them.
When it comes to writing, it’s better to walk around naked than put on the wrong clothes.
Misleading, unjustified titles. Good images and creative titles—especially in the blogging world—are a must. So is traffic or sales (if we’re speaking books). You need to grab an already distracted reader’s attention.
But if you get 5,000 clicks—or make a bestseller list—on a trash ride, just because it’s flashy and obnoxious—‘cause when we’re tired and wasted, we all respond to neon lights—you’ll leave 5,000 people disappointed because your piece didn’t live up to the title’s expectations or vice versa.
And readers are like friends, you know? You need them for the long run, and real friends are hard to find and keep, but worth your every word. Give me real, nutritious food and I’ll come back and have lunch with you more often. Give me trash and sooner or later I’ll be sick and gone.
Bomb-surprises—another shock-shortcut, writing strategy. Let me put it this way: don’t kill your main character in the middle of your story and if you kill it at the end, make sure you drop a few hints throughout the story, prepare the reader for what’s coming. This principle applies to any other form of writing, fiction and non-fiction alike.
Surprise is good, but when it makes you poo your pants…not cool, eh?
Writing is a representation of reality. It’s what reality can’t say, an extension, its clothes. And nothing in the real world comes unexpectedly. It may seem like it sometimes, but that’s only because we haven’t learned to pay attention.
The base of all things is order and no chaos happens without previous warning. Just as we learn to open our eyes and be fully present in our own lives, we must be present in our writing. Warn your readers, give them signs, whisper to them before you shout. Nobody likes to be stabbed in the back.
Remember, this is a ballroom and you’re dancing with your reader. You can choose the music—you can rap or you can tango, any tune is acceptable—but don’t switch songs right in the middle and without any notice, you’ll make people dizzy and they’ll eventually choose another dancing partner.
I think the medium should always match the message, and we should strive to reach an equilibrium between style and content. But it’s usually easier to forgive a good messenger in humble clothing than a lousy one dressed and announced like a king.
5. Work, baby, work.
“Writing is so difficult that I feel that writers, having had their hell on earth, will escape all punishment hereafter.” ~ Jessamyn West
I have an issue with the word talented. Because it seems to refer to some supernatural power or ability that you’re born with…You may be born with an inclination, but natural talents are like eye or hair color, they’re nothing you did and nothing you should be praised for beyond awe or a simple acknowledgement.
Now, what you do with what you got, that’s real talent. There’s one common denominator to most experts and geniuses of our time: they’ve all spent around 10,000 hours practicing their craft/art/sport/profession in the process of becoming so.
10,000 hours of practice are equivalent to approximately eight hours of work per day for a period of 10 years.
That’s what makes someone an expert, not some wonderful, random gift they inherited from Grandpa Joe. Because even if it was true that god himself dropped you into the world, in order to make full use of your natural talent, you’d still have to put in at least half of those hours.
If you don’t believe me, read the biography of any so-called-genius of our age or any time in history and get ready to suffer and sweat just from realizing how hard they worked.
The great news about working your writer’s ass off is that it often feels so much like play, you even forget to drink or eat. So, the final equation should look something like this:
Work = play (as long as you eat your veggies & drink your water).
Life begins at the “being” stage but after that it’s all about becoming. You’ll turn into your work before you even have a chance to notice. And it won’t seem impossible anymore because you once took the first step. And the second. And third…
6. If you’re empty, don’t try to make meaning out of nothing.
Go get filled instead. As Einstein put it, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” It’s not okay to just write whatever echoes through the cave of your mind. That’s what journalling and private conversations are for.
But if you’re communicating your thoughts in public, to as many people as you can reach, you need to think (at least once) before speaking.
Your hands will type at the same rhythm as your heart is beating. And if uninspired, your writing will be nothing more than sloppy ink on murdered trees or empty pixels on an overpopulated screen.
Make a list of what brings you back to life and start checking off the items, one by one. Go feed your starved, creative soul.
7. “Writer’s block” is a symptom, not a disease.
There’s always a reason behind it. Instead of writing about nothing, find the real cause, don’t just accept it as natural or add more garbage to an already crowded imagination. You’re not blocked because of the weather, or because it’s what happens to writers from time to time or because you have too much on your mind.
You’re blocked because at the very core of you, at some subconscious level there’s a hidden thought related to your writing or creative expression, that keeps you from trying. And at some point, without being fully conscious, you’ve accepted that paralyzing thought and it won’t let you be. It usually has to do with self-worth, self-esteem, fear, self-acceptance, insecurity or (dis)belief in oneself.
Do whatever it takes to uncover these negative thoughts: walking or running is one of the best therapies for the blocked writer. Just like writing, they are lonely sports.
But any other detox activity will do. Meditation reduces inflammation. Journalling early in the morning cleanses your creative guts. Sleep and rest are the easiest and cheapest ways to declutter the mind.
