25 Things Every Writer Should Know

An alternate title for this post might be, “Things I Think About Writing,” which is to say, these are random snidbits (snippets + tidbits) of beliefs I hold about what it takes to be a writer. I hesitate to say that any of this is exactly Zen (oh how often we as a culture misuse the term “Zen” — like, “Whoa, that tapestry is so cool, it’s really Zen“), but it certainly favors a sharper, shorter style than the blathering wordsplosions I tend to rely on in my day-to-day writing posts.

Anyway. Peruse these. Absorb them into your body. Let your colonic flora digest them and feed them through your bloodstream to the little goblin-man that pilots you.

Feel free to disagree with any of these; these are not immutable laws. I don’t believe these things the way the religious believe in their moral or spiritual tenets. This is all just food for thought. (Mmm. Food. Thoughtfood. ZOMBIE BRAIN HUNGER ASCENDANT NOM NOM NOM.) Also, don’t hesitate to drop into comments and add your own Things You Think About Writing.

Buckle up. Let’s Zen this motherfucker right in the eye!

1. You Are Legion

The Internet is 55% porn, and 45% writers. You are not alone, and that’s a thing both good and bad. It’s bad because you can never be the glittery little glass pony you want to be. It’s bad because the competition out there is as thick as an ungroomed 1970s pubic tangle. It’s good because, if you choose to embrace it, you can find a community. A community of people who will share their neuroses and their drink recipes. And their, ahem, “fictional” methods for disposing of bodies.

2. You Better Put The “Fun” In “Fundamentals”

A lot of writers try to skip over the basics and leap fully-formed out of their own head-wombs. Bzzt. Wrongo. Learn your basics. Mix up lose/loose? They’re/their/there? Don’t know where to plop that comma, or how to use those quotation marks? That’s like trying to be a world-class chef but you don’t know how to cook a goddamn egg. Writing is a mechanical act first and foremost. It is the process of putting words after other words in a way that doesn’t sound or look like inane gibberish.

3. Skill Over Talent

Some writers do what they do and are who they are because they were born with some magical storytelling gland that they can flex like their pubococcygeus, ejaculating brilliant storytelling and powerful linguistic voodoo with but a twitch of their taint. This is a small minority of all writers, which means you’re probably not that. The good news is, even talent dies without skill. You can practice what you do. You practice it by writing, by reading, by living a life worth writing about. You must always be learning, gaining, improving.

4. Nobody Cares About Your Creative Writing Degree

I have been writing professionally for a lucky-despite-the-number 13 years. Not once — seriously, not once ever — has anyone ever asked me where I got my writing degree. Or if I even have one. Nobody gives two rats fucking in a filth-caked gym-sock whether or not you have a degree, be it a writing degree or a degree in waste management. The only thing that matters is, “Can you write well?”

5. Speaking Of Luck

Luck matters. It just does. But you can maximize luck. You won’t get struck by lightning if you don’t wander out into the field covered in tinfoil and old TV antennae.

6. This Is A Slow Process

Nobody becomes a writer overnight. Well, I’m sure somebody did, but that person’s head probably went all asplodey from paroxysms of joy, fear, paranoia, guilt and uncertainty. Celebrities can be born overnight. Writers can’t. Writers are made — forged, really, in a kiln of their own madness and insecurities — over the course of many, many moons. The writer you are when you begin is not the same writer you become.

7. Nobody “Gets In” The Same Way

Your journey to becoming a writer is all your own. You own it for good and bad. Part of it is all that goofy shit that forms the building blocks of your very persona — mean Daddy, ugly dog, smelly house, pink hair, doting mother, bagger at the local Scoot-N-Shop. The other part is the industry part, the part where you dig your own tunnel through the earth and detonate it behind you. No two writers will sit down and tell the exact same story of their emergence from the wordmonkey cocoon. You aren’t a beautiful and unique snowflake, except when you are.

8. Writing Feels Like — But Isn’t — Magic

Yours is the power of gods: you say, “let there be light,” and Sweet Maggie McGillicutty, here comes some light. Writing is the act of creation. Put words on page. Words to sentences, sentences to paragraphs, paragraphs to 7-book epic fantasy cycles with books so heavy you could choke a hippo. But don’t give writing too much power, either. A wizard controls his magic; it doesn’t control him. Push aside lofty notions and embrace the workmanlike aesthetic. Hammers above magic wands; nails above eye-of-newt. The magic will return when you’re done. The magic is in what you did, not in what you’re doing.

9. Storytelling Is Serious Business

Treat it with respect and a little bit of reverence. Storytelling is what makes the world go around. Even math is a kind of story (though, let’s be honest, a story with too few space donkeys or dragon marines). Don’t let writing and storytelling be some throwaway thing. Don’t piss it away. It’s really cool stuff. Stories have the power to make people feel. To give a shit. To change their opinions. To change the world.

10. Your Writing Has Whatever Value You Give It

Value is a tricky word. Loaded down with a lot of baggage. It speaks to dollar amounts. It speaks to self-esteem. It speaks to moral and spiritual significance. The value of your wordmonkeying has a chameleonic (not a word, shut up) component: whatever value you give it, that’s what value it will have. You give your work away, that’s what it’s worth. You hate your work, that’s what it’s worth. Put more plainly: what you do has value, so claim value for what you do. Put even more plainly: don’t work for free.

