So You Want to be a Writer?

Here's a good rule of thumb: If you say "I work at", it's a job. If you say "I am a", it's a career. (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!)

Are you ready to begin a career as a writer?

Really roll that question around in your head.  Because despite how it looks on the face of it, writing is one of the most difficult and least rewarding careers out there (at least in terms of money and praise).

Sad fact is, most of us will not make it.  We don't want it enough, we don't take it seriously enough and we're not willing to work hard enough to get it.  If you want artistic success the way the average person wants, say, a Ferrari, it will take a fantastic stroke of fortune to avoid failure.

To be a writer, you have to want it the way you want oxygen.

And if you do, then welcome.  As hard as it is, this is the best job on the planet, because you get to do magic things.  But there are some things you need to realize first.

First, realize that you are a bad writer. Everyone starts bad.  Accept it, own it, and become aware of it.  Only by accepting that you need to improve will you ever begin to improve (for more on this check out my article on the Four Stages of Competence).  Improvement will not just "happen" with time; you need to take charge and do it on purpose, because...

Writing well is hard.

Don't disrespect the task by underestimating it.  It requires the very last inch of you to succeed in this business.

Realize that success is not artistic freedom.  You already have that.  Every artist is born with artistic freedom.  What you want is artistic carte blanche.

Al Pacino has artistic carte blanche.  He can do whatever he wants, and people love it.  He earned that right by doing something incredible (The Godfather), and now people love him no matter what.

Same goes for Bryan Cranston.  Before Breaking Bad, Cranston was “the dad from Malcom in the Middle.”  He was a face.  Now he's a name.  And that's not luck--he earned it.  Cranston went out and learned how to act really well, and then toiled in relative obscurity for decades before he became a legend.

It takes a fortuitous mixture of elements to bring about a success like Breaking Bad, and there is always an element of chance involved, but if the skill is not there, success will never materialize.  Be like Bryan Cranston.  Learn how to do your art really well, then work your ass off until the right opportunity arrives.  The opportunity is fleeting, and only the prepared can seize it.

So educate yourself about writing.  If you're a writer, and you've learned primarily by reading and writing a lot, and blindly feeling your way toward better sentences, you're like a cave man who has discovered fire.

And that's good. A cave man with fire can do a lot more than a cave man without fire.  But all you know is "Fire keep warm. Fire cook food."  You don't know why fire keep warm, or why fire cook food.

Once you start educating yourself (learning story structure, principles of editing, grammar, etc.) you become like the first scientist to understand that fire is one expression of a much deeper truth: heat is simply the vibration energy of molecules.  You realize that friction creates heat, and that's why rubbing sticks together results in a fire.  And suddenly you see new uses for this energy you've discovered.  You learn that fire transfers energy into water, which subsequently transfers energy into steam, and before you know it you've invented the locomotive.

That analogy is no exaggeration. When you educate yourself, the qualitative leap in your writing skill is easily as great as the leap between a cave man with two sticks, and an engineer building a train.

But how do you educate yourself?

Read about writing.  Read every instructional book you can get your hands on (for a list of my favorites, check out Pete's Writing Bible).  Stop reading fiction for a few years.  If you must read fiction, do it with your self-editor's hat on, so you at least learn something.  Once you've learned and grown more confident, you can go back to reading for fun.  You'll have time.

If you can afford it, subscribe to Writer's Digest. If you can't, at least subscribe to their weekly newsletter. It's free, and packed with awesome information, creative stimulation, editing advice, articles about agents,'s basically the "greatest hits" from the magazine.

Realize your novel doesn't begin on the first page, nor does it end on the last. There's a lot to do before and after.

There are characters to develop, settings to create or familiarize yourself with, subplots to flesh out, and so, so, so much more (For some help defining the task, check out my Plotting Resources).

Figure out if you are a Pantser or a Plotter (James Scott Bell does a great job of explaining this distinction, and I have written up a little Plotter's Manifesto, as well as a few Admonitions for Pantsers), and figure out what that means for your writing lifestyle.  Create a routine that helps you stay in a productive state of mind.  (For help with this phase, check out my Writing Resources

Accept that drafting (writing) is just prep work.  Editing is the real work, and you need to learn to do it yourself, because good editors are expensive, and cheap editors aren't good.  And your friends and family have lives, so you can't expect too much from them.  Sooner or later, you'll have to be your own drill sergeant.

And this should go without saying, but learn your damn grammar.  A lot of writers couldn't tell you the difference between a preposition and a pronoun.  That's like a car mechanic that doesn't know the difference between a carburetor and a radiator, or a deli owner who doesn't know the difference between prosciutto and salami.  Nobody would trust those hacks, so why would they read a writer who doesn't know about words?  (For help with grammar and other editing stuff, check out my Editing Resources)

Pardon my French, but this job is a fucking fuckton of hard work.  Nobody understands that until they try it.  You know why?  Because when you've done all this work, the result should look effortless.  And that, my friend, brings me to most important lesson you must learn: transparency.

Transparency means that when you do your job correctly, nobody is aware you're doing it. That makes it seem thankless, but trust me, its immensely satisfying.

Because it's magical.

If you toil to make yourself and all your hard work invisible, all that's left is this magical thing called a story Stories have a power I barely understand.  They suck people in and put vivid, waking dreams in their head.  They take people to places they've never been, places that might not even exist, and show them imaginary people doing incredible, unbelievable things.

If you make yourself and all your hard work invisible, you can write the kind of novel that people miss appointments for, blow off their homework for, burn dinner for. You can write stories so addictive that readers get depressed when they're over; so real their heart rates actually go up when things get exciting; so real that they miss people that don't exist, and get homesick for places they've never been.

And you can do this to complete strangers without ever meeting them.  You can do this to people who live on the opposite side of the globe.  You can do this to people who live a thousand years after your grandchildren die.

Isn't that the most magical thing you've ever heard of? 


Hopefully after all this, you still want to be a writer. Maybe I lay things on a little thick, but to me, this is what inspiration looks like.  The silver lining in all these harsh admonitions (and Uncle Stevie backs me up on this) is my core belief that anyone can develop serious writing chops of they're willing to work hard for it.

So with my compliments, I advise you to go get yours.