How to Be a Writer and How to Keep Being a Writer

12 tips & tricks & theories

1.    Don’t Hate People—A lot has been written about introversion being an asset for writers. I guess in a way it is: you have to be able to tap into your inner life, be quiet for hours on end, and produce in solitude. But I often remind students do not mistake introversion and misanthropy. Some of you need to escape the world because you hate it. That’s probably one of the worst qualities in a writer. You should be interested in the world and its people. Being outside, among humans, in different setting is part of being a writer. Otherwise you become the sort of writer that just rips off other writers.

2.    Persistence—I remember a well-known editor saying back in 2005 that I had the best personality for a writer: I was persistent. I’ve known since I was 4 that I wanted to be a writer. Nothing could stop me from that dream. If I truly had put that vision and energy into other parts of my life, I would be quite set! But I put it into being an author. I never got wound up about rejections, I never let people holding me back stop me for long. I always plowed forward. I still do.

3.    Talent—This one is tough because it’s like saying just be good-looking to someone who wants to model. But I don’t think you are born with it. I think you can hone it. Talent comes from deep interest and hard work and lots of imagination and love. You have to practice for talent to stay limber.

4.    Luck—The right place at the right time plus the right people! Writers never talk about this enough but a lot of the reason writers are where they are is because of circumstance. There are ways to make yourself more lucky of course: go to grad school to meet other authors, submit at the right moment (when breaking news about your story is out, or during prime time seasons in published—basically not summer or Dec!)

5.    Hard Work—Some people write every day and some like me do not. I work in binges so in the end it probably works out to be the same. But there is no way to escape this. The stories will not write themselves. Being lazy is a bad trait for a writer. You have to find some joy in the work or at least not find too much dread.

6.    Vision—What is your goal as a writer? How do you see yourself? I have a diary entry from elementary school where I say I will publish my first novel before 30 and, reader, my first novel came out three months before I turned 30. Vision cannot just steer your life as a writer but of course it steers the material. I guess one has to write the story of themselves as an author to achieve their dreams. I can still see forward and I always move toward it.

7.    Writer Friends—One of the biggest joys of my career has been making writer friends. My grad school writing program was full of enemies—very few of us made friends. But in the real world I made so many writer friends, whether it was through artist residencies or conferences of just New York City. These people will keep you sane. They may also be great readers. You can always form a writing group too. I would say a large chunk of my friends are writers.

8.    Make Up Your Own Rules—One of the tricks I teach students is a bootcamp model for writing where you basically split the generator and editor in you in different chunks of the day, and with my formula you can write 3000 words a day and go to bed with polished work. It took me some time to figure out how to work this way and I realized if I did I could even potentially have a first draft done in a month (though many more years to edit!) But creating shape where there is none for your life as a writer can be very helpful. It’s a great way to beat writer’s block.

9.    Revision—You have teach yourself to become a good editor of your own work. No one, as far as I know, is born with this skill. I hate editing but I know it is where most the work is. And there are great ways to aid this process. I remember my friend writer Alexander Chee talking about how he puts his work in another font (often a lesser font!) and prints it out and edits that way—this trick has been great for my work!

10.  Warm Up—Athletes know the importance of stretches. I argue that writers need to do the same. Freewriting for me is where this is. It’s how to stretch those same muscles you need for the real writing. A lot of advanced writers think freewriting is for newbies but I’d argue it becomes far more important for writers with big projects.

11.  Read Out Loud—Actually say what you write, whether dialogue or exposition. Hearing yourself can aid you so much.

12.  Be Wealthy—Okay, just kidding, but also not kidding at all. It really helps to have money! I am always worried about rent and I am on my fifth book. It never seems to get easier. You likely need many other jobs like I often have. Or you need some source of steady income. Think about this before it gets too late. Money doesn’t change everything, but it does change some critical things, and we don’t have enough of it in art so plan plan plan!