How Do You Know You’re a Real Writer?

Cathy Day’s recent blog post, “Last Lecture: Am I a Writer?” took me back to my own days of struggling with my identity as a Writer.

I’ve been writing for 24 years, but I’ve only accepted the mantle of Writer for the last 17.

It’s an odd thing to wonder about one’s self. Either you’re a Writer, or you’re not, right?

You’re a professional, literary, word slinging, spell-it-with-a-capital-W-by-God Writer, or you’re just some wannabe hack who doesn’t deserve to even call what you do “writing.” (You even manage to speak the word with invisible quotes around it.)

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway: This dude was a capital-W Writer. He also drank a lot and shot things.

Someone who does plumbing is a plumber. Someone who does accounting is an accountant. And someone who cooks food is a cook.

But ask someone who strings words together if they’re a Writer, and they’ll think about it for a minute.

“No, because I haven’t been published.”

“Yes, as soon I published my first book.”

“No, I’ve only been doing it for a couple years.”

“Yes, after I received my first check for a magazine article.”

New writers hesitate to call themselves one, as if this thing we do is sacred, and they’re not worthy. Writers don’t just string words together for people to read in an email. We tell stories to entertain people, inform and educate, persuade and rally. We can string words together that provoke, comfort, or incite. Scribblers use corporate jargon and fifty dollar words in five cent emails.

Even when I first started writing, it never occurred to me that I was a Writer, until a more experienced one said, “Don’t you write stuff?”

“Yes, every day.”

Moleskine notebook and Pilot G-2 pen

If you do this a lot, you may be a writer.

“Then why aren’t you a Writer?”

Since I didn’t have a good answer, it was easier just to mumble, “Well, I guess I am.”

That’s how most Writers are crowned, with a mumbled realization, rather than a pomp-filled ceremony, complete with gleaming pens carried proudly on red velvet pillows by pages, to be presented by the queen amidst the fanfare of trumpets. (Although wouldn’t that be awesome?)

To be sure, Writers earn their title. That capital W is not just granted to every schmuck who took a high school English class and pounds out the occasional email to coworkers. That’s not writing. That’s written communication, but it’s not writing.

There may be standards for calling one’s self a Writer — you have to write 100,000 words first; you have to submit a piece for print publication; you have to get paid — but no one has figured out what that is yet. Self-granting the title varies from person to person.

But one constant remains: you’re not a Writer until you call yourself one. The very minute you can say, “I’m a Writer,” and say it without that question mark at the end? That’s when you are one.

Otherwise, no one is stopping you. Go ahead. Take it out. Try it on, and see how it fits. You’ll grow into it over time.

Five Books Every Blogger Should Read or Own

Writers need to read if they want to improve. We learn, we borrow, we’re influenced, and in some cases, we steal.

Whether you’re a blogging veteran or wet-behind-the-ears rookie, there are certain books that will give you the knowledge, insight, and ability to be an effective blogger.

I am always reading books, sometimes in my industry, sometimes outside (my favorites are Christopher Moore humor novels and British murder mysteries), and trying to learn some of the techniques these writers use.

I have five books that I think every blogger should own, or at least read, if they want to improve their writing and become a better blogger.

These five books vary in industry and focus. They may tell you how to blog, how to write, or how to spell. But these are the five books that I have found to be the most valuable in my own professional blogging career.

