I was a child when I first discovered my love of reading and writing. I devoured nearly every book I could and one summer I wrote my first novel. My parents had encouraged my writing so much that I sent that novel to a publisher in New York. I read somewhere that you needed a query letter to go with your manuscript and you also needed a SASE (it was the 80's), so I packaged up my novel along with a query letter and sent it away. Months later I received my very first rejection letter. It took me years to write again, because, well, I was ten.
I was twenty-something, majoring in nursing when I took a poetry class with Dr. MacArthur. Around this time I had also picked up Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner. Together, the two of those helped me rediscover my inner writer, although it would be years until I had enough courage to write parts of my story on paper. I was terrified when I would have to share those parts with anyone, and most often when I sent something to another writer to read, it was only a few hundred words and it was incredibly disjointed. I kept learning, though, and eventually completed my degree in Creative Writing. I published stories and learned more from my rejections than any writing class to date.
If you want to write, keep writing. Keep working past the fear. You may always be afraid of showing other writers your work, but one day you will go from a few hundred words to a few hundred pages and you will be so proud of yourself. If you're incredibly lucky, those pages will also be published.
Every writer has a different path, but here are some tips from my own path:
1. Be Okay with Writing Terrible...At First
The first lesson you need to learn now is this: Everyone writes a shitty first draft, and you need to give yourself the permission to do the same thing. If not, you'll be like I was for years: too terrified to write anything down for fear that it wouldn't be an instant classic in the first draft. Ernest Hemingway said, "The first draft of anything is shit.” It's so true, isn't it? Believe it or not, it's not just true of you and me--everyone writes shitty first drafts. The essential key is knowing when a draft is shitty and when to stop editing.
2. Take a Writing Class, or Major in English
If you haven't ever taken a writing class, stop right here.
Unless you are already famous (and in that case, why are you reading my tips on being a writer?), you will benefit from a writing class or writer's workshop. If you think you are too good for a writing class, then you probably need one more than anyone else.
I often get asked what suggestions I’d make to a young writer improving his or her writing skills. My answer? Study the classics, not just contemporary pop literature (and likewise, read something fun, for God's sake!). Read smart, honest books. If you only read books like Twilight or 50 Shades of Grey, your writing skills are not going to grow and you will end up selling yourself short as a writer. Sure, you might have a dream of being the next Stephanie Meyer, but the reality is, that's very unlikely and tens of thousands of other writers are already aiming to do the same thing. Be original. Don't set your hopes on being the next famous writer. Set your hopes on finishing something that is true to you and well-written. When you're young and unpublished, you have less pressure to conform to publications' standards. Take advantage of that and write good, honest work.
When you are learning to write, you need to mix the study of well-written books with reading for fun. Study the style, structure and voice of well-written books. Take notes, highlight, circle things. Practice what techniques and style you see in those books. If you do this, you will master how to write well and you'll eventually develop your own style and techniques. If you study good writing you will stand out above the many people who call themselves writers and you'll have a much better chance of getting published. After you've studied your little heart out, take a break from the seriousness and pick up the fun books. Read for pleasure and remind yourself why you wanted to be a writer in the first place.
Back to writing classes...
Writing classes come in various styles and locations. I recommend taking coursework at a university or community college that offers classes on writing. You don't have to stick to your desired genre; in fact, cross-genre studies may improve your grasp of language better than just taking fiction writing classes. It was through studying poetry and landscape narratives that I learned the importance of perfecting a single sentence.
On that note, you don’t need an MFA to be a successful writer. Many writers benefit from the networking that comes from getting your MFA, but these successes don’t happen to everyone and the programs are extremely expensive. However, most people I know who did attend an MFA program loved it and said they would do it all over again. I'm going through the MFA application process right now because it's been a goal of mine to study the craft of writing for two years without interruption. I think two years of study are invaluable for a writer, and those uninterrupted moments become more and more rare the older you get.
