I recently read a quote from Harlan Ellison:
Anyone can become a writer, the trick is staying a writer.
I thought this was interesting. How does a writer stay a writer?
It’s true, writing is a commitment. It’s easy to find an excuse to procrastinate and to do anything other than writing. But it’s also about having the right attitude towards your writing, having a passion for what you’re doing and not giving up when confronted with obstacles.
With that in mind, here are my 7 tips for staying a writer.
1. Develop a writing habit
Most, if not all writers, will tell you to ‘write every day’. Even if you only write for five minutes. Even if what you are writing is utter drivel. It’s about getting into the habit.
As Natalie Goldberg says in her book, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within:
My goal is to write every day. I say it is my ideal. I am careful not to pass judgement or create anxiety if I do not do it. No one lives up to his ideal.
We all have other commitments, whether it’s a job, volunteer work, household duties or family commitments. It can be very difficult to find time in your busy day to write. If you need more tips for how to develop a writing habit, check out a course run by the Australian Writers’ Centre – Make Time to Write.
2. Exercise your writing muscles
Claire Bradshaw states the main thing that makes your writing better is to do more of it.
If you wanted to run a marathon, you wouldn’t start out by running all 42 kilometres. You’d work up to it in shorter bursts. The same goes for writing.
William Kenower refers to the ‘writing muscle’ when he talks about writers who question ‘who has a talent for writing?’:
The short answer is everyone, just as everyone has muscles in their arms and legs. The longer answer is that not everyone’s been using their writing muscle — a powerful combination of curiosity and imagination — because they’re not entirely sure it exists.
You may not be sure it exists, or perhaps you’ve forgotten about it. A child is naturally curious and imaginative but as we grow older, we can forget this part of ourselves.
The best way to remember you have a writing muscle is to use it. You use it by simply writing. This might be by doing writing exercises, perhaps using writing prompts, or by keeping a journal. You can also exercise your writing muscle by giving yourself permission to write whatever comes into your head – even if it’s total crap.
And remember that like all muscles, your writing muscle needs rest, too. Give your writing muscle a break by using your other muscles – exercise by going for a walk, or a jog. One of the best things about your writing muscle is that often when you’re resting it, new inspiration strikes!
3. Forget about being perfect
I could argue that most writers give up on writing because they don’t think they’re good enough. This may not be true of all writers, but I’m sure it is for a large portion.
There’s a well-known quote about perfectionism in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott:
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.
If you’ve been obsessing about writing your novel for years, it might be hard to accept that when you do sit down to write it, it’s not going to be perfect. But even your favourite writers don’t sit down and immediately churn out pages of beautiful prose.
Chances are you will read over what you’ve written and think it’s rubbish. Self-criticism and the futile pursuit of perfection can be your worst enemy.
Natasha Lester states:
Don’t let the inner voice of doom make you stop writing. Make it your most powerful motivator instead.
Perfect is boring, anyway.
4. Continuous learning
Max Florschutz states:
Accept this now: You will never reach the peak. The mountain top we’re striving for? It’s ever growing. There should never be a time when we look at a topic and think to ourselves “I know all there is to know on this topic, so I’m not going to think about it.” There is always something new to gain.
A writer can always learn more about the practice of writing, and this includes experienced, published writers.
A writer can learn more by: –
- Read books across a wide variety of genres. Read for enjoyment and then read again with the eye of a writer. Pick out something you liked in the writing and ask yourself what it was that made you like it. Then pick out something you didn’t like and work out why you didn’t like it.
- Read books on the craft of writing. Some of my favourites are Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg, On Writing by Stephen King and How to Write Your Blockbuster by Fiona McIntosh.
- Writing courses
- From a one day workshop to a Masters degree, there are plenty of formal learning opportunities available for writers. Many courses are self-paced and available online, which makes things even easier. In Australia, online courses are available at the Australian Writers’ Centre, The Writers’ Studio and The Australian Writers’ Marketplace. Check out Writers’ Centres in your state or territory, or your local library for more information about courses.
5. Act like a writer
Firstly, you have to call yourself a writer. As Chuck Wendig says:
Here are the two states in which you may exist: person who writes, or person who does not. If you write: you are a writer. If you do not write: you are not. Aspiring is a meaningless null state that romanticizes Not Writing.
Don’t wait for someone to tell you that you’re a writer. No one else will believe it unless you do.
Noelle Sterne talks about how dressing like a writer, rather than wearing your tracky-dacks and sitting with ‘sleep-mouth and sandy eyes’ at your writing desk can make you feel different and more motivated to write. On the flip side of this, Candice Fox finds inspiration when she writes in bed. Find what works for you and stick to it.
Acting like a writer also means listening, observing and being alert. This may involve anything from eavesdropping on conversations to hear the way people speak to one another and paying a lot of attention to the minute details of your everyday life so you can call upon those details when you are writing.
6. Never give up
Finish what you started. Finish that first draft, short story, essay, or blog post, and don’t give up when it gets hard.
As Nat Russo says, a writer is passionate and it’s his passion that he calls on in times of trouble:
In short, you know if you’re passionate about writing or just curious. The curious open a word processor, hit an obstacle and say “guess I’m not a writer.” The passionate open a word processor, hit an obstacle and say “I’m a writer, dammit! I can solve this!”
A writer also needs to be prepared for rejection. Rejection and criticism are both inevitable at all stages of your writing career. Harry Potter was rejected by numerous publishers. And even as an established author, when JK Rowling wrote under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, her first Cormoran Strike novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling was rejected by several publishers, including one who advised her to take a writing course.
The same goes for criticism. Bestselling authors still get bad reviews.
7. Have fun
Writing is work. You’ll spend hours, days, weeks, months and years working at it. But don’t forget it’s meant to be fun. If writing is your passion, there is no greater reward than creating believable, authentic characters, putting them into rich settings and telling their stories.
There’s a great quote from Now Novel about the joy of writing:
…keep in mind that writing can be a lifelong endeavour. It has no upper age limit, and you do not have to reach any particular milestone by the age of 30, 40 or even 50. Pace yourself, and you will have an activity that can bring you joy throughout every stage of your life.