So, you want to be a writer? Funny thing, so do I. The thing is, being a writer (or better yet, that Holy Grail of being a Published Author) is difficult work. It can be easy to let others tell you that you do not have what it takes to be a writer, or worse yet, convince yourself. But I think that we often sell ourselves short—we could well be writers, even great ones, if we want. Of course, there must be some minimum requirements to being a writer other than being literate (and we’ll assume you are, since you’re reading this). I have, therefore, created an easy self-assessment checklist of what I feel to be the four essential things that a writer must have in order to be successful. If you have all four of these things, you’re ready to become a great writer. If you lack one or more, fortunately for you these are all things that you can acquire with a little time and effort.
4. You Need Dedication
This is also known as “drive.” Writing is slow work. It involves a lot of back-tracking. On your path to becoming a good writer, you will undoubtedly write hundreds of sentences that you strike from existence in a moment of dreadful clarity. You will have days where five thousand words flow from your fingers; you will have others where you struggle to produce five. Perhaps you will go for weeks or even months without a spark of inspiration, and perhaps you will set a project aside only to pick it up again years later. This is all normal. It took Patrick Rothfuss seven years to write The Name of the Wind. J.R.R. Tolkien took twelve years to write The Lord of the Rings (with WWII right in the middle of it all). I’ve been writing for half my life and have nothing finished to show for it. It takes dedication to keep at something that long, especially when you have little to no recognition, praise, or support.
3. You Need Thick Skin
The fact is, your writing is terrible. Even if you don’t think so—even if the majority of people don’t think so—somebody will, and will tell you in no uncertain terms. You need to be able to withstand criticism (fair or unfair) and learn from it. We’ve all written sentences we wish we hadn’t. We’ve all had ideas that others wish we didn’t. The skill of being a writer includes knowing when to listen to criticism and when to dismiss it. After all, the finished product is your responsibility. I’m sure plenty of people told Dan Brown that The Da Vinci Code sucked the big one before he published it, but look at who’s laughing now (and they were right—it is a terribly written book). If you take all the criticism that comes your way personally, however, it will render you miserable, alone, and unable to continue with your projects. One particular caution is that you should surround yourself with people who will give you decent criticism. If you are the best writer in your circle of friends and never hear anything but how amazing your work is, it is going to be a shock when you get out into the bigger world and find people who think otherwise.
2. You Need Imagination
Don’t be confused. Imagination is not the same thing as originality (see more on this in Thursday’s post). But you have to have ideas, or what on earth are you going to write about? The good news is that if you did not have imagination, you would also not have the desire to be a writer, so this is a pretty self-selecting trait. But I want to mention it specifically because it is easy to lose one’s imagination in the wrong circumstances. You need to know what fuels your imagination, and then put yourself in that kind of situation. Is your imagination fuelled by music? Listen to music. What about looking at photographs of far-away places? Talking to your cat? Try getting out of your house. Try writing outdoors. Try avoiding caffeine. Try anything, and repeat what works. Since there are no “normal” standards for imagination, there’s only so much advice that I can give, since different people will have different triggers. But one thing that I’ve found to be effective consistently throughout my life is to engage my body in some sort of physical task that allows my mind to wander freely. For me, this is usually mowing the lawn or working in a garden. These are excellent times for me to explore creative ideas. There are some activities that actively crush imagination. Customer service work is generally one of these, as are extremely technical tasks like programming or plumbing. Because the mind is so fully engaged in the task at hand while performing these tasks, it gives you no time to ponder imaginative ideas. If you are required to do work like this for your survival, be sure to make some Imagination Time for yourself.
1. You Must Be A Reader
This is indisputable in my mind. Every great writer is also a dedicated reader. This goes beyond the minimum requirements of literacy—obviously, if you do not know what words mean, you won’t be able to set them down with skill either. This is about getting into books and just absorbing them. You may have all the other three requirements, but if you do not have this one, becoming a great writer will be a struggle for you; one you will most likely never overcome. Watching television and film and listening to radio dramas is not sufficient for this. You simply have to become intimate with black words on white paper. This is what you are going to be producing, after all! You can’t be a chef if you don’t know about food. You can’t be a gardener if you don’t get your hands in the dirt and learn about plants. In the same way, you can’t expect to be able to produce a novel if you do not get your mind accustomed to how words work.
I personally do not think that there are any absolute rules on what you must read, but as a general guideline, try to read broadly. If you only read one type of genre, you run the risk of stagnating your mind. Mind you, this is only a risk, yet I think it’s one to take seriously. Read fantasy, read biography. Read best sellers, read obscure tomes. Read poetry, read prose. Read great writing, read tripe. When you expose yourself to all of this material, you will learn by experience to recognize whether writing is well or poorly done. Be aware of what you enjoyed, and why you enjoyed it. Make note of what you hated, and try to avoid doing the same yourself.
Hopefully these four points have encouraged you in your aspirations to be a writer. Be sure to come back on Thursday, when I’ll share Four Things You Don’t Need to Be a Writer (But Somebody Probably Told You That You Did).