Writers Talk About Writing
Nine Ideas Writers Need to Give Up
This is a list of ideas you should give up if you want to become a writer. It's short, but don't assume I produced it quickly. It took me 30 years to learn some of these lessons.
1. Give up the sentiment that writing depends on talent. "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration," wrote Thomas Edison, and that guy was smart about more than light bulbs. I know some people find it easier than others to learn how to write, but there's no good reason why you can't learn, too. Writing talent doesn't matter. What counts is just damn hard work.
2. Give up on the whim of inspiration. Professional writers know that only amateurs try to splash in the well of "inspiration." As I argued in point 1, writing is work and you have to, well, work at it. Jack London said: "You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club." I agree. But I prefer Peter de Vries' comment: "I write when I'm inspired, and I see to it that I'm inspired at nine o'clock every morning."
3. Give up the opinion that you don't need an editor. Everyone needs an editor; no exceptions. Even though I've written for more than 30 years, I had my book, 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better, edited by a professional. This column is edited twice (after I've been through multiple edits on my own.) First, it's checked by a friend — and I edit her blog, in return, so it doesn't cost either of us a cent. Second, it's reviewed by Ben Zimmer at Visual Thesaurus.
4. Give up the idea that spending more time at your desk is always effective. Your desk is a good place for sitting at your computer, writing. But it's a lousy place to think about what you're going to write. And you need to do lots of thinking before you can produce a word. Develop the habit of stepping away from your desk, regularly. Go for a walk, run, bike ride or swim. Give your brain plenty of time to think without the pressure of a blank computer screen.
5. Give up the hope that you'll ever find writing "easy." If you suffer from dread of writing, as I used to, know that you can overcome that. If you take way too long to write, as I used to, know that you can dramatically increase your writing speed. But will you ever find writing easy? Not if you're any good at it. Good writers work the hardest.
6. Give up the belief that anyone writes a perfect first draft. Most of us have shelves stuffed with books that look professional and pretty and we assume the books came out of the writer's brains that way. In fact, the writer likely wrote many drafts beforehand. Celebrated New Yorker author Brendan Gill typically wrote 17 versions before his work was published. Seventeen! Published writers aren't better than you. They're just willing to work harder.
7. Give up the thought that simple, straightforward writing appears "uneducated." When I encourage people to write at a grade 7 to 9 level by using readability statistics, they sometimes look at me as if I were daft. Hello! This is not because I assume my readers to be stupid. It's because readers are pressed for time and if your writing looks easy to read people are more likely to give it a go. (Also, easy to read writing does not look moronic. This column ranks as a grade 4.65 on the Automated Readability Index.)
8. Give up the notion that all writers are good at spelling and grammar. Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Winston Churchill were all terrible spellers. And fine writers. The skill of spelling is entirely separate from the skill of writing. If you're bad at the former you simply need an excellent copy editor (or a friend with a good eye) to read your work before you pass it on to anyone else.
9. Give up the desire to feel you've ever "arrived." Just as Olympic athletes continue to push themselves, even after they've won a medal, so too successful writers need to continue to improve themselves — even after they've had a book published or landed a sweet magazine deal. Once you get good at something, you want to get better. That's simply natural. As Albert Einstein put it: "Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them."