During a recent school visit, I was asked what you need to do to become a writer. Because we were about to run out of time, the only advice I was able to give was “practice”.
But of course there’s more to becoming a professional writer than just writing a lot. I may not have had time to go into detail during the school visit, but I can afford to expand a bit more now that the threat of the bell ringing isn’t hanging over my head.
So here, just for you, are twelve tips that will help improve your chances of writing professionally. Well, I say “twelve” but I actually mean “four”, as I’m breaking the article into three easily digestible chunks.
1. Write Lots
Yes, yes, I mentioned this one already, but it’s probably the most important tip of all. If you do something over and over again, you will get better at it. That’s just a fact, that is. Whether it be cooking, karate, singing or dwarf-hurling, the more you do it, the better you’ll get.
Writing is exactly the same. Write every day. It doesn’t matter what you write, just write it. It could be a short story or a poem, a diary or a recipe for jam flavoured hotdogs. The subject doesn’t matter. Getting into the writing habit is what’s important.
If you find all this writing a chore, or make excuses not to do it, then a job as an author is not for you. Trust me.
2. Develop a new way of reading
I don’t mean start reading backwards or anything, I just mean start changing the way you look at stories. Don’t just read a book, analyse it. Notice how the author uses words. Pay attention to the rhythm of the sentences. Observe how the characters are put together. Get under the bonnet and find out what makes the book work (or not).
Don’t take this to mean you should become detached and stop enjoying books – far from it. Allow yourself to become immersed in the story and experience every emotion of it fully, but try not to just be carried along by it. See if you can figure out exactly how the author made you happy or sad, or why one story was heart-poundingly exciting, while another bored you to tears. Once you know how other authors do it, you’ll be well on the way to figuring out how you can do the same things in your writing.
3. Learn when not to listen
In secondary school I told my English teachers that I wanted to be an author when I left school. Aside from one, they all told me not to be so silly. I should get a proper job, they said, and put aside any dreams of writing books.
I could have done what they suggested. I could have said “Yeah, fair point,” and went on to become … I don’t know. Something else. An embittered English teacher, maybe. But I didn’t. I heard what they said, I considered it, and then I ignored it.
And that’s what a writer needs to do on a near-daily basis. People will constantly try to give you advice. Friends, family, editors, agents, even total strangers – they will all chip in their opinions regularly. Some of them are paid to do it, others aren’t.
There will be many times when that advice helps transform an averagely good story into something spectacular. I am not for one second suggesting you ignore ALL advice you are given. Do that and you’ll never become a working professional. Lots of advice is very worthwhile
But those setting out to become writers often have a tendency to take on board every bit of criticism, and to try to please everybody. Believe me, you’ll never please everybody, so don’t waste your time trying.
People have opinions. Those opinions are not necessarily correct, or “better” than yours. Always be willing to listen to feedback, but if you don’t agree with it or can’t see its merit, don’t be afraid to ignore it.
4. Become you own best critic
Notice I said “best” there, and not “worst”. Someone who is their own worst critic is constantly negative about their own work. How often have you had a writer friend ask you to read something they’ve written, only for them to hand it over with a sheepish “It’s not very good”? How often have you done it yourself? I know I used to.
If you honestly and genuinely think something you’ve written is rubbish, then rework it until you have confidence in it. If you don’t believe in your work, then nor will anyone else.
If you’re just trying to set expectations low, in the hope of receiving positive feedback, you’re doing yourself an injustice. How many books do you see on the shelves with “This is a load of old tosh” as the marketing tagline? None. Publishers wouldn’t dream of underselling or deliberately playing down a book’s quality, so why should you?
Someone who is their own best critic is able to look at their work with complete detachment, as if reading the manuscript of a complete stranger. They can spot every flaw, every missed opportunity, and every pacing problem, and – more importantly – they can come up with ways to fix them.