  • Corporate Blogging for Dummies: My good friend, Douglas Karr (@douglaskarr), and Chantelle Flannery wrote this tome for corporate bloggers everywhere. And while the title suggests it’s for corporate bloggers, anyone who wants to be a blogger can learn from this one. It talks about why blogging is important, what tools are available, and even how to write blog posts.
  • The AP Stylebook: I’ve long maintained that blogging should follow AP Style when it comes to settling confusing questions of spelling, grammar, and punctuation. After all, we’re becoming citizen journalists, so we should follow journalistic style. The AP Stylebook can answer odd and esoteric questions, like the “proper” abbreviation of state names (AP style does not use the two letter postal abbreviations), whether to capitalize job titles (you don’t, unless you’re referring to the President of the United States), and even whether to use an Oxford comma (they don’t, but I think they’re horribly wrong about this one.)
  • Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing: (affiliate link) I am a regular listener of Mignon Fogarty’s (@GrammarGirl) “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips” podcast, and recommend it to anyone who wants to improve their grammar and punctuation usage. Her book on Better Writing is also a must for anyone who wants to improve their writing mechanics, and avoid the little nagging errors that are so tiny but seem to throw everyone into a terrible tizzy. (I’m also a fan of the A Way With Words show on NPR/podcast, but they don’t have a book out. Plus, I made Grammar Girl’s “Wordsmiths” Twitter list, which I’m very proud of.)
  • Ernest Hemingway’s short stories: If you want to learn how to write with punch and power, read Hemingway. Especially his short stories. Especially anything with Nick Adams (Big Two-Hearted River). It has that punchy, short dramatic style that tells you how to craft short sentences that carry a lot of impact. Hemingway cut his teeth at the Kansas City Star in 1917, learning the style that made him the most recognized writer of his day. While some of his language and ideas are definitely from the early 1900s, his writing style is still something to study and learn from.
  • Once More Around the Park

  • Roger Angell’s Once More Around the Park: Roger Angell is the baseball writer for The New Yorker, and the master of the long meandering sentence. If Hemingway is a boxer, writing short, punchy sentences, Roger Angell is the old dude doing tai chi in the park on a warm Sunday morning, moving slowly but fluidly, and never stopping until he has achieved inner peace and gotten a low-impact workout in at the same time. Angell’s descriptions of baseball games, baseball fans, and even the parks is something even the non-fan will enjoy. It’s a book I definitely recommend reading, whether you’re a baseball fan or not. While the fan will appreciate his explanation of the games and the names of the fan’s childhood, the writer will appreciate the images Angell is able to conjure up, and the ease at which he writes long, smart sentences that carry the sounds and smells of a faraway day.
  • What are some of your favorite books for writers and bloggers? Are there any that you recommend? Any that you would stay away from? Leave a comment and let’s hear from you.

Ernest Hemingway’s Five Secrets to Good Blogging

Ernest Hemingway would have kicked ass as a blogger.

No, really. I’ve been on a major Hemingway kick for the last several weeks, reading his short stories, his books and ideas on writing, and even a collection of stories he wrote when he was a cub reporter with the Kansas City Star, and I’m convinced he would be an A-List blogger in a matter of weeks.Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway’s writing habits are what would have made him an ideal blogger.Here are what I think his five secrets to good blogging would be.

  1. Write and speak with authority. Hemingway knew he was a great writer. He was not humble about it at all. While I’m not suggesting you act cocky and arrogant, you do need to write with authority. Don’t waffle around with qualifying statements, like “I think it may be possible” or “If I had to make a choice, but only if I really had to make one.” It makes you sound like a ninny. Hemingway once said of his criticism of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, “Jesus, it’s marvelous to tell other people how to write, live, die, etc.” In other words, without being an insufferable jerk about it, have the confidence to tell people how to do the thing you’re writing about.
  2. Avoid adverbs. Adverbs are those things that tell how something was done. “He ran quickly.” “She laughed loudly.”Don’t use adverbs at all. You can’t run slowly, otherwise you’re jogging. You can’t laugh loudly, but you can belly laugh or guffaw or snort; a soft laugh is a chuckle. Don’t describe the verb, use a more descriptive one.So, don’t tell us something is “really cool” or “fairly unique.” For one thing, cool is cool, and unique is unique. For another, “unique” means “one of a kind, there is nothing like it in all the world.” You can’t be “fairly one of a kind.” While Hemingway was not a fan of adjectives either, he and many other writers have spoken out against adverbs. It’s something you should quit using as well.
  3. Don’t write for “The Reader.” In a letter to Arthur Mizener, Hemingway wrote, “I believe that basically you write for two people; yourself to try to make it absolutely perfect; or if not that, then wonderful. Then you write for who you love whether she can read or write or not and whether she is alive or dead.” That means, don’t worry about what the critics and haters and jackasses are going to say. Don’t anticipate what comments you might get, and how you can head them off at the pass. Don’t avoid controversial topics just because you think someone might disagree with you. Write for you, and make it awesome. Then, write it for just one person, and whether it will please him/her or not.
  4. Have a set writing schedule. I’m trying to adopt this idea myself now. Block out a time each day where you can write uninterrupted. Don’t take meetings, don’t answer email, don’t do Twitter. Just write. Hemingway’s schedule was to get up early, get to the typewriter by 7:00, and write until lunchtime. Even when he was starting out and had to work odd jobs, he would only do them after lunch. He didn’t drink until he was done writing, and he would even get up when he was hung over. But no matter what, he was always writing at the same time every day.
  5. Leave stuff out. Hemingway believed in the Iceberg Theory of writing. That is, while an iceberg may look massive, only 20% of it is sticking out of the water. There is sooooo much more that lies beneath the surface. It’s that below-the-surface structure that makes the visible part so impressive.Ernest would omit everything he could. He already hated adverbs (#2). In his dialogue, he never used any word other than “said,” not replied, shouted, retorted, or complained. He avoided entire scenes of action, leaving the reader to come up with his own idea of what happened. His greatest example of Iceberg writing is his now-famous six word novel, “For sale: Baby shoes. Never used.” All kinds of questions hang over that story, most notably, “why?” The answers we create in our own heads are the hidden part of the iceberg that Hemingway wanted us to understand.

