This piece that I wrote some time ago for Psychology Today bears repeating, especially given the number of questions (usually the same ones) that I get from aspiring writers. I sympathise; I was in the same position myself once. An article like this would have helped me then. Maybe it will help you now.

The story is told of a famous American author who was invited to address a group of aspiring authors. He arrived at the venue, walked onto the stage, and looked down at the upturned faces of his admiring audience. “Ya wanna be a writer?” he said “then **** off home and write.”

With that, he pocketed his check, and left.

I cannot vouch for this story, but the advice that he gave has a strong element of truth. There is more to it, though. A lot more. Here are some questions for aspiring writers, and some useful tips based on my experience as an author now working on his fifth book.

1) Do you write nearly every day? Not necessarily articles or literary fragments, but a diary, long letters, detailed personal emails, letters to the paper – anything that contains descriptions and/or a message.

If you don’t, forget it.

2) Are you sufficiently selfish?

Writing requires that you spend a fair bit of time in your own, totally sacrosanct, space, oblivious to the demands of others, however reasonable these demands might be.

3) Do you know why you want to write?

There can be quite a few answers to this question. In writing this blog, for example, I am moved by the knowledge that I found it very difficult to get any sort of constructive advice when I was an aspirant. Now that I’ve worked out a few clues, I feel the urge to share them.

The urge to share is a primary driving force for writing. Whether it’s a personal experience, an idea, or a piece of information that you feel other people deserve to know about, writing is a great way to get it out there, whether you are an expert or an amateur. The main thing is that what you are writing about should really matter to you, to the extent that you also want it to matter to your readers.

My own personal driving force is understanding. I want to know how the world works, why we get ourselves into such messes, and what we can do about it. My books share my search for understanding about such questions.

4) Do you feel that you are a good writer?

You might think you are, but you probably aren’t. You are likely to use far too many words, for example.

Try this exercise. Write a 100 word description of some thing or event.

Now take five of those words away.

Now take another five words away.

See how much better it is?

I can even apply the exercise to this blog. Instead of “You are likely to use far too many words, for example,” I could simply have written “You use too many words.”

That’s much better.

I could carry on about the technique of writing, and how much it is like sculpting, where one pares, shapes and smooths until it is just right. The real point is that intense and repeated self-criticism is essential for success. It’s not easy to do. It hurts. But just as athletes need the pain, so do writers.

That’s enough of questions. Here are a couple of tips:

1) Whatever you write, put it aside for a while, then re-read it. You will always find a way to improve it.

2) Work out your own method of writing. Roald Dahl wrote a prescribed number of words each day, then stopped, even if he was in the middle of a sentence. Georges Simenon gave himself eleven days to write each new Inspector Maigret novel, then threw it away if he hadn’t finished. George Bernard Shaw wrote many notes and fragments of dialogue for his plays wherever he happened to be; some of the notes for his plays were written on the back of bus tickets. Other writers work for a fixed amount of time, or until they have finished their third drink. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is to work out your own method of writing and stick to it. The main thing is that it must be regular. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike. If you want to write – DO IT.

Image: Author writing at Lawrence Durrell’s kitchen table, Corfu


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