It’s been almost a year since I published my first essay on Modern Loss, and a little over half a year since I quit my job to write full-time. I now have half a dozen professional clips to my name, as well as a part-time writing job, my memoir in progress, this blog and my experience as a screenwriter. While I am not an expert, I have learned a few important things about writing, especially this past year.
1. Writing is a huge responsibility
I think writing non-fiction carries a higher level of responsibility than writing fiction because you’re not making it up, you’re writing about real people, events and facts. In both genres, you have to watch for grammar and spelling, historical accuracy and cultural representations, but in non-fiction you’re also responsible for quoting correctly, getting the facts right, and remaining objective. Each story you write has your name on it, so any mistake reflects directly on you. I recently made my first mistake (misspelling a source’s last name), and it was absolutely mortifying. The error has since been fixed, but it really brought home how vigilant I have to be, and how much responsibility comes with this kind of work.
2. Writing (well) requires listening
As a screenwriter, listening is essential for capturing dialogue and interviewing research subjects. As a journalist, listening is at least half the job. You’re listening for good quotes, for the story, for what is not being said, and for how things are being said. I’ve learned a lot from listening to the way other people talk, when they take pauses, the pace of their speech, when it rises and doesn’t, if it sounds rehearsed or spontaneous. I’ve also learned from listening to my own speech because I record interviews. I tend to take a lot of pauses and not be direct enough due to nerves. One of my goals is to learn how to be a better public speaker.
3. Reading makes you a better writer
Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, reading is the best way to learn about storytelling, character development, plot and sentence construction. Fiction and non-fiction have their differences, but essentially they’re both forms of storytelling and share many of the same rules. I like to read when I’m writing because it both relaxes and stimulates my brain. I get ideas from other writers. Watching a really good movie can teach you about writing too, but reading is the best way to see how an author constructs a story.
4. Writing is about structure (and discipline)
Structure is the framework of a story, the way it’s told, the way the facts, plot points, character introductions are organized. It’s also (for me) one of the more challenging aspects of writing. I recently read a non-fiction book called “Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith” by Jon Krakauer and was hugely impressed by how he unfolded the story, which included dozens of characters, historical events, non-linear time shifts, a criminal investigation and trial, and multiple quoted sources. It was a mountain of material organized in a very precise, easy-to-read, engaging way.
Likewise, a productive writing schedule requires structure in your own life and being disciplined. As many writers can attest, routine is a good thing.
5. Editors are essential (good editors make you better)
Editors aren’t usually famous (in filmmaking or publishing), but in each respective industry, they’re generally regarded as the next most creative position other than writer. I’ve worked with several editors, and they have made all the difference. The good ones can see through the words on the page to the larger story, communicate their edits clearly and precisely, and make your writing better without changing your voice. I work as an editor sometimes and love helping other writers fine-tune their work. I also learn a great deal from editing others.
6. Writing is the fun part
I think most writers will agree that the writing process is a lot more than just writing. It’s research, thinking, structuring, pitching, promoting and so on. The time we spend actually sitting in the chair writing is less than people might think, but it’s also the sweetest part.
7. Writing isn’t just about you
Now more than ever, writers are expected to create their own fan base and bring them along wherever they go. This means that as much as we might be inclined to be loners, we have to get out there (physically and virtually) and “work it” just like any other business person. Unless you’re already famous, the days of being a recluse who’s rarely seen (but everyone loves your work) are over.
8. Writers need a community
I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating… writing is a lonely pursuit, this is why having a community is so important. Find your community, find your tribe, and be generous. Read other people’s work, give feedback, say Yes more than No, share contacts and opportunities, support your fellow writers in word and deed (and tweets), don’t be jealous, insecure or competitive. There are plenty of stories out there, and billions of readers. The more you give, the more you receive.
9. Writing is about readers
One of the big differences between screenwriting and literary writing is the relationship with the reader. Most people don’t read screenplays, so it’s generally not a writer-to-reader experience. A screenplay also goes through many iterations and interpretations before it reaches the screen. On the other hand, literary writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, is one of the most direct communications with readers possible (the only more direct is blogging). It’s literally a relationship, and like any relationship, it requires effort to build and maintain.
10. Writing requires a helluva lot of courage
Some writers can hide behind their writing better than others. For those of us who write personal essays, memoirs and personal blogs, we are putting not only our writing out there, but also our personal lives. I find writing articles scary too, because it’s telling someone else’s story (see #1). But the personal writing is by far the most vulnerable, and the best of such writing comes from writers who lay it bare and let you into their most intimate thoughts, fears and weaknesses. We feel connected to them because they have exposed a truth about themselves that we don’t have the courage to admit, but desperately want to know we’re not alone. This is not easy for writers to do. So, be nice to your writer friends. 🙂
Last thought: if you don’t feel compelled to write, if you don’t like to be alone, or if you don’t want to deal with criticism, don’t do it.
What are some lessons you have learned from writing?