An American Editor

April 25, 2016

On the Basics: So You Want to be a Writer

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

My freelancing business has evolved over the years from all-writing to a mix of writing, editing, and proofreading, but writing is my first love and I think of myself as a writer first and foremost. Writing comes easily to me, at least most of the time. In some ways, writing is more fulfilling than editing or proofreading because it’s an act of creation. I enjoy making someone else’s writing more readable, but I love creating my own written work. Giving voice to my ideas, and to the ideas and achievements of other people, through my writing is a wonderful way to live and work.

Many subscribers to An American Editor see themselves as editors or proofreaders only, but others have ventured into writing as well. Since adding writing to your business services, or just writing something for your own sake, might be on your mind, I thought I’d write about writing this month.

It seems as if anyone and everyone nowadays wants to be a writer, or at least get published, although wanting to get published is nothing new. There have always been people with a yen to write who have scribbled away in their garrets or kitchens, and never been published or earned a penny for their efforts. Writing has always had a certain cachet; it’s always been an accomplishment that attracted wannabes (and I don’t mean any disrespect by that term). From what I see in social media, the writing-related publications I read, and the publishing or writing events I attend, the majority of today’s aspiring writers seem to want to write memoirs, with fiction coming in second.

Some aspiring writers may not want to be professional, full-time writers and go the traditional publishing route for books or the equally traditional route of working for a publication as a staff writer. You may have a single idea, passion, or mission, or had a single “extraordinary” experience that you want to write about. You can do that, and find an audience, more easily nowadays than any time in the past.

Others do want to write for newspapers or magazines, but have no training or experience in producing professional, publishable material. If that’s you, some basic journalism training is probably in order.

There’s also a subset of this community — the businessperson who’s been persuaded that writing a book about his or her business/profession/path to success is a great way to get more sales. This is often someone with good ideas but no writing experience or skills, at least in the kind of writing that makes a good book that would attract readers (and, thus, new customers for the business). This is someone who could be a great client for a substantive or developmental editor, or for someone interested in ghostwriting.

What’s different today, and it’s not always a good thing, is that almost anyone — heck, maybe anyone! — can and often does get published. It isn’t a good thing when the writing is sloppy, careless, disorganized, rife with errors, unoriginal, and otherwise of poor quality. It can be a good thing because voices that traditional publishers ignore now have ways to be heard and read. You only have to look at the hundreds, if not thousands, of blogs; the many self-published authors and businesses catering to them; and the people who seek advice about getting published to realize that the desire to write for publication is strong and flourishing, regardless of the quality being produced.

So what do you do if you want to be a writer? If you’re a successful, skilled editor, you already have a good sense of what makes a piece of writing “good,” so you’re one step ahead of many aspiring writers who have no idea of how to craft something that other people will enjoy reading. If you have something you want to say, you have a reason to write. Don’t let other people dictate what you say and how you say it (unless they’re your assigning editors, in which case, do what you’re told, but find ways to retain your voice in the process).

There’s plenty of good advice “out there” for aspiring writers. Among the respected writers providing such advice are William Zinsser, Anne Lamott, Stephen King, Annie Dillard, Paula LaRocque, Bill Bryson, Ray Bradbury, Roy Peter Clark, Marie Arana, and Dean Koontz, making advice easy to obtain from your local bookstore. What most of the advice boils down to is this:

  • Just write — write every day.
  • Write what you know (although some say to write whatever you want — after all, who really knows anything about zombies, wizards, and fictional science?) And you can research professions, places, and other topics that interest you even if you’ve never experienced them.
  • Read all the time — a variety of authors and genres. The more you read, the more you absorb the essentials of what makes something readable and the more your own writing will benefit. You’ll develop an instinct for what makes good writing to emulate and bad writing to avoid.
  • Budget for an editor for any long forms of writing you plan to do. As everyone who subscribes to An American Editor knows (or should know), a good editor is essential for making a piece of writing its best.

For encouragement, feedback, and resources, it can’t hurt to join a writers’ group; bookstores and libraries often host such groups. If there’s a literary center in your area, look into classes there; if not, see if area universities and colleges, libraries, or even continuing education programs from your local high school offer writing classes (you don’t have to undertake a degree to benefit from college or university classes). There’s something especially valuable about personal, in-person interaction with a teacher and other students that will help you hone your craft. I can’t vouch for online resources because I’ve never used them, but I have seen colleagues recommend joining online writers’ groups and taking online writing courses if you can’t find anything local or just feel more comfortable in the virtual world than the real one.