Once you get inside and find out what’s stopping you from using your fingers, it’s easier to focus your efforts on getting your imagination reinstated. Go back to #6 and check off the items on your How to Be Alive list.
This is perhaps the most reliable way to resurrect a beaten heart.
8. Instead of imitating, innovate. But remember that inspiration also leads to creative imitation.
There’s nothing new under the sun and yet imitation is suicide, but those who don’t imitate don’t create and those who only imitate don’t recreate…So, what’s it gonna’ be? Well, there’s a truth to every point.
Our job is not to create the world but to recreate it in our own image. To tell your story, as seen through your glasses. Originality is your birth certificate and it’s already included in your signature. The problem is that very few people and creators have accepted their original right to be themselves.
Describing the same patch of nature or retelling the same universal love story that many others have attempted to do throughout history is not artistic murder. We’re all stuck on the same planet after all, and trees are trees.
The death of you occurs when you pretend to be another. That’s when imitation stops being re-creation and turns into suicide.
So, don’t kill yourself. The mere fact that you exist means that there was a universal demand for someone like you…and you showed up against all odds. Now tell the world your story.
9. Read about writing and about other writers.
It’s a lonely ride. You need inspiration. You need company.
You know when you’re on the subway, on a bus, in a restaurant or any public place, and you hear people talk with passion about their work, and they seem so interested, and it all sounds like gibberish to you, and you’re momentarily surprised that they should find such joy in something so unintelligible and—admit it—terribly boring!
Do that with writing. Find your group. Don’t just read the novel, the non-fiction, the poem, the essay, the article. Read about your job, get into it, self-motivate yourself. And when you can’t, let others do it.
Which brings me to my next point…
10. Take a writing class, it makes all the difference.
They come in all forms and for every level. Whether it’s through a workshop, a college course, private tutoring, online learning or even an undergrad or post-grad degree, if you’re serious about writing, you’ll be much better with some formal education in your backpack than without.
It’s not that you can’t learn on your own, but it might take you fifty years longer.
Here are three of the best things I’ve gotten out of writing workshops and classes:
Losing fear. You have to face your readers, since they’re seating right in front of you. You gotta’ place your dear baby on the table to be killed. And it hurts a lot at first. And your voice shakes. And the first critiques get stuck like knives in your creative aorta. And you may go home crying that day.
But after that, it hurts less and less and less each day, until an almost new person emerges from under your skin. That’s the real writer speaking, the callous thing with feathers, an unlikely creature, the stronger “you” that survived.
Getting feedback. Seriously, my writer friend, you’re not as great as in your wildest dreams or as terrible as in your worst nightmares, you’ve got your strengths and your weaknesses and you’re not fully aware of either, until somebody else points it out to you.
Your writing doesn’t sound the same to other people as it sounds to you. It may be similar when you learn how to listen, but always expect some turbulence and mindful misunderstanding.
Furthermore, since you’re somewhat attached to your pieces because, alas, you’re always in them in some form, your BS detectors will be more sensitive about other people’s stories than your own.
That’s why you need to be sniffed by others in return and be taught things about yourself and your writing that you may never learn otherwise.
Killing Mr. / Mrs. Ego. I thought that just because I’m an introvert and I have a cat personality and I don’t know how to take praise, I was also humble. Little did I suspect that my huge, underground ego had built a palace inside my chest, and turned me into its servant.
I had no idea I fostered such a parasite, until I noticed how much it hurt to even pinch it. After two years of pinching and cutting and having all sorts of people step on my hearty writer’s heart—even people whose book I wouldn’t even read if they paid me—I lost at least 20 kg worth of ego. And the entire world feels lighter.
You’ll never be loved or unloved by everyone. You’ll have your lovers, you’ll also have your prosecutors, especially if you’re attempting to have a voice in a society that worships the sheep and tries to quiet the shepherds.
Make your own music and accept that sometimes it may be out of tune. Let your ego be crushed by all the constructive critique you can get. And when it turns destructive, let it rain and pour over your paragraphs and splash all your demons with your ink.
11. Forget all expectations and just do it.
As Maya Angelou put it,
“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”
Don’t write about what you should write, or to prove yourself to an imaginary, elite readership, or to please whoever won’t accept the real you. Write what your heart dictates, whether it turns into a bestseller or it only reaches a few weirdos, like you.
There’s a reader for every kind of story and you’ll never know who, in what corner of the world, your words will touch and possibly save.
(I could easily turn this article into a book, there’s still so much to say and learn). But other—more patient and teacherly people than me—have already done so. For further reading, you can dive deeper into their work.
Most of these books are focused on fiction or poetry but their main points and creative essence are applicable to any writing genre:
*Two favorite additional resources:
Poets & Writers (the writer’s hub)
The Paris Review (some of the best contemporary creative writing)
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” ~ Maya Angelou
So start telling it…