I was recently asked by a young writer about the best advice I could give him.
Since “take up accounting” is not something I would tell — or wish on — anyone, I decided to give him some actual advice. What I told him applies to everyone else who wants to, as sportswriter Red Smith put it, “open your veins and bleed.”
Here are a few tried-and-true pieces of advice — maxims, if you will, because that sounds more important than “pieces” — I’ve picked up over the years:
- Write every day. That sounds easier said than done, and is almost one of those “let down” pieces of advice. (“Seriously? That’s all you got?”) In fact, I have always thought this was the stupidest piece of writing advice, and whenever I heard it, I rolled my eyes so far back into my head, I could see my third grade memories. But it really does make a difference. Just like anything else you want to get good at — woodworking, sports, music, art — you need to write every single day. In fact, as stupid as I thought this was, this has also been the most important piece of advice I have ever gotten. You’re only going to get better by writing on a constant, regular basis, not by reading books on writing, or only writing when you feel inspired. Your skills are going to develop only as long as you put energy and effort into it. Write every day, and you get better that much sooner.
- Read A LOT. Not just your favorite genres, but other genres, even ones you don’t particularly like. Find some favorite authors and devour everything they’ve written. Identify those things they do that make them your favorites, and see if you can incorporate a few of them into your own writing. You’ll discard a few of the techniques you borrowed, you’ll change and develop others, and you’ll create a hybrid style that is all your own. (That’s how those writers did it, and it will work for you too.)
- Avoid books on writing, except for Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
(affiliate links). (Okay, there are actually three others I especially like, but those are for another day, after you’ve read these two.) Everything else has already been said, and it’s too easy to mire yourself in every single book on writing, but they’ll only delay you from actually writing. It’s too easy to read writing book after writing book, and say that’s part of your learning process, but eventually that becomes a crutch that keeps you from actually writing. Too many new writers hide behind their tall stack of writing books, saying they’re not ready to start because they haven’t read the 23rd writing book they just got from the library. Remember maxim #1; it’s not “read writing books every day.”
The same holds true for writing exercises. Skip those. If you want to practice writing, write something. A real something, that will actually be read by real people. Write a blog post, write an article and submit it, write an essay and email it to people.
- Seek out one or two good mentors. Find people who will mercilessly edit your stuff and not give a shit about your feelings. Don’t connect with someone who wants to be mean, but you also don’t want the person who will pat your head and say you did a good job. So, don’t ask your mom. She loves you and wants to protect you. But you don’t need protection, you need education. If you ask your writing friends, they’ll be professionally jealous and will rip you a new one harshly enough to be helpful. Basically, if someone reads your stuff and says, “yeah, it’s pretty good,” they’re not good mentors, because they’re not giving you anything to improve or pointing out your weaknesses.
- Write even when you don’t think you’re doing a good job. In fact, that’s when you need to write. Never let your doubts sink your goals. Even if you don’t think you’re doing a good job, focus on your writing goals. Those feelings won’t ever go away — even the most successful writers have them — but you’ll get better every day. You just have to ignore the self-doubt and keep writing. Eventually you will outgrow the feelings, and learn to recognize the negative self-talk for what it is. You’ll learn to trust your abilities and your work, and know that your work is better than your doubts let you think it is.
- Never EVER compare yourself to another writer’s success. “Never compare someone else’s highlight reel to your day-to-day stuff,” I read once. You’ll make yourself crazy. Years ago, I used to compare myself to Bruce Cameron, a fellow humorist and member of the NetWits, a humor writers group. I would see everything he was doing, and despair that I would never have that kind of success. I would get depressed every time I paid close attention to what he was doing.
And despite what I just said, you’ll do it too. You’ll see their publications and their success and ask yourself “why can’t that happen to ME?!” It will. You just have to go back and do #1 and #5 more and more, and keep submitting your work, publishing blog posts, going to seminars, re-reading Bird By Bird and On Writing. One day, you’ll look up and realize you’ve done just as much as the people you were comparing yourself to all those years ago. You’ll also find that someone newer and younger than you is making themselves crazy, comparing themselves to your publications and successes. Just keep your head down, keep your eyes on your own work, and don’t worry about what anyone else is doing. Later, you can salve your wounds with sweet, sweet schadenfreude when you spot their books in a bookstore’s bargain bin.