11. You Are Your Own Worst Enemy

It’s not the gatekeepers. Not the audience. Not the reviewers. Not your wife, your mother, your baby, your dog. Not your work schedule, your sleep schedule, your rampant masturbation schedule. If you’re not succeeding at writing, you’ve nobody to blame for yourself. You’re the one who needs to super-glue her booty to the chair. You’re the one who needs to pound away at his keyboard until the words come out. It’s like Michael Jackson sang: “I took my baby on a Saturday bang.” … no, wait, that’s not it. “I’m talkin’ ’bout the man in the mirror.” Yeah. Yes. That’s the one. Shamon.

12. Your Voice Is Your Own

Write like you write, like you can’t help but write, and your voice will become yours and yours alone. It’ll take time but it’ll happen as long as you let it. Own your voice, for your voice is your own. Once you know where your voice lives, you no longer have to worry so much about being derivative.

13. Cultivate Calluses

Put differently, harden the fuck up, soldier. (And beard the fuck on, while we’re at it.) The writing life is a tough one. Edits can be hard to get. Rejections, even worse. Not everybody respects what you do. Hell, a lot of people don’t even care. Build up that layer of blubber. Form a mighty exoskeleton. Expect to be pelted in the face with metaphorical (er, hopefully metaphorical) ice-balls. It’s a gauntlet. Still gotta walk it, though.

14. Stones Are Polished By Agitation

Even the roughest stone is made smooth by agitation, motion, erosion. Yeah, the writing life can be tough, but it needs to be. Edits are good. Rejections are, too. Write with a partner. Submit yourself to criticism. Creative agitation can serve you well. Embrace it. Look into that dark hole for answers, not fear. Gaze into the narrative vagina, and find the story-baby crowning there. … okay, too far? Too far. Yeah.

15. Act Like An Asshole, You’ll Get Treated Like An Asshole

Agitation is good. Being an agitator, not so much. Be an asshole to agents and editors, editors and agents will treat you like an asshole. Be an asshole to other writers, they’ll bash you over the head with a typewriter, or shiv you with an iPad in the shower. Be an asshole to your audience, they’ll do a thing worse than all of that: they’ll just ignore you. So, for real, don’t be an asshole.

16. Writing Is Never About Just Writing

Writing is the priority. Write the best work you can write. That’s true. But it’s not all of it, either. Writing is ever an uncountable multitude. We wish writing were just about writing. The writer is editor, marketer, blogger, reader, thinker, designer, publisher, public speaker, budget-maker, contract reader, trouble-shooter, coffee-hound, liver-pickler, shame-farmer, god, devil, gibbering protozoa.

17. This Is An Industry Of People

They say it’s “who you know,” which is true to a point but it doesn’t really get to the heart of it. That sounds like everybody’s the equivalent to Soylent Green — just use ‘em up for your own hungry purpose. That’s not it. You want to make friends. It means to be a part of the community. People aren’t step-stools. Connect with people in your respective industry. Do not use and abuse them.

18. The Worst Thing Your Work Can Be Is Boring

You’ve got all the words in the world at your disposal, and an infinite number of arrangements in which to use them. So don’t be boring. Who wants to read work that’s as dull as a bar of soap?

19. No, Wait, The Worst Thing Your Work Can Be Is Unclear

Clarity is king. Say what you mean. You’re telling a story, be it in a book, a film, a game, an article, a diner table placemat. Don’t make the reader stagger woozily through a mire just to grasp what you’re saying.

20. Writing Is About Words, Storytelling Is About Life

Everybody tells you that to be a writer, you have to read and write a lot. That’s true. But it’s not all of it. That’ll get you to understand the technical side. It’ll help you grasp the way a story is built. But that doesn’t put meat on the bones you arrange. For that, you need everything but reading and writing. Go live. Travel. Ride a bike. Eat weird food. Experience things. Otherwise, what the fuck are you going to talk about?

21. Everything Can Be Fixed In Post

Stop stressing out. You get the one thing few others get: a constant array of do-overs. Writing is rewriting. Edit till she’s pretty. Rewrite until it doesn’t suck. You have an endless supply of blowtorches, hacksaws, scalpels, chainsaws, M80s, and orbital lasers to constantly destroy and rebuild. Of course, you can get caught in that cycle, too. You have to know when to stop the fiddling. You have to know when to get off the ride.

22. Quit Quitting

It’s all too easy to start something and not finish it. Remember when I said you were legion? It’s true, but if you want to be separated from 90% of the other writers (or “writers” depending on how pedantic you choose to be) out there, then just finish the shit that you started. Stop abandoning your children. You wouldn’t call yourself a runner if you quit every race your ran halfway through. Finishing is a good start. Stop looking for the escape hatch; pretend your work in progress just plain doesn’t have one.