It also helps to subscribe to The Writer, Writer’s Digest, and Poets & Writers magazines, all of which provide insights on the writing process and how to get published. If your goal is to write for pay for magazines, you will also want to have Writer’s Market on hand.

It’s important to keep in mind is that writing is work. It’s hard work, although I’ve never found it to be the painful process that many other writers experience. For me, the hardest part is just starting a project; once I get those first few words out, it “Feels So Good,” as Chuck Mangione’s song says, and the rest tends to flow like the proverbial river.

Most writing projects require research, interviewing, and organizing before you sit down and write the first few words. Part of the writing commitment is being prepared to repeatedly edit and revise your work until it’s as good as you can possibly make it. Depending on the project, you then may have to deal with being edited by someone else, which is not always easy to handle, especially if it involves rewriting.

It often helps to create an outline or timeline for a piece of writing so your ideas are organized enough for readers to follow you along. That even helps you stay on track, especially with memoir and other types of nonfiction.

Writing is exciting, interesting, fulfilling work, but it is work. Writing well is even harder work than writing in and of itself. You might have to spend more time on revising what you write than on producing a first draft.

If readers of this blog want to become writers, I have only one suggestion: Do it. Just sit down and do it. You might not do it well, but if you are a writer, you will write. If you are a good writer, you will write well — and you will take advice and editing from colleagues who will make your work even better (many of whom you can find right here, among fellow subscribers).

Get those ideas and opinions out of your head and written down. Let the need to write flow from your brain to your hands to the keyboard. Only when you actually start to do the work of writing will you find out whether you really have something to say in a way that other people will understand and respond to, and maybe even purchase.

The saying that anyone has a book in them may well be true; the worlds of blogging and self-publishing certainly make it seem that way. I haven’t had the discipline or courage to test that theory yet. My book is still lurking in there somewhere, but my voice gets heard in other kinds of writing, and that’s enough for now.

Today, there are thousands of outlets for your writing. Beyond the traditional publishing houses and publications, there are more online outlets than can be counted, and there’s always the option of creating your own outlet. Some outlets have stringent submission requirements, some publish anything they receive, and your own blog or self-published book has no limits. There is no reason not to write, even if you aren’t sure that your writing is any good.

Show us what you can say!

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, author of the Freelance Basics blog for the Society for Technical Communication, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.

2 Comments »

  1. I’m happy to see the open-mindedness of this article, as evidenced by such remarks as “There is no reason not to write, even if you aren’t sure that your writing is any good.” I’m also pleased that at one point you placed the word “good” in scare quotes, to highlight its subjectivity. I earn 80% of my living editing “bad” novels, and much of my free time writing them and reviewing them. The combination has driven me to believe that “good” and “bad” are so subjective that it’s almost an impossible call to make. The distinction comes, I believe, from this phrase: “how to craft something that other people will enjoy reading.” I’ve seen a lot of bad novels be eagerly read and enjoyed, and many good or great novels hated or criticized. Craftsmanship is about coherency and what makes a book accessible to people who can them deem it good or bad according to their own taste. Too often a book’s subject, voice, and execution are bundled together into one good or bad judgment, whereas the problem may be one element or the other. This is why I focus my editing business on craft, helping authors get their ideas and their voices out there coherently enough for someone to understand them. I truly can’t say whether the result is good writing or bad writing, a good story or a bad story, because I know from experience that a given story will generate enthusiasm and praise, contempt and criticism, or just indifference — all at the same time — depending entirely on who reads it. But the more coherent and well crafted the story is, the greater chance it will be well received by a greater number of people. So “If you have something you want to say, you have a reason to write. Don’t let other people dictate what you say and how you say it” — including whether it’s “any good.” I’d rather define quality in terms of professional standards, i.e., is something “publishable” in a particular venue, and encourage writers to learn the tools of good storycraft and writing craft. That takes away the personal stigma of goodness and badness and motivates more writers to push to higher levels of achievement.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Carolyn — April 25, 2016 @ 7:15 am | Reply

  2. This morning I learned that even radio stations engage full-time content authors to run blogs and post to social media. Unfortunately, too many writers today haven’t ever heard of “The Elements of Style” or “On Writing Well.” I suspect many don’t read a whole lot, either, or perhaps don’t absorb the actual construction—the craft—of what they read.

    Like

    Comment by Chris Morton — April 25, 2016 @ 10:56 am | Reply


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