3. Have a Messy Apartment (and a chaotic mind)
I have never read this particular piece of advice anywhere which means it's probably something I need to say in order to reassure myself.
Whether you are organized or disorganized, your writer's work space should reflect that you, well, work there. For some, you'll have neatly filed notes and character sketches. For the rest of us, you'll have ever changing stacks of books piled around you-most of them will be open to the pages you are reading and rereading. Whether you devour everything that is hot on the market or you read slowly-meticulously studying sentence structure and diction-you must find your own method of studying style and format and devote yourself to it.
A writer should be reading, learning, and creating constantly. [For those of you with day jobs, like myself, this will have to come on weekends and evenings, and on holidays but it must still happen.]
4. Embrace Your Inner Crazy
Elizabeth Gilbert's advice to writers is to not go insane. She says, "We need more creation, not more destruction. We need our artists more than ever, and we need them to be stable, steadfast, honorable and brave – they are our soldiers, our hope."
Boring, Elizabeth. Boring.
Art doesn't need stability. Art needs to take risks.
I understand what she is saying, of course, but there are studies that show many writers deal with very real mental disorders which are not in their control. So you can't tell someone who is ill to simply get over it. Get medicated, maybe, but as a writer who suffers from depression and major anxiety, working through your inner crazy (Or, your genetic gift--Thanks, Grandpa!) and embracing the bizarre methods and creativity it gives you is key.
Not all insanity is genius, and not all stability is dull; however, if a writer is prone to, say, melancholy perhaps she can channel her dismal look on life into some brilliant, emotionally packed works of art.
I'm just saying.
Not that I know from experience...but I totally do.
5. Work Hard
The difference between success and failure in writing is hard work: past the rejection and past the criticism and past the self-doubt. Work hard, study other writers' paths to success and try your hand at getting yourself out there. There's no one "right" path, but the thing that distinguishes a successful writer with one who is unsuccessful is the ability to keep working despite setbacks and failures. Failure and rejection is part of being a writer. Push through it. Keep writing and keep submitting.
6. Don't Shun the Real World
It's 'cool' to be a pretentious snob right now, but a lot can be learned from immersing yourself in the real world and pop culture. You may pick up a thing (or 300) about marketing, characters, or story development from the real world and pop culture, which will come in handy if you apply it correctly. If you look hard enough, you'll find everything you need to know about why some people are successful and why others aren't by studying pop culture. If you're a writer and you expect to sell a book or 40,000, you need to learn how to market yourself and your work. Want the secret? Watch reality TV.
7. Get a job (not necessarily writing related)
There's nothing admirable about the 'starving artist' as you may know if you are currently in starvation mode. Although most writers don’t intend to starve (and many would-be novelists aren’t starving on purpose), there are some of the creative crowd which argue that only those of highest creative devotion (the “saints” of the craft) spend all their time and energy to creative endeavors. If you happen to be one of those lucky people who have a trust fund or a wealthy admirer (or are already wealthy from publication), you can totally send me money and I’ll follow suit.
For the rest of us, we must resort to earning an income of some kind. We have bills to pay and unfortunately, that isn't glamorous. While writing for work may seem like the most esteemed path for a future writer, there are plenty of other alternatives. Whether you take on a writing job for pay or a job in the medical field, you will learn vital skills that can improve your writing if you apply them. My day job isn't creative but what I learn there can be applied to my creative work and the business of publishing. And it does not make me less devoted to my craft.
Some final words of advice: don't work for free. You will need to submit a few pieces to journals (without getting paid) for free, but once you have established a sufficient bio, stop writing for free unless it's the chance of a lifetime. Respect your work. Even if you don't find instant success, keep polishing and keep submitting.
This post originally appeared on my blog.
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About Lisa Kerr:
Lisa Kerr is the creator of the blog My Cult Life, which has been featured on NPR, HuffPo Live and Philly.com. Her work has been published in New York magazine, Huffington Post and various literary magazines.