    Similarly, as bloggers, we need to leave things out. Don’t use descriptions of what you were thinking when you came up with a certain blog topic. Don’t do exposition. Explain why something is important, and what it means to us. If you want exposition and background, create a separate post and link to it — “if you’re curious as to why I thought of this, click here” — and then count the clicks. If no one clicked it, you didn’t need it.

Blogging is the new newspaper. Posts need to be short, punchy, and interesting right from the very beginning — all characteristics that marked a Hemingway story. Follow these Hemingway techniques to make your posts more interesting and dramatic.

Sources for this post include:


10 Blog Writing Lessons Learned from Authors, part 2

Yesterday, we covered the first half of 10 Blog Writing Lessons Learned from Authors. Here are the next 5 lessons I have learned from some of my favorite book authors.

6) Not everything is going to be a hit — Joseph Heller. Heller wrote 7 novels, and 6 of them sucked were not critical or commercial successes His very first one, Catch-22, is considered one of the best books of the 20th century, and is my 3rd favorite book. It was hysterical, absurd, and filled with enough satire to make George Carlin weep with envy. The rest didn’t do so well, but he kept writing. He wrote 3 plays, a series of short stories, and 3 screenplays, all of which had some success, but never reached the pinnacle of Catch-22. Anthony Bourdain's book The Nasty Bits
Still, Heller didn’t go all J.D. Salinger on the literary world. He kept trying and plugging away. You’re not going to hit a homer with every post you write, so don’t give up. (But hopefully you’ll have a better success ratio than 14%.)

7) Piss people off — Anthony Bourdain — The Nasty Bits. Anthony Bourdain is great at pissing people off. He will unleash his ideas and his venom on anyone who gets under his skin. I just finished reading The Nasty Bits, and he has a go at everyone from fast food burger joints to fat people on airplanes to pretentious food snobs like Woody Harrelson, who will only ever eat raw fruits and vegetables, no matter where in the world he is who it inconveniences, or which restaurant owner he insults. Bourdain doesn’t pull any punches, and is willing to put even his more acerbic views in writing. You should too. (And don’t be a such a raw food jerk, Woody.)

8) Know the grammar rules. . . so you can ignore them — Elmore Leonard. Someone once told me “you can’t start your sentences with ‘and.'” I pointed out that things had changed since she was in 5th grade English — like the invention of the printing press — and that people have been starting sentences with “and” for a few decades. And since I was the professional writer, I ignored her. I have since found this quote by Elmore Leonard, and keep it in my notebook for future encounters: “(I)f proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.”

9) You have to go to where the action is — Ernie Pyle. Pyle died doing what he loved: writing. He was a correspondent for the Scripps Howard newspaper from 1935 – 1945, when he died in combat. Pyle actually won the Pulitzer in 1944 for his work, and became the patron saint of newspaper columnists and the National Society for Newspaper Columnists(I was a member for a couple years). But the only way he could have done all this was by being where the action was. You don’t have to put yourself into dangerous combat situations to write your blog, but you do have to get out from behind your computer, and see the things you’re writing about. When you use photos, use your photos. When you write about places around the globe, write about your visits. It’s one thing to write about things you’ve found on the web, but try getting out in the world and see what inspiration you can get out there.

