Anyone can write, and everyone should.
You don’t have to be James Joyce to write. Even if you never want to be a pro, you can write in a journal every day, or write letters to a loved one (and send them or not). You don’t have to be polished. And it’s a great practice, to learn to focus and overcome fears and procrastination, and learn to allow the words to flow from the mind.
Last week we looked at some of the more conceptual issues around writing. All good subjects, worthy of contemplation. This week though, we focus on the solid craft and habits you need to get those words onto paper.
Start where you are. Whether you’ve been writing for a few years or you’re just starting out, whether you have a talent for words or you struggle, that is the place to start. It doesn’t matter where you are, or how you compare to others — just write, working with whatever you’re struggling with. You’ll get better over the course of time, and more comfortable with what you’re doing.
You get good by doing it a lot, and caring. You’ll never be perfect at it — goodness knows I’m far from perfect — but the only way to get better is to practice. And to care about what you’re doing. Do that every day, and every step of the struggle will be an amazing one.
Learn to type. This isn’t required, of course, but knowing how to touch-type is a good skill for a writer. It doesn’t take long to master — there are programs online that will teach you the basics and drill it into you, and within a month you’ll be not so horrible. After a year, you’ll be a master. It helps you to get the words out of your head faster if you can type at a decent rate.
Learn to write on deadline. One of the most valuable skills I learned as a newspaper reporter was how to write on deadline. Every day, we had to submit one or more articles (sometimes five or six of them!), and we had an editor breathing down our necks, trying to meet her own submissions deadlines. There’s pressure, but what you learn is that you can get the article done on time, if you focus. You learn not to worry about perfection, not to let the fears get in the way, and just to get the words out. And how to revise quickly.
If you don’t work for a newspaper, set a deadline for yourself, tell it to someone else, send them your writing by the deadline or suffer a consequence.
Read a lot. The best writers read voraciously. Read fiction, but also read non-fiction books and long-form articles. Reading good writing shapes your own writing, giving you inspiration and expanding your use of language. Read a lot!
Steal from others. When you find a writer who does something beautifully, rip them off. Try it in your own writing, mix it in with what you already do, remix it with what you find elsewhere, and make it your own.
Keep notes on writing. When you find something worth stealing, add it to a text document or put it in a writing notebook. When you have ideas for a novel, a blog post, a character, an insight… add it to the notebook. Mine it regularly.
Find fellow writers. If you’re having trouble sticking to a writing schedule, find other writers in your area or online, and meet with them regularly. Share your writing with each other, discuss problems you’re having, read other writers in your genre. A small writing group is a time-tested tool, and helps you see that you’re not in this alone.
Understand the reader. Many novice writers just write whatever is in their heads, but the output might not be so understandable or interesting to the reader. Think in terms of how the reader will understand the article, what context they need, how clear the sentences are, what experience is being created for the reader.
That might all seem like a lot to take on! It’s doable, though, if you just keep churning away, every day, and learn all of this a little at a time.