There are a million places one can go to learn how to write, to write better, to write a best seller, to write the world’s best business report, the greatest resume, and countless other things.
I will not, and probably could not tell you how to do any of these things. Over the past 53 years of writing, I have written a few good resumes, that and being a moderately pleasantly looking affable white male, have landed more than one job I probably didn’t deserve, but as a rule, I am not what some would call a successful writer.
In fact, my first point is to suggest that the traditional definition of a successful writer is not and never has been a reliable yardstick. First of all, most writers are not published, and most published writers don’t make any money, I mean they earn well under $1000 per year, maybe under $1000 for their entire “career.” Success, in writing, like in most things, means does it accomplish what you intend it to.
So, if you would like to be able to share your thoughts with friends, and maybe leave something for your children and grandchildren to read someday so they can better understand the life you have lived, then I can help you.
If you want to make a million dollars writing, I can help you, too, but not as well. Let’s get the million dollars out of the way first: You can either become the world’s greatest hack writer, (in the old sense of the word), or you can write however you want, and possibly, the odder, the better. Either way, you are going to need to do a lot of things BESIDES write to “succeed” if you write novels, you will need tons of luck. It’s like writing screenplays, for every superstar, there are 1000 writers just as good who did not catch a lucky break, AND have the gumption to take advantage of it properly.
If you can write ABOUT something, food, fashion, health, business, or even, I suppose, writing, though I haven’t made any money at it, you have a better shot at this thing people call success. But often it helps if you work at it backwards. Become wildly famous and successful at doing something, and then start writing about that thing. Ok, I am tired of talking about “writing for success” it bores and frustrates me, and if that is what you want to know, there are slightly less than a million people already writing those pieces. I don’t know if they give much in the way of solid advice. I am pretty sure the best advice about writing for money, is “don’t!”
So now, to talk about what I love, the REAL success of writing is to write something that you appreciate and are proud of, whether you ever persuade a soul to pay you a penny for your efforts or not.
A couple more things to get out of the way. Grammar, spelling and punctuation, and basic storytelling. First the grammar, spelling, and punctuation. I rarely capitalize anything, I punctuate as the spirit moves me, I write one long sentence. Dropping in commas and periods as seems appropriate, but if it was up to me, I wouldn’t use any, most of the time. But if you are a little concerned about your “editing” ability, don’t be. First, it doesn’t matter, and second, Word cleans up almost every mistake you can make, suggests other corrections, so you can look passable if you simply follow its suggestions. The worst problem in this area is using the wrong word, but even that is sometimes caught by today’s word processing.
Now, the serious part of editing is storytelling structure, both in word choice, and story arc and believable dialog and a list of other items, if you are trying to be a professional and commercial writer of fiction. Poetry has always been my favorite form of writing, because if I write something, no one, not even my Ivy League professor of poetry (who actually knows these sorts of things) can tell me I am wrong. Of course, there is bad poetry, but if someone writes a poem, as long as they are happy with it, and especially, as long as they don’t insist you agree that it is “better than Shakespeare,” then it is fine and it succeeds in making the writer feel better!
If you are struggling to START writing, you probably want to be able to express your thoughts about life, and possibly want to share your story. Someday, maybe even right away, if you are both really good and really lucky, you might have some of the types of successes I mentioned. But, you first need to get comfortable thinking with your fingers. I do everything on my laptop these days, and even though I am a terrible typist, I type 30-40 words per minute, which is about as fast as I can compose, anyway. If you prefer, and if, unlike me, your handwriting is legible, you can fill up steno and note pads. Edit and type them up later. I used to write all my poems that way, but I got tired of not being able to figure out what I had written.
Here is a list of things you have my permission to NEVER worry about again:
literally anything else.
You can start by putting a few of your random thoughts down any way you like. Even in the manner of a grocery list. I sometimes do this when I have a poem idea, but it isn’t fully formed. I can then pick it back up at a future date and write it out. Or as is actually more common, I never touch that note again. Either way, it is a prompt, if you ever need one, and if not, it is a good exercise and clears your head for a better thought that will eventually be your story, essay, poem, or whatever.
Writing is also a lot like sports or music or nearly anything else, the more you write, the better you write. So, start out with a story about what you did today. It’s okay, I mean REALLY okay, if your day was extremely boring, (though, if it’s that boring, you might want to reevaluate your current lifestyle… or maybe not, some of us have already had a lifetime’s worth of excitement) tell how you either did or didn’t sit down with a cup of coffee, and what you did or didn’t have time or feel like reading or watching on TV, what you ate, who you had a fight with, or didn’t.
You also have 100% permission to make crap up. And you can use the truth as a jumping off point. Whatever is in your head, in whatever jumbly-trite-whatever method and manner you can and want, to use to get it out and down “on paper.” That’s it. If you do this every day, for a couple weeks, then all the sudden one morning you will wake up and say, “I don’t want to write this crap anymore, it’s boring, I want to write “X”!
So, you do, you may be great at it, but probably not, especially at first, but that doesn’t matter. How good were the first week you took piano, started bowling, or played softball? The more you write, the more the doors of your mind will open and you will find better ways to say what you want to say.
One last piece of advice, okay, it is kinda multi part: Be honest, but not too honest. If your aunt is screwing around on your uncle with their preacher, don’t name names. Write what you know, as the old saw goes, except, don’t be limited by what you don’t know. Between google and Wikipedia, you can have a good working knowledge of most things, people and places in less than 30 minutes, and often in less than 5 minutes. Don’t worry about what other people think. If you ever get to where you like what you are writing, share it with a friend or two. But if they don’t like it, even if they savage it, ignore them. They are probably totally ignorant about what you are doing.
If you can find a mentor, that is great, but if not, give yourself lots of permission do screw up things. Sometimes our screw-ups are our masterpieces. Usually not, but they are often our best teachers. Learn from others, learn from yourself, but most of all, learn from doing. So, start writing, without fear. The day you write it down, no matter ow poorly and disorganized, you have already succeeded, because a successful writer, is only and above all, one thing: a person who writes!
I wrote this for a friend who is struggling to get started, but it occurred to me, there are a lot of people in that position. If you are in that position, or know someone who is, please read, and share, and let me know if this helped.