Dave Barry publicity shot

I once asked Dave Barry to read some of my humor columns. He sent me this photo instead.

10) Humor makes you memorable — Dave Barry. It’s the humor writers, not the political columnists who are the most remembered by their readers. I know people who still remember Dave Barry’s piece on the Lawn Rangers precision lawn mowing team or the time he played a corpse in the Eugene (Oregon) Opera’s production of Gianni Schicchi. No one remembers the piece David Broder wrote for the Washington Post about the guy who did the thing at the place. They remember things that are funny. So, if you can pull it off, use humor in your posts. If you can’t, avoid it, because otherwise people will remember you, and not in a good way.

10 Blog Writing Lessons Learned from Authors, part 1

I have a few favorite authors that I turn to again and again. Authors whose books I kept when I got rid of 600 other books over a two week period. And while most of my bibliophile friends 1) can’t imagine doing that, and 2) are wondering why I didn’t call them first, I’ve enjoyed being free of most of my old and unread books.

But I’ve kept these authors’ books because I learned something from them. A lot of these writers, and one singer, have imparted lessons to me, either through their writings or their interviews. So here are 10 lessons I have learned from 9 of my most favoritest authors (and 1 singer).

No Assholes t-shirt from The Nth Degree dot com1) Pictures speak volumes — Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions. Anyone who ever read Breakfast of Champions will remember the crude, childish drawings he included in his story, including a couple of drawings of people’s anatomy. I’m not suggesting you use these particular drawings, but rather, use pictures and videos to support your point and make your post more interesting to readers. Load your photos into Flickr or Picasa, or use Creative Commons or stock photos, and use them to add a little variety to your posts.

2) String together a series of ledes – Hunter S. Thompson. This is why Hunter S. Thompson was such a powerful writer. In journalism school, students are taught to write one lede (lead, if you must), and then supporting information, and the content gets less important and less interesting the further you go. But Thompson would just string together a bunch of ledes, one after the other — bam, bam, bam!! — and pummel you with them. Then he would calm down a bit before hitting you again with another series of body blows. That’s why he was so exciting to read. That, and all the crazy drug references.

3) Write short sentences — Ernest Hemingway, Big Two-Hearted River. I use this sample a lot in my writing presentations.

Nick was hungry. He did not believe he had ever been hungrier. He opened and emptied a can of pork and beans and a can of spaghetti into the frying pan. “I’ve got a right to eat this kind of stuff, if I’m willing to carry it,” Nick said. His voice sounded strange in the darkening woods. He did not speak again.

I checked this out once on the Flesch-Kincaid reading level, and it came back as a 3rd grade level block of text. Newspapers are written at about a 6th grade reading level, and your blogs should be too. Not because your readers are dumb, but because they have come to expect it. They want short, simple, and easy to understand.

A Moleskine notebook and Pilot G-2 .05 mm blue pen4) Write long, flowing, descriptive sentences — Roger Angell, baseball writer for The New Yorker. Yes, this contradicts my previous point. I’ve been reading Roger Angell for about two years now, and he is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. His descriptions of baseball games are magical. I can feel like I’m there in the park with him, in 1965, watching a Mets game, or in 1969, watching the Detroit Tigers. His writing flows smoothly, like an expensive new pen on creamy writing paper. There are times your writing will need to be more like Angell’s and less like Hemingway’s.

5) Use metaphors —Tom Waits — Putnam County, Nighthawks at the Diner. I talked before about how Tom Waits uses metaphors to create very powerful writing. His song, Putnam County is rife with metaphors and a couple similes. Take a look at what he says about the morning dawn.

And the impending squint of first light
And it lurked behind a weepin’ marquee in downtown Putnam
Yeah, and it’d be pullin’ up any minute now
Just like a bastard amber Velveeta yellow cab on a rainy corner
And be blowin’ its horn in every window in town

My point is that you should sprinkle metaphors into your writing to create the drama, vivid imagery, and power that will make your writing stand out from everyone else’s.

We’ll cover the 2nd half of this list tomorrow.