12 Most Seriously Screwball Ideas You Must Lose to Become a Better Writer
Do you want to become a better writer? Take the time to challenge some popular assumptions about writing. They may be common, but that doesn’t mean they’re correct!
1. The idea that writing depends on talent
Many people seem to think that writers are born with golden fingers. But as someone who has helped a plethora of people learn how to string a sentence together, I can tell you that writers are not born. They are made. In fact, writing talent doesn’t matter very much at all. What counts is just damn hard work.
2. The idea you need to spend more time at your desk
Too many people spend far too much time sitting at their computers, staring at blank screens. This is no way to write! If you haven’t decided what you want to say, then go for a walk, run, bike ride or swim. This is not procrastination. It’s giving your brain the space it needs in order to write.
3. The idea that you must be inspired
Writing can be fun and pleasurable, but it’s also work. I agree with Peter de Vries who said, “I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.”
4. The idea that writing ever becomes “easy”
If you know anything about superb performers, such as cellist Yo Yo Ma, you’ll know that when they find their instrument easy to play, they’ll either select harder pieces or they’ll raise their standards. Will you ever find writing easy? Not if you’re any good at it. The easier the job becomes, the harder you’ll work.
5. The idea that anyone can write a perfect first draft
Most of us have shelves filled with published books and somehow we assume they came out of the writer’s brains that way. In fact, those writers labored over multiple drafts before their editors got a hold of the manuscripts. Then, those authors did even more rewriting. Finally, a copy editor checked to make sure all the spelling and grammar was correct. Published writers aren’t necessarily better than you. They just have more help. And they’re usually willing to work harder.
6. The idea that simple writing seems “uneducated”
I always encourage people to write at a grade 7 to 9 level by using readability statistics. Yes, grade 7 to 9. This is not because your readers are stupid. It’s because they’re pressed for time. (Also, easy-to-read writing needn’t look moronic. This article ranks as a grade 8 on the Gunning Fog Index.)
7. The idea that all writers are good at spelling and grammar
Here are four famous writers who were all terrible spellers: Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Winston Churchill. Feel better now? Spelling is an entirely different job from writing. Bad at spelling? Have a copy editor or a friend with a good eye read your work before you submit it anywhere.
8. The idea that really good writers shouldn’t need an editor
After writing my book 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better, I paid a professional to edit it. This wasn’t false modesty. As a professional writer I understand that everyone needs an editor. This person brings a fresh set of eyes, a valuably different worldview, and an essential understanding of the difference between grammar and style.
9. The idea you need a tremendous vocabulary
Yes, writers like Christopher Hitchens had enormous vocabularies filled with arcane and wonderfully precise words. But for every Hitchens, there are equally skilled writers who favor short words and simple sentences. Look at E.B. White, author of many fine essays and the marvelous children’s book Charlotte’s Web. Look, too, at Hitchens’ friend, Ian McEwan, winner of the Booker Prize and many other bestsellers for proof that easy and accessible writing should also be celebrated.
10. The idea that being a writer is an easy way to earn money
While it’s true that writing is easier than lifting bricks, it’s not a particularly easy way to earn a living. Much writing is free. Novelists — even ones published by big-name houses — make only pennies per book sold. Write because you have something to say, not because you want to make money.
11. The idea that you need special stuff to be a writer
The accoutrements of writing can be persuasive: the high end computer, the clever URL, the fancy website. Sure, all those things are nice, but none of them is necessary. Being a writer means writing words on paper, every day. The accessories are just extras — not mandatory and certainly not guaranteed.
12. The idea that you’ve ever “arrived”
No one who’s smart about anything ever feels as though they’ve “arrived.” Swimmer Michael Phelps continued to train even after he’d won a truckload of medals at the 2008 Olympics. (And, as a result, he won four additional golds and two silvers in 2012.) Scientist Stephen Hawking continues to write books and direct the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology, even though everyone already celebrates his fierce intelligence (and recognizes the limits of his motor-neuron disease). Once you get good at something, you want to get better. That’s simply natural. As Albert Einstein put it: “Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.”
Do you possess any of these screwball ideas about writing? Are any others holding you back? Share in the comments below.
Featured image courtesy of MinivanNinja licensed via Creative Commons.