23. No Such Thing As Bad Writing Advice

There’s only: advice that works for you, and advice that doesn’t. It’s like going to Home Depot and trying to point out the “bad tools.” Rather, some tools work for the job. Most don’t. Be confident enough to know when a tool feels right in your hand, and when it might instead put out your eye.

24. Though, Nobody Really Knows Shit About Shit

We’re all just squawking into the wind and nobody really has the answers. Except you, and those answers are only for you. Everybody else is just guessing. Sometimes they’re right. A lot of times they’re wrong. That’s not to say such pontification isn’t valuable. You just gotta know what weight to give it.

25. Hope Will Save You

The hard boot is better than the tickling feather when it comes time to talk about the realities of writing, but at the end of the day, the thing that gets you through it all is hope and optimism. You have to stay positive. Writers are given over to a kind of moribund gloom. Can’t let the penmonkey blues get you down. Be positive. Stay sane. The only way through is with wide-open eyes and a rigor mortis grin. Don’t be one of those writers who isn’t having any fun. Don’t let writing be the albatross around your neck. Misery is too easy to come by, so don’t invite it. If writing doesn’t make you happy, you maybe shouldn’t be a writer. It’s a lot of work, but you need to let it be a lot of play, too. Otherwise, what’s the fucking point? Right? Go push a broom, sell a car, paint a barn. If you’re a writer, then write. And be happy you can do so.

126 comments

  • Number 4 about the degree goes for most artisan trades. Graphic designers, plumbers, writers, garden designers. I’m a printer and never in my 40 years of continuous employment has anyone asked me about my apprenticeship (lucky as I never did one). When I set up in business same goes. Only box tickers awarding public contracts could give a damn about your ‘Qualifications’. As an amateur painter I think most of this applies to art.

  • 16. is really important. I always congratulate my authors for getting through revisions but tell them that this is where the hard part begins (harder for some than others). You really need to be an aggressive self-promoter these days.

  • Great piece… Personally, I identify with number 11. I cannot tell you how many times I have trashed something I was working on because I thought it sucked. Even if my Wife and friends liked it.

    Chuck… I think I am adding your site to my favorites… Thanks for this, seriously.

  • This post really pulled me out of my ass. It made me feel that I could go ahead and add some shock value to my writing. To stop being lazy when I know I have a story to tell. It’s a fact that not everyone is going to agree, like, or appreciate anything you have to say…but someone will. Those people are the ones I’m trying to reach. The ones that don’t care are the ones whose minds I want to challenge. Thanks for all the advice everyone.

  • :D
    I had totally given up on writing. I had stopped writing completely.
    One of your other posts suggest that if you are rejected being too often then you might as well stop writing. That was my case. Receiving too many rejections, which I got by not seeing my article in any paper I sent it to, I decided it’s high time I should stop writing.

    A colleague then sent this link of yours. His idea was to convince me to start writing again, though he himself hadn’t read this entirely. And though, this article itself didn’t convince me to start writing again, in fact, it might have corroborated my decision to give up. But the same colleague and a few other things and a few other friends made me realize that my decision to not-write wasn’t getting me anywhere. I might not be getting any more rejections, but I am not enjoying it either. I don’t call myself a writer, for the simple reason that I am not one. I have poor language, no good ideas, etc. etc. But I still write. Or to be more correct, scribble. And I started scribbling again. I might not be a writer, but I enjoy writing. And by not writing I am not actually improving on it either. So why not write just because I like to. :)

  • I like your site.

    I used to call myself a writer but I have one published poem, Sentinel, in http://www.leadingedgemagazine.com about five years back, and most my writing any more is technical as I am a Software Developer.

    I liked your #11: You’re the one who needs to super-glue her booty to the chair. You’re the one who needs to pound away at his keyboard until the words come out.

  • “Writers are made — forged, really, in a kiln of their own madness and insecurities”. Yep. Also the glueing the booty to the chair vibe. Love this. Don’t believe in rules (but these aren’t). And even us British kidlit writers need to ‘get the beard the fuck on’ sometimes. Ta, Mr W. Shall be off to follow you on Twitter now (how the hell did I miss you before?).
    @lucycoats

  • Skill over talent. So good to hear since I don’t feel like I am THE writer, just a writer. I think I’m content about that though. Thank you for these tips, so happy I stumbled into them.

  • I read this about once a month, and each time it gets to me in a new way. It aggravates me at how true this is, but entices me to know there is a way around my ADHD habits had I only the mindset to try hard enough. Numbers 20 and 22 always seem to strike me like a hammer at the forge, both are things I know, yet in the same way both are things I cannot seem to wrap my head around.

    So I guess I am finally coming to thank you for this post.

  • The “lose/loose” confusion is one of my biggest pet peeves – thanks for bringing it up and I hope the “right writers” find it. :) I’ve certainly found many things I needed to hear; and now I must heed them. Thanks so much!

  • Like it.
    22 went into my heart. I love to start a shit and then give up it.

    Your words encourage me to stand up again, thanks !

  • I have this habbit of not commenting on articles that i read. But this one was too good. Loved it, i felt like i know, shit, like i really know you. It was fun, clear, i took personal. It was different, REAL. Thank you!!

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