When I was in college, a lot of smart people thought that our society was becoming “post-literate” — that the written word wasn’t going to matter much any more.
I didn’t buy it, because even then (and, my friends, those were the internet dinosaur days) I could see how much the web relied on writing.
There’s so much advice out there for writers. And half of it seems to contradict the other half.
- Grow your platform first
- Don’t even think about a platform until you’re good
- You have to be amazing
- Good enough is good enough
- Get a writing degree
- Writing degrees will destroy your creativity
- Find a writing group
- Writing groups will destroy your creativity
- Write every day
- Only write when you have something to say
- Write for your audience
- Write only for yourself
Just write — that one shows up over and over. “Writers write.”
But write … what ?
What are the actual practices that turn us from “people who are interested in writing” into writers?
And what if we want to be … a really good writer? Is it ok to admit to that kind of creative ambition? Does it make us big-headed? Or delusional?
Our culture still mainly thinks of Art and Talent as gifts handed down by some kind of muse. In today’s way of looking at things, they’re granted by our genes — which amounts to the same thing.
They’re something we have to be given instead of something we create in ourselves.
This is a horrible, dangerous lie.
For a few weeks, I’m going to be writing about how we become writers.
Not just people who write — we’re all that. Facebook, LinkedIn, and even Twitter have made sure of that.
But a writer is something different.
Writers tell different kinds of jokes. Like verbal magpies, we obsessively collect strange turns of phrase. When writers spend a lot of time together, they develop peculiar private languages. (I suspect these are often fairly irritating for outsiders to listen in on. Sorry, normal world.)
A writer isn’t better or worse than any other kind of person. But if you want to be a writer, you won’t be able to rest until you become one.
A relationship with words
Being a writer is about having a very particular relationship with words.
And every writer has her own version of that. My way of being a writer won’t be identical to yours. But we can share a lot in how we experience it.
Sometimes writers strike me as a kind of alien species from a science fiction story. We have our own language and our own exotic customs. Our senses work differently. We perceive some things regular humans don’t — but we might have odd blind spots that normal people think are just weird.
Writers are attracted to words. Normal people see an unfamiliar word and usually gloss over it. They’ll figure it out from context and move forward. If they see the word often enough, they’ll learn it, in a general way.
Writers see an unfamiliar word like an artist sees an unfamiliar pigment or texture. What is that? What is it made of? What can it be used for? What are its qualities?
Tricks and truth
Being a writer is about discovering originality or music or poetry or greatness in the way words are put together. That’s the arty part. It’s good. It’s fun.
But there’s also the craft part — the tricks we learn to make words sound nicer together.
That’s good, and fun, also.
No matter how brilliant a painter’s vision might be, if he doesn’t learn about the craft of getting pigment down, his art literally won’t hold together. The colors won’t be right, or they’ll fade. The paint will flake off the canvas. The painting will physically disintegrate.
A musician doesn’t become a genius until she’s practiced enough that she can let others hear the wonderful things that are going on in her head.
These days, we talk about putting in our 10,000 hours. (By the way, that number is mythological. It made for some sexy bestselling books, but you can become amazing with far less time than that.)
Even though it’s a half-truth, the “10,000 hours” idea is decent shorthand for “put in the work on the craft, so that our ideas can be shaped and presented to our audience in a way they will enjoy.”
Writers write. That’s always been the advice.
But write what? If writing more words were the key to greatness, all of the best writers would be the ones who wrote the most books or published the most content. But that’s not always true. Not even close.
How to become a writer
Here’s my take on it. To become a writer, spend a significant chunk of time deliberately practicing your craft.
Ideally, try new techniques in public — on projects that other people will see. Experiment with language in your blog posts, on Medium or Pulse, in ebooks, or even Facebook posts.
Learn everything you can about technical stuff — the “tricks.” Work on making pieces that turn out more like what you had in mind when you started. Or that go off in new directions that please you. Or even new directions that make you sweat. (Now you’re really getting somewhere.)
You might take a writing workshop at your local university. Or pick up lots of writing books and work through the exercises you find. Those are both very good ways to improve your craft.
New: The Remarkable Writing Workshop
I spent a lot of time over the holidays musing on interesting projects, and I’ve decided that my next project here at Remarkable Communication is going to be a writing workshop.
So if you wanted to work on writing technique, I would love it if you joined us for that.
The workshop will be focused on the kind of writing I do the most of these days — what we call “content.”
(I’m not a fan of that term. “Content” has become so vague that it’s nearly meaningless. Still, content is the word we have for now.)
The great benefit of content is that other people read it. (Or watch, or listen, if you’re creating multimedia scripts.) They have reactions that you can observe. And you can see what’s working, and what still needs to get better.
Our workshop will be about how to learn some of my favorite “tricks” of craft, so your writing makes you happier. And probably makes your audience happier as well.
It will also be about developing your own voice — the “human fingerprint” that makes your content unmistakeable. If you write for a living, this is what gets you to stand out among the kajillions of cheap freelancers on Upwork.
The workshop will be open to all levels. I’m going to figure out some way (probably an optional add-on) that I can include some critique, because getting solid feedback has been the single most important thing that has improved my own work.
Beyond that, I’m not quite sure what shape this will take, or precisely what we’ll cover. I have a lot of notes. But I’d also love to know what would interest you.
I might teach it once, I might teach it twenty times. I really enjoy teaching, and I think I’ll particularly enjoy teaching this topic, but we’ll see how it evolves.
If there’s something you have always wanted to learn from a writing class, you could drop a comment here. It might well make its way into the program. Or if I don’t feel like it fits with this one, I might be able to point you in the direction of a great resource.
I’m experimenting with email providers right now (moving on to my third provider in six months, oh boy!), so drop your email in the form below, and I’ll let you know when I have more details.
This won’t be a fancy formal “launch,” but I will tell you what’s in the class, how it will benefit you, and how to get signed up. 🙂 And I’ll probably throw some interesting special goodies your way as well.
Looking forward to talking more with you about the new workshop!
Text and image © 2018 Sonia Simone. All